WASHINGTON — To many Middle East observers, it feels like we’ve been here before.
A Democratic US president is determined to solve a rapidly expanding Iranian nuclear program by negotiating a stopgap deal — one that does not address Tehran’s proxy groups or its ballistic missile program; meanwhile, a right-wing Israeli prime minister is headed to Washington to try to convince the leader of the free world that such a deal will make the world more dangerous, and ultimately allow Iran to build a bomb anyway.
In the leadup to the 2015 JCPOA deal, this dynamic led to an increasingly caustic relationship between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama.
As he flies to Washington, DC, for his first visit as prime minister, Naftali Bennett believes that he can achieve two things that his predecessor was unable to: head off a deal between Iran and the US, and do so while avoiding harm to the US-Israel relationship and bipartisan support for the Jewish state.
“We are bringing a new spirit of cooperation with us,” Bennett said optimistically before boarding his plane to the US.
On Monday, a senior Israeli government official said that the prime minister would present US President Joe Biden with a plan for dealing with Iran — both its nuclear program and its proxy forces — without returning to the JCPOA.
It’s an ambitious goal, to say the least.
Throughout his entire presidential campaign, and since entering the Oval Office, Biden has been consistent in his belief that putting the Iran nuclear issue “back in the box” is the priority, and that only once that is done can other challenges from Tehran be dealt with.
Moreover, just because the Israelis say they want to talk about Iran doesn’t mean that their interlocutors have to stick to that script. In its statement about Bennett’s visit, the White House said that the leaders would discuss the Palestinians as well.
And there is no question that Biden’s attention is not on Israel right now, as he finds himself below 50 percent approval for the first time in his presidency, a figure driven by rising COVID-19 infections and deaths and especially the chaos of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. If Biden fails to get a handle on the Afghan situation, the narrative of an overwhelmed, spent president might take root, putting the tenuous Democratic majority in both houses in serious jeopardy in 2022.
Biden knows this, and his focus is not where Bennett’s is.
And yet there are reasons to think that some of Bennett’s message on Iran will gain purchase with US officials.
“The Biden administration is increasingly mindful that an honorable Plan A — back to the JCPOA — is unlikely, and that a dishonorable one is politically disastrous and might also push us to Plan C — war,” said Eran Lerman, vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and former deputy director of Israel’s National Security Council.
“So a serious talk about a Plan B, cooked up by [National Security Adviser Eyal] Hulata, with coercive and other elements, is on the agenda.”
Bennett and his team will have to convince their American counterparts of the feasibility of a plan, the details of which remain undisclosed, that they believe can weaken Iran militarily, economically and politically, as well as curtail its nuclear program.
“There’s a mutual interest that Israel will be inside the conversation and not attacking from the outside, as was the case during the Netanyahu era,” said Nadav Tamir, board member at the Mitvim regional policy think tank, and J Street Israel executive director.
Whether the US and Iran return to the JCPOA or not, Bennett and Biden will have to coordinate closely.
“If they go back to the deal, they can reach agreements on what the next steps are,” said Raz Zimmt, Iran scholar at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “How do you verify that later on [the Americans] return to negotiations with Iranians on a longer, stronger, JCPOA?
“If they don’t go back to the deal, you can still reach agreements with the Americans about red lines.”
And in the wake of what is increasingly seen as a debacle in Afghanistan, Biden may well be more open to Israeli positions on Iran.
“Afghanistan makes Biden vulnerable,” said Lerman. “He needs to get tougher on Iran to shore up friends, not just Israel.”
But inside the Oval Office, after the photo ops, there will likely be significant policy differences.
Biden and senior officials could push Israel to make meaningful concessions to the Palestinians and to strengthen moderate elements in the Palestinian Authority — not necessarily actions Bennett and his right-wing flank will be eager to take.
Bennett might also find himself on the defensive over China. When CIA chief William Burns visited Israel last week, he pressed Bennett on the increasing Chinese investment and involvement in Israel, particularly its tech sector, an issue that worries Washington.
And of course, though US officials are increasingly pessimistic about a return to the JCPOA, the two sides have their differences on how best to deal with Iran’s nuclear program.
“The central story is the nuclear one, and I struggle to see any strategy that would succeed in neutralizing the immediate threat, the acceleration of Iran’s nuclear program and its progress toward the nuclear threshold,” said Zimmt.
Some observers even see a fight developing behind closed doors.
“I expect disagreement over everything,” said Danielle Pletka, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
No matter what arises in the private meetings, both sides will say publicly that the relationship is in order, as Biden is believed to have no desire to do anything to undermine Bennett and help bring Benjamin Netanyahu back into office.
“Optics will be good,” predicted Lerman, “designed to impress the Israeli public.”
Papering over private disagreements will be easier under the gregarious Biden and the everyman Bennett than it was in 2015 between Obama and Netanyahu.
“They will try to give an outward feeling of a successful visit,” said Tamir, “and to give Bennett the royal treatment — at least outside the room — and to contrast it with how Bibi was received.”
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