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Gantz warns Netanyahu not to try to sideline him again on Iran talks with US

After reported attempts by premier to shut defense establishment out of talks on how to engage with Biden plan to reenter JCPOA, defense minister says he won’t allow that to happen

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz in a weekly Facebook address, on January 22, 2021. (Screen capture/Facebook)
Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz in a weekly Facebook address, on January 22, 2021. (Screen capture/Facebook)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz warned Friday that he would not allow Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to bypass him and the defense establishment during talks with the new administration of US President Joe Biden on crafting policy toward Iran.

“I intend to make sure that no one even thinks to interfere with us maintaining Israel’s security with all sorts of tricks and bypassing measures that endanger us,” Gantz said in his weekly video address to followers on Facebook, in a thinly veiled message to Netanyahu, who routinely bypassed Gantz in relations with the Trump administration.

Gantz said he had close personal ties with many of the new Biden national security team from his time as military attache in Washington and as IDF chief of staff.

“The Biden administration is pro-Israel, and I am convinced that even on important issues such as Iran, we will find a sympathetic ear,” the defense minister said.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen during a vote at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on August 24, 2020. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

His optimistic assessment comes amid fears in Israel that the US might rush back to the nuclear deal, which the Trump administration pulled out of, and which Israel bitterly opposes.

Channel 12 on Wednesday cited “a very senior Israeli official” as saying: “If Biden adopts Obama’s plan, we will have nothing to talk about with him.” The official was referencing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed by former US president Barack Obama in 2015. Biden has said he plans to return to the agreement vacated by Trump in 2018, so long as Iran returns to full compliance with it. In addition, he seeks to “lengthen and strengthen” the agreement to address Tehran’s ballistic missile program and regional influence.

That anonymous remark came just a day after Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, pledged to senators at his confirmation hearing that he would engage with Israel and its Arab allies before reentering the JCPOA. Israel’s Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer had called on Biden to do just that several weeks earlier.

Netanyahu, who on several occasions since Biden’s election has warned that reentering the JCPOA would be a mistake, appears to lead a more confrontational approach toward dealing with the US on Iran, as opposed to Gantz.

The premier is also reportedly bent on keeping Gantz out of the loop on the sensitive matter, as he has done with other major diplomatic efforts, such as the normalization agreements with Arab and Muslim states.

Students of Iran’s Basij paramilitary force burn posters depicting US President Donald Trump (top) and President-elect Joe Biden, during a rally in front of the foreign ministry in Tehran, on November 28, 2020, to protest the killing of prominent nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh a day earlier near the capital. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

Earlier this month, the Walla news site reported that National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat sent a one-line letter to Gantz as well as to Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, Mossad chief Yossi Cohen and Ambassador to the US Ron Drummer.

“The following is a directive from the prime minister: The Israeli government’s position on the nuclear agreement with Iran will be formulated by the prime minister alone on the basis of consultations with the National Security Council staff in the Prime Minister’s Office,” the letter stated.

A Netanyahu aide told Walla that the prime minister had been upset with comments about the Iran deal made by Gantz and other senior officials in the security establishment in meetings with US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, which the premier claimed were too moderate.

According to the report, Gantz was shocked by the letter sent on Netanyahu’s behalf and chose to respond with a message of his own two days later.

Gantz wrote back asserting that while Netanyahu ultimately gets to determine policy, he has no authority to bypass the defense establishment and the security cabinet.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi during a press conference at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, on November 12, 2019 (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

“The issue of security, especially with regards to the Iranian issue, is not a one-man affair,” Gantz wrote.

The defense minister added that policy prep should be carried out by the entire security establishment and not just the National Security Council, which is under the jurisdiction of the Prime Minister’s Office.

Nonetheless, Hebrew media reported this week that now that Biden is president, Netanyahu is slated to convene a series of discussions on Iran with various bodies, including the National Security Council, Defense Ministry, Foreign Ministry, Israel Defense Forces, and Mossad.

The sparring takes place as relations between Netanyahu and Gantz are at an all-time low, with their coalition agreement having fallen apart in late December, dragging the country to a fourth election in two years.

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