Iran deal or not, Biden supports Israel’s freedom of action, says Bennett

Before he flies to DC to meet his counterpart Sullivan, PM’s aide Eyal Hulata presents 2022 national security estimate, with new focus on crime in Arab communities

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (center) addresses a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on February 6, 2022. (Haim Zach/ GPO)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (center) addresses a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on February 6, 2022. (Haim Zach/ GPO)

US President Joe Biden explicitly supports Israel’s freedom to act against Iran, whether there is a return to a nuclear deal or not, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Monday.

According to Bennett, Biden made a statement to that effect in their phone conversation Sunday night.

The US readout of the conversation had Biden expressing his “unwavering support for Israel’s security and freedom of action,” but did not tie it directly to Iran.

“I  made clear, and I was happy that he made it explicitly clear, that Israel will maintain its freedom of action in every situation,” Bennett told Israeli reporters during a briefing at his Jerusalem office. “It is extremely important. We will maintain our freedom of action without any connection to what will be, with or without an agreement.”

National Security adviser Eyal Hulata laid out at the briefing the main points of the National Security Council estimate for 2022, which was presented to Bennett on Sunday.

Hulata said that he expects 2022 to be a year of change regarding the Iranian threat.

“Whether there is a return to the nuclear deal or not, 2022 will be a year during which our surroundings will make us operate differently than we did until now, and we have to prepare,” he said.

Hulata is slated to fly to Washington, DC, Monday night to meet with his US counterpart, Jake Sullivan. He called the coordination with the US “deep, important, and strategic.”

National Security adviser Eyal Hulata speaks during the IISS Manama Dialogue in the Bahraini capital Manama on November 21, 2021.(Mazen Mahdi/AFP)

Hulata said there is a real chance that Iran will return to a nuclear deal and that the US would lose its tools to push Iran into a “longer and stronger” deal.

“We must prepare for every one of the possibilities, whether there is a return to a deal or not,” he said.

Talks to revive Iran’s tattered 2015 nuclear deal with world powers are resuming on Tuesday after breaking off for over a week for diplomats to return home for consultations.

Israel has changed its approach toward Iran dramatically in recent months, an Israeli official said Monday, initiating a long-term campaign to weaken the Islamic Republic.

“Weakening it first of all economically, using a range of activities — economic, diplomatic, targeted killings, overt, covert, in cyber and other realms,” he said. “Our goal is to harass them at home, so that they will be busy with themselves.”

“The campaign will be ongoing,” he promised. “It will not occur in one or two years.”

FILE – Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi addresses the parliament during a vote of confidence session for the education minister, in Tehran, Iran, November 16, 2021. Iran and world powers resume talks in Vienna the week of November 28, aimed at restoring the nuclear deal that crumbled after the US pulled out three years ago. There are major doubts over whether the deal can be reinstated after years of mounting distrust. (AP Photo/ Vahid Salemi)

The official said that over the past decade, Israel focused on fighting Iran’s proxies in Gaza and Lebanon, while the patrons in Tehran sat comfortably a thousand kilometers away.

He added that Israel was investing heavily in this campaign: “We inherited a massive gap here, because there was no internal Plan B. We allocated hundreds of millions of shekels in order to close the intelligence and operational gap. We are closing the gap rapidly.”

Careful progress

Bennett, during his briefing, also turned to a possible thaw in relations with Turkey.

He said that President Isaac Herzog was playing an important role in diplomatic outreach to Ankara. “In my view, the president is doing outstanding work, he is an extraordinary diplomatic asset for solving problems.”

Bennett said the two leaders were fully coordinated in their activities, including on a potential trip to Turkey by Herzog.

On Sunday evening, Herzog spoke with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The two leaders also discussed the possibility of meeting soon,

On Friday, Erdogan said that Turkey and Israel could work together to deliver natural gas from the Middle East to Europe, and the two countries would discuss energy cooperation during talks next month.

President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during a press conference in Ankara, on January 20, 2022. (Adem Altan/AFP)

Erdogan had previously stated to Turkish media that he will host Herzog for an official visit in mid-March amid efforts to revitalize once-strong relations between the two countries, but this was not confirmed and a spokesperson for Herzog had declined to comment on Erdogan’s announcement.

“We are going to progress very carefully with Turkey,” the Israeli official said. “Very slowly. They are no big friends of Iran to say the least, so we must not commit ourselves to some sort of purity that prevents us from operating and creating alliances.”

Eating us from within

The NSC estimate treated certain domestic challenges, including climate change and natural disasters, as national security threats.

During Monday’s briefing, there was a particular focus on violent crime in Arab communities as a national security issue.

“We must understand the scope of the danger from crime families in Israel,” said Bennett. “It is eating us from within. Protection rackets eat away at the foundations of society.”

“In Arab society, this was ignored, and we must deal with it,” he continued. “It is far worse than we thought.”

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