In his address on Tuesday at the Reichman University’s Institute for Policy and Strategy conference in Herzliya, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett alluded to a potential conflict with the United States over Iran.
The timing of his speech was relevant on two related counts: the upcoming resumption of nuclear negotiations in Vienna between world powers and the Islamic Republic; and a New York Times piece on Sunday citing American officials telling Israel that its repeated surgical strikes on nuclear facilities in the Islamic Republic are “counterproductive.”
According to The Times, these anonymous sources told their Israeli counterparts that though all these attacks “may be tactically satisfying,” not only aren’t helpful for diplomacy, but have no real effect.
Indeed, the outlet asserted through the mouths of unnamed experts, Iran swiftly repairs and improves on anything that Israel manages to destroy. So, faced with what one such official called Tehran’s “Build Back Better” plan, why bother?
Bennett’s oration contained a lengthy response, whose purpose was to let Washington know that “even if there is a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (2015 nuclear deal with Iran), Israel obviously is not a party to the agreement and is not obligated by it.”
This statement followed another about occasional “disagreements with the best of our friends,” and a reminder that Israel’s battle with Iran is the “fight of the entire world against an extremist Islamist regime that undermines the entire region, all the time, on its way to achieving Shi’ite hegemony under a nuclear umbrella. We hope the world doesn’t blink, but if it does, we don’t intend to.”
IT WAS the right message to convey to the administration of President Joe Biden and his crew of JCPOA architects. And had he stopped there, he would have deserved some credit.
Indeed, if he’d left it at that, he would have demonstrated that he was shedding his government’s empty slogans about restoring “bipartisan” support for Israel on Capitol Hill. After all, he knows full well that sympathy for the Jewish state is much higher among Republicans than Democrats, particularly now, with the latter’s increasing radicalization.
But no. He couldn’t resist pulling a beyond-the-pale rhetorical maneuver.
Instead of merely blaming his predecessor for any and all clashes with advocates of Team Biden, Bennett had the nerve to accuse former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu of dozing off on the job of confronting Iran.
“The mistake we made after the first agreement in 2015 will not be repeated,” he said, “In spite of all the noise beforehand, once the agreement was signed, it affected us like a sleeping pill. The State of Israel simply went to sleep. We were occupied with other things.”
By “all the noise beforehand,” he meant Netanyahu’s efforts to persuade the administration of then-president Barack Obama not to enter into the deal with the devil that was at the table. At the time, the Israeli Left was just as furious as Obama and his followers when Netanyahu appealed to a joint session of the US Congress not to sign the JCPOA.
That attempt failed, of course. Obama was bent on forging that agreement, come hell or high water – both of which not only ensued, but had been on display all along.
IF THERE was any confusion about what Bennett was getting at when he informed the crowd at the conference that Israel will learn from this “mistake,” he made sure to clarify in great detail.
“When I arrived at the Prime Minister’s Office less than half a year ago, I was amazed by the gap between rhetoric and action,” he said. “There was a disturbing distance between statements like, ‘We will never allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons’ and what was passed down to me. To summarize the reality that we inherited in one sentence: Iran is further along in its nuclear program than ever before, and its enrichment machine is more advanced and broader.”
Worse, he said, “alongside the progress in its nuclear program, Iran has also been consistently and persistently successful in encircling Israel in rings of militias and rockets from every direction. Over the past decade, Iran is reflected in every window in the State of Israel. To the northeast, there are Shi’ite militias in Syria; to the north, Hezbollah; to the south, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.”
Yes, he stressed, “the Iranians have surrounded the State of Israel with missiles, while they sit safely in Tehran. They harass us, drain our energy and wear us out… They bleed us without paying a price.”
This asymmetry, he said, “is a strategic mistake on Israel’s part… We need to utilize our relative advantages against their aggression in a more effective manner than in the past – our strong economy, cyber capabilities, democracy, international legitimacy and mutual responsibility. That is how the United States defeated the Soviet Union… We need to increase the gap between us and our enemy… Israel must maintain its capabilities to act and its freedom of action in every situation and under any political circumstances.”
He also noted Iran’s weaknesses, stating that it’s “not the giant we make it out to be; [it’s far more] vulnerable.”
BENNETT’S WARNINGS and promises must have irked Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley. Though they are just as happy as he, if not more, to have Netanyahu out of the picture, they have no use for a different Israeli premier who threatens independent military action and suggests tightening the screws on the financially strapped regime – especially when the US Treasury hasn’t been enforcing the sanctions that already exist.
What Biden’s guys share with Bennett is the holding of their predecessors accountable for Iran’s nuclear strides. They perpetuate the delusion that former president Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018 is at fault for the current situation. As though Iran ever abided by the terms of the original accord or will ever uphold a new bargain.
Try as they might to ignore it, Bennett, Biden, Blinken, Sullivan and Malley are faced with this inconvenient truth. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be scrambling to adjust their aims for the renewed talks in the Austrian capital.
Their main objective has shifted from the desire for a “longer and stronger” version of the JCPOA to the hope of some sort of “interim agreement,” just to keep Iran in the game. Not surprisingly, Tehran is behaving as though it holds all the cards.
In Iran on Tuesday, International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Rafael Grossi told reporters that his organization “is seeking to continue and deepen the dialogue” with the regime as negotiations draw near.
His supplicatory visit came on the heels of an IAEA report criticizing the Islamic Republic for violently preventing inspectors from monitoring key nuclear sites. Naturally, he went home a few hours later with his tail between his legs and his head spinning like the centrifuges his people haven’t been permitted to observe.
SPEAKING OF which, Malley told National Public Radio that if the Iranians “start getting too close… for comfort, then, of course, we will not be prepared to sit idly.”
He didn’t specify what alternative he had in mind, other than economic pressure, but he assured that the US is “prepared to get back into the deal and to lift all of the sanctions that are inconsistent with the deal. So, if Iran wants to get back into the deal, it has a way to do that.”
Not exactly the kind of “fightin’ words” that frighten the mullahs, who’ve made it clear that they’re not up for any compromise whatsoever. Nor are they willing to sit down, face to face – but rather prefer the American liaisons hovering outside the venue in Vienna. As was the case with the previous rounds of non-negotiations, the US this time will also have to let Europe, Russia and China do the direct bidding.
THIS BRINGS us back to Bennett and the question of whether Israel is prepared to launch a comprehensive offensive against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Under the present circumstances, the odds are slim.
Despite his pronouncements, the temporary prime minister – slated to be replaced at the helm in less than two years by Foreign Minister Yair Lapid – is hesitant to arouse Washington’s ire. For one thing, doing so would cause a coalition crisis at home. For another, it would expose the lie of “bipartisanship.”
The irony is as inescapable as it is tragic.