Foreign Minister Yair Lapid told visiting American Jewish leaders last week that his government’s conciliatory policy toward America was paying off. But the reported imminence of a new, deeply flawed Iran nuclear deal – perhaps delayed by the Ukraine crisis – with no concomitant US commitment to bolster Israeli military capabilities, points to the urgent need for Israel to pivot to a new approach.
The current Israeli coalition government, anchored by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Center-Left Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, came to power in June 2021, determined to handle foreign policy differently than its predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, the right-wing premier from 2009 to 2021.
Bennett and Lapid have gone to great lengths to demonstrate that they, in contrast to Netanyahu, get along with the President Joe Biden (D) and Democrats in Congress, and have sought to minimize any friction with the White House. Last week, Lapid argued that Netanyahu’s approach yielded nothing positive but only a “provocative conflict” on Iran. It “just spoiled the relations Israel had with the administration and with nothing [to show for it].” Instead, he and Bennett have sought to “disagree in a manner that helps us work with them a) on the results of the disagreement and b) on other issues.” And he claimed the government has done “a good job of restoring the bipartisan stature of Israel in Washington.”
Bennett and Lapid have had some success containing their disagreements with the Biden administration over the Iran nuclear talks, Palestinians, the Jerusalem consulate, and West Bank settlements. Of course, it helps that Biden is more sympathetic to Israel than former president Barack Obama, and his team has sought to avoid the public confrontations Obama officials often seemed to seek out. Still, the friendlier ties with the Biden administration hasn’t stopped progressive Democrats from becoming more hostile to Israel over the last year (probably because their attitude toward Israel has more to do with their worldview than Israeli actions).
Yet, it is on the core Israeli security issues – Iran nuclear talks and weapons delivery – that the Bennett-Lapid approach must be judged.
Netanyahu famously clashed with Obama on Iran, including a dramatic speech before Congress in 2015 denouncing the emerging Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Netanyahu was criticized for engaging in a futile, divisive battle with a US president, with some experts urging he offer to mute his opposition in return for the US providing weapons systems that would advance Israeli security. However, Netanyahu felt compelled to speak out against a deal that he and most Israelis, including the leaders of the current government, considered as threatening to Israel’s very existence.
The Israeli full-court press, plus the deal’s obvious deficiencies, contributed to a majority of Americans and a bipartisan majority of members of Congress opposing the deal. It also contributed to former president Donald Trump withdrawing from the JCPOA in 2018, earning the respect of the Arab countries in the Gulf, accelerating the process that led to the Abraham Accords in 2020, and did not prevent Obama agreeing to a new 10-year, $38 billion MOU on US defense assistance to Israel, in 2016.
Still, when the Biden administration pursued new nuclear talks with Iran in early 2021, Bennett and Lapid believed it more effective to influence America’s negotiating stance through quiet, bilateral diplomacy. They maintained that approach after senior Israeli defense officials confided last summer that the Biden administration was politely listening to, but utterly ignoring, their views. And they have continued that conciliatory approach, even though the reported emerging new nuclear deal, which Israel publicly opposes, represents the ultimate disregard for the security concerns of Israel.
INDEED, LAPID didn’t press American Jewish leaders to oppose the emerging nuclear deal last week, but only to oppose possible US delisting of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist organization.
Bennett and Lapid never asked their American counterparts for anything in return for taking such a conciliatory approach, such as expediting delivery of critical US weapons. Lapid told a meeting of American Jewish leaders in October that I attended that such a request would undermine America’s sense that it, and not Israel, must resolve the Iranian nuclear threat. The Israeli government might have wanted to avoid appearing bought off, but that meant little to show for their policy.
It hasn’t helped that Israel’s very smart and knowledgeable new ambassador to the United States, IDF Brig. Gen. (ret.) Mike Herzog, only arrived in Washington in the fall, once Israeli policy was already set.
At least one part of the Israeli government slightly altered the approach when in December, Defense Minister Benny Gantz requested the Pentagon expedite military assistance to prepare for a confrontation with Iran, such as KC-46 aerial refueling tankers, which would augment Israeli capability to attack Iranian nuclear facilities. (JINSA, the organization I head, has advocated for this since 2018.) The Pentagon declined. The US Air Force understandably says it wants all the KC-46s it can get, but two tankers represent only one month of Boeing’s output, and – according to knowledgeable US generals and admirals closely associated with JINSA – those two tankers would not be missed by the US military.
Gantz also asked the administration to press Congress for the $1 billion in defensive Iron Dome interceptors that President Biden promised nine months ago, but the administration demurred. Congress might finally resolve that matter soon. It’s evident the Biden administration simply prefers a nuclear Iran to a military confrontation to prevent it.
And yet, Israel has generally refrained from raising these weapons concerns to Congress.
Israel has been quietly approaching Congress for a few months about what it considers America’s wrong-headed negotiating approach to the nuclear talks, but without success. Members have had other concerns demanding their attention, such as Ukraine, Afghanistan, China, COVID-19 and domestic legislation.
In recent weeks, Congress has finally begun to awaken to the danger of the Vienna talks, with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ), and Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) speaking out. The latter also called for expediting delivery of KC-46s and for establishing a mutual defense pact with Israel (which JINSA proposed in 2018).
It is now too late to shape America’s negotiating strategy in Vienna, and if a deal emerges from Vienna very soon, it’s unlikely Congress can stop it. Under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015, the Biden administration is legally bound to bring a new deal to Congress under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015, but it’s unclear whether Biden will comply and, even if he does, it is unlikely that, under the terms of that law, Congress will be able to derail the deal.
Whether or not Lapid is correct in his assessment of Netanyahu’s aggressive approach, it appears evident that the Bennett-Lapid conciliatory approach has failed.
Now, Israel must pivot to focusing on preparing for a military confrontation that would prevent a nuclear Iran, which seems all but inevitable whether there is an imminent (bad) deal or not. Therefore, Israel needs to finally begin to ask members of Congress to pressure the Biden administration to expedite delivery of weapons that would bolster Israel’s capabilities for that military confrontation.
It is not only in Jerusalem’s interests that Israel’s effort is most effective, but also in Washington’s.
The writer, a former Pentagon official, is the president and CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA).