Blinken and Lapid discussed options for Iran not previously on table — official

Diplomatic official says FM warned secretary that reopening US consulate in Jerusalem would have significant implications on coalition, defends ties with China amid US pushback

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

From left: Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan take part in a joint news conference at the State Department in Washington, on October 13, 2021. (Andrew Harnik/Pool/AFP/via Getty Images)
From left: Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan take part in a joint news conference at the State Department in Washington, on October 13, 2021. (Andrew Harnik/Pool/AFP/via Getty Images)

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed courses of action regarding Iran’s nuclear program that had not been on the table before, a senior Israeli diplomatic official said Wednesday.

The official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity, did not say what options were newly discussed, but speculation has swirled around Israel seeking US backing for the possible use of military force.

“There were closed-door talks during the visit about what happens if there is no agreement [for Iran to return to the 2015 nuclear deal], and indeed, options that were not on the table until now were discussed,” the senior official said.

Lapid wrapped up a two-day trip to Washington on Wednesday, with talks largely focused on Iran’s nuclear program.

Israel opposes US efforts to rejoin 2015’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which traded international sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on Tehran’s nuclear program. Former US president Donald Trump vacated the agreement in 2018, three years after it was signed by his predecessor Barack Obama.

US President Joe Biden campaigned on returning to the multilateral accord, but talks on returning to the deal have stalled, with Washington warning that it is running out of patience.

“We will look at every option to deal with the challenge posed by Iran,” Blinken told a press briefing on Wednesday. “We continue to believe that diplomacy is the most effective way to do that, but it takes two to engage in diplomacy, and we have not – we have not seen from Iran a willingness to do that at this point.”

In August, Biden told Prime Minister Naftali Bennett that he was prepared to consider “other options” if the talks with Iran fail to bear fruit. Some observers saw Blinken’s use of the word “every” as a signal that the US was expanding its roster of options for dealing with Iran. However, US officials have insisted that diplomacy be given a chance to work.

Though a potential source of friction with the White House, as it was under former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Bennett, Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz have been restrained in pressing their claims against the deal and against engaging diplomatically with Iran, in a bid to keep positive ties with Washington.

Lapid, who accused Iran of being a “nuclear threshold state” for the first time during the talks in Washington, also met with US Vice President Kamala Harris, Biden’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, senior Congressional leadership, American Jewish community leaders and pro-Israel lobbyists during the lightning trip.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid meets with US Vice President Kamala Harris in Washington, DC, on October 12, 2021. (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

While Israel has reportedly drawn up plans for a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, most experts believe it would need the help of the US to supply the use of regional bases, air support and bunker-busting armaments. Without US backing, analysts say, an Israeli military threat is hard to take credibly.

Concerns about China

Ahead of Lapid’s visit, a senior US State Department official briefing reporters said that Blinken would hold a “candid” conversation with his Israeli counterpart “over risks to our shared national security interests that come with close cooperation with China.”

Commenting on the matter after the Wednesday meeting, the Israeli senior diplomatic official stood behind Israeli dealings with Chinese companies, while recognizing that the matter is sensitive to the Americans.

“China’s importance to the Israeli economy is very significant, and we need to find a way to talk about this issue in a way that does not harm Israel’s interests,” the official said.

The remarks by the State Department official appeared to mark an uptick in US rhetoric against Israel’s warming ties with China.

Biden administration officials have raised their concern over Chinese investment with their Israeli counterparts in the past, but it was done behind closed doors, another senior Israeli official told The Times of Israel on Wednesday.

Chinese workers attend the opening ceremony of the construction works for the new Tel Aviv Light Rail, on February 19, 2017. (Flash90)

Bennett had prepared to discuss the matter in his White House meeting with Biden in August, but the issue was never raised, the Israeli official said.

The official said that Jerusalem is willing to modify its relationship with China, and has not shied away from criticizing Beijing’s human rights record in international forums. However, Israel, along with other allies, has been put off by US requests to reject tenders from certain Chinese companies when those same firms are operating on American soil, the Israeli official added.

Amid a US-China trade war that has ebbed and flowed in recent years under both the Trump and Biden administrations, Israel and China have seen warming relations and more interest in Israeli innovations, especially in medical tech, robotics, food tech, and artificial intelligence.

Washington’s main concerns lie in potential dual-usage, where various technologies would have both civilian and military applications. At the same time, Israel has regulations in place to prevent the sale of sensitive military-related technology to China (and other countries), following a 1990s deal in which Israel had to scrap the sale of advanced airborne radar systems to China amid fierce US opposition.

Reopening the US Consulate in Jerusalem

Also coming up during Lapid’s meetings with senior US officials was the Biden administration’s plan to reopen the US consulate in Jerusalem, which historically served as the de facto mission to the Palestinians before it was shuttered by Trump in 2019.

Israel opposes the move, with Bennett asserting that Jerusalem should not be allowed to host diplomatic missions that aren’t to Israel and Lapid arguing that reopening the consulate would “send the wrong message” to the Palestinians.

During his meetings in Washington, Lapid further clarified that “this issue could have significant political implications for the Israeli government,” the senior Israeli diplomatic official said, re-asserting an argument made previously by the foreign minister, who claimed such a step might destabilize the politically diverse coalition.

The United States Consulate General building in Jerusalem, on March 4, 2019. (Ariel Schalit/AP)

The Biden administration has already held off on reopening the consulate for that reason, waiting until after the Bennett-Lapid government passes a budget, after which the government is expected to stabilize for the near future at least.

However, Blinken told reporters during a briefing with Lapid and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan that the US is still planning on moving forward with its plans to reopen the consulate, which it sees as critical in re-establishing ties with the Palestinians.

For a US consul general to return to operating in Jerusalem, the individual would need to have their credentials approved by Israel.

Asked to speculate on how the episode might transpire, a senior Israeli official told ToI last month that while Jerusalem might vehemently oppose such a move, it is likely not in a position to refuse, given the significant military aid and backing the US gives Israel in the diplomatic arena.

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