Bennett says he won’t pick public fight with US over Iran nuclear deal

PM says Americans are ‘fully determined to sign deal. I do not get into quarrels just for the sake of quarrels’; but adds: US understands Israel won’t be bound by accord

US President Joe Biden (right) meets with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Oval Office of the White House, on Friday, August 27, 2021, in Washington, DC. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
US President Joe Biden (right) meets with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Oval Office of the White House, on Friday, August 27, 2021, in Washington, DC. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Monday that he has no intention of creating a public rift with the United States over the renewed nuclear deal with Iran, which he said he believes Washington will sign no matter what.

“In 2015 [ahead of the first deal], the pre-signing rhetoric was at its peak, and it failed. The deal was signed,” Bennett told a conference organized by the Ynet news site. “Not only was it signed, but after that ears in Washington were closed on all other matters.”

Bennett added: “I do not get into quarrels just for the sake of quarrels. I will only go to war if there is a real chance of success and a worthy purpose.”

According to Army Radio, Bennett told cabinet ministers privately on Sunday that Israel had to choose its battles with the US carefully, and was currently focusing on dissuading Washington from delisting Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terror group as part of the negotiations.

“We pick our battles with the Americans; there’s no reason for an international campaign against the nuclear deal — because it will be signed,” Bennett reportedly told ministers. “We’ll fight only where there’s a purpose, as in the case of the IRGC, which we’re still trying to stop.”

Ahead of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, signed under then-US president Barack Obama, then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu waged a very public campaign against the agreement, going as far as giving an address to the US Congress opposing the deal, despite Obama’s support for it. The deal was ultimately signed, and Netanyahu’s speech was seen as further fracturing the relationship between Israel and that administration, as well as with the Democratic party.

Bennett said Monday that the Americans “are fully determined to sign the deal, and they will sign the deal.” But he added that “this time, unlike in 2015,” Israel was prepared with a “massive buildup” of military power, “in billions of shekels, at an almost unprecedented scope.”

The prime minister claimed that the current deal, still being worked on in Vienna, is largely the same as the 2015 agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Russian Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Mikhail Ulyanov speaks to journalists prior to the start of the quarterly Board of Governors meeting at the IAEA headquarters in Vienna, March 7, 2022. (JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

“I think the big difference,” he added, “is that Iran sees that when it sends its envoys to harm us at our borders or anywhere else, it is answered in a more painful and closer way than ever.”

Bennett repeated that Israel is not a party to the nuclear agreement and is therefore not bound by it, “and the Americans understand and have internalized that.” He said that Israel acts and will continue to act to counter Iran “before the agreement, during the agreement and after the agreement… we rely only on ourselves.”

He also addressed reports that Washington is considering delisting the IRGC.

“The Revolutionary Guards are truly the largest state-supported terrorist organization in the world,” Bennett said. “There is hardly a day that Revolutionary Guardsmen do not carry out acts of terrorism in the Middle East — against the United Arab Emirates, against other people, and are now really trying to harm Americans and Israelis. It’s a terrible organization.”

While Bennett has repeatedly said Israel does not support the ongoing efforts in Vienna to sign a nuclear deal with Iran, he has taken a quieter public approach than that of his predecessor.

But on Friday and again on Sunday, Bennett issued public comments strongly criticizing the United States for reportedly considering delisting the IRGC.

Revolutionary Guard troops attend a military parade marking the 39th anniversary of the start of the Iran-Iraq war, in front of the shrine of the late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini, just outside Tehran, Iran, on September 22, 2019. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

“We are very concerned about the United States’ intention to give in to Iran’s outrageous demand and remove the IRGC from the list of terrorist organizations,” he said Sunday. “Even now, the IRGC terrorist organization is trying to murder certain Israelis and Americans around the world. Unfortunately, there is still determination to sign the nuclear deal with Iran at almost any cost – including saying that the world’s largest terrorist organization is not a terrorist organization. This is too high a price.”

A State Department official told The Times of Israel on Saturday that “we are not negotiating in public and are not going to respond to specific claims about what sanctions we would be prepared to lift as part of a mutual return to full implementation of the JCPOA.” But the official said the US is “prepared to make difficult decisions to return Iran’s nuclear program to JCPOA limits,” not denying that delisting the IRGC is potentially on the table.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands as he leaves the House chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 3, 2015, after addressing a joint meeting of Congress in a speech opposing the imminent Iran nuclear deal. (AP/Andrew Harnik)

Netanyahu, currently opposition leader, has repeatedly criticized Bennett for not taking a stronger public stance against the deal.

In video messages last week, Netanyahu accused the “surrender government of Bennett, [Yair] Lapid, and [Benny] Gantz” of staying silent and doing nothing “instead of going out and fighting this, on every stage, at every forum.”

The former prime minister proclaimed that “when we return to power — soon, please God — we will come out against this agreement, we will act against it as we have before, and we will do everything we can to protect the State of Israel and the future of the Jewish people. That is my personal promise.”

Jacob Magid and Amy Spiro contributed to this report.

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