In 2015, new national security adviser saw Iran nuclear deal as ‘lesser evil’

Eyal Hulata, tapped for the job this week, suggested, while as a Mossad official, that Israel should not forcefully reject pact backed by US but rather learn to live with it

Tal Schneider is a Political Correspondent at The Times of Israel

Foreign ministers sit around the table at the Palais Coburg Hotel, where the Iran nuclear negotiations were being held in Vienna, Austria on July 6, 2015.  (AFP/POOL/CARLOS BARRIA)
Foreign ministers sit around the table at the Palais Coburg Hotel, where the Iran nuclear negotiations were being held in Vienna, Austria on July 6, 2015. (AFP/POOL/CARLOS BARRIA)

In the run-up to the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, Eyal Hulata, the new national security adviser to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, held the opinion that the accord was the lesser evil when compared to no deal at all, The Times of Israel has learned.

Hulata, serving in the Mossad at the time, made his opinion clear at various internal forums in the lead-up to the signing of the deal, according to senior officials who were involved at the time in Israel’s response to Iran’s nuclear program.

The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Hulata took the view that Israel should not fervently push back against the United States as it worked to broker the 2015 deal — contrary to the position adopted at the time by then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Hulata, who served in the Mossad for more than 20 years and was tapped for the key post on Sunday, reportedly advised that Israel should learn to live with the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

During the years leading up to the signing of the JCPOA, Hulata headed the Mossad spy agency’s department for strategic planning and its technology unit.

Israel’s security leadership had been mulling how to handle the current negotiations between Iran and world powers as they attempt to bring the US and Iran back into the deal that was abandoned by Donald Trump in 2018.

Netanyahu took a particularly hard line against the US government that culminated in his 2015 speech to Congress, in which he attacked the emerging pact under then-US president Barack Obama. The Israeli leader was invited to speak to Congress by Republicans and not the White House, making Netanyahu’s appearance and address particularly stinging.

Obama dismissed Netanyahu’s speech as containing “nothing new.”

Eyal Hulata in an undated photograph. (Courtesy)

However, within the IDF, the Military Intelligence Directorate, and the Mossad there were deliberations on what was best for Israel’s needs and what the best approach was, in terms of defensive and diplomacy concerns.

The eventual outcome was that the US joined Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany in signing the JCPOA with Iran, while Israel was left out of the process.

The JCPOA offered Iran relief from sanctions, in return for it scaling back and dismantling aspects of its nuclear program to prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Former US president Donald Trump pulled out of the deal in May 2018 — with public support from Netanyahu — and reapplied US sanctions that have since played havoc with the Iranian economy.

Many senior officials in Israel’s defense establishment today say that the US withdrawal harmed Israel’s interests because Iran responded by stepping away from some of its own commitments to the deal, subsequently raising its uranium enrichment to unprecedented levels.

Ongoing European-sponsored negotiations in Vienna aim to bring the US back into the deal and get Iran to readopt its own commitments.

The Biden administration is in favor of returning to the deal, though it wants to tighten some of the terms.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks about Iran during a joint meeting of the United States Congress in the House chamber at the US Capitol on March 3, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images/AFP)

Bennett has publicly stated his opposition to the deal both before and after taking office as prime minister, though he has vowed to adopt a more conciliatory approach in talks with the United States.

Though Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid have always stated their opposition to the JCPOA, Lapid stressed that any moves to counter the deal should be done while taking care to preserve the state of relations with the US. Bennett, since taking office last month, has spoken out against the JCPOA several times.

Hulata was selected as national security adviser from a considerable list of candidates, apparently at the recommendation of the current Mossad chief David Barnea.

Given Hulata’s views on the nuclear deal, his appointment to the post could serve as a message to US officials that Bennett is more open to hearing the benefits of Washington’s planned return to the accord.

Bennett has been holding discussions on Israel’s Iran policies and has ordered a review of the matter ahead of his first meeting with US President Joe Biden, which is expected to be held later this month, Axios reported last week.

“There are several questions in the discussions,” an unnamed Israeli official said according to the report. “Is the current treading water better or worse than a US return to the deal, if and how Israel can influence the Biden administration, and what the current situation means for developing an Israeli military option.”

The official said the new Israeli government was debating whether it is better off in the current situation, in which the deal has fallen apart and Iran is accelerating its nuclear efforts, or the pre-2018 reality, when both sides were abiding by the agreement, which Jerusalem opposed.

Israel is reportedly pushing the US to keep some of the Trump-era sanctions in place, even if Washington returns to the deal.

Israel believes that the removal of those sanctions would squander the bulk of the remaining leverage the US still has to pressure Iran on its ballistic missile program and its malign activities in the region, an official told the Times of Israel this week.

Israel’s position regarding the removal of Trump-era sanctions was relayed to the US in recent weeks, during successive visits to Washington by Defense Minister Benny Gantz; Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi; President Reuven Rivlin, in a trip just before he left office; as well as during Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

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