Likud minister urges ‘dialogue,’ so Biden won’t rejoin Iran deal without changes

Yuval Steinitz denies Tehran is closer to building a nuclear bomb than it was several years ago, slams ‘immoral’ expressions of joy in Israel over Trump’s defeat

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz speaks at a conference in Tel Aviv on February 27, 2019. (Flash90)
Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz speaks at a conference in Tel Aviv on February 27, 2019. (Flash90)

A senior minister in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party said Sunday that he believes US President-elect Joe Biden favors changes to the international accord limiting Iran’s nuclear program, while denying the Islamic Republic is closer to building a nuclear bomb than it was several years ago.

In an interview with Army Radio, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz urged “dialogue with the new administration” to ensure Biden does not reenter the 2015 pact under its previous terms. He said Israel’s goal should be to see Iran’s nuclear program “dismantled” and not “frozen” in place.

In 2018, President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the agreement, which was negotiated when Biden was vice president under Barack Obama. The deal was stridently denounced by Netanyahu, who argued that it did not put in place sufficient safeguards to prevent Iran from seeking nuclear weapons capabilities.

While noting that Iran has increased its uranium enrichment, Steinitz said Tehran was not enriching to the same levels as in 2012-2013 before the nuclear deal was signed. He also predicted a Biden administration would not shy away from a military attack on Iran, if diplomacy fails.

“Biden said explicitly in the past that, if there is a need, he won’t refrain from an American attack on Iran,” said Steinitz, a member of the high-level security cabinet.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with then-US vice president Joe Biden in Jerusalem, 2010. (Avi Ohayun/GPO/File)

Steinitz’s remarks came after former US ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer predicted that Biden would reenter the Iran nuclear deal, though not without consulting Israel first, and as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani urged the US-president elect to rejoin the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Biden has said during his campaign that he plans to embark on a “credible path to return to diplomacy” with Iran, and raised the possibility of returning to the nuclear deal.

US President Donald Trump speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the phone about a Sudan-Israel peace agreement, in the Oval Office on October 23, 2020, in Washington. (Win McNamee/ Getty Images/AFP)

In the Army Radio interview, Steinitz also called Trump “truly a great friend of Israel,” noting the US president’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and hawkish stance toward Iran, while criticizing Israelis he said were rejoicing about the US president’s defeat by Biden.

“This is immoral, this is unethical, and ugly in my eyes,” Steinitz said. “We must be grateful to [Trump] and to what he did… It can’t be that at the moment he’s toppled, we turn our backs on him.”

He also congratulated Biden.

Earlier, Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin issued statements congratulating Biden, after waiting a conspicuously long time. Netanyahu did not specify what he was congratulating Biden for, and did not refer to him as president-elect.

Netanyahu has built a close relationship with Trump and his administration, which reversed decades of US policy by recognizing Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, and removing opposition to Israeli settlement building in the West Bank. Netanyahu’s close ties with Trump and Republicans in his corner have led to concerns of an erosion of bipartisan support for Israel in Washington.

Trump has refused to concede defeat, making unsubstantiated allegations of serious fraud and vowing to take his case to the courts.

On Saturday night, Walla and Kan reported that the Prime Minister’s Office had instructed ministers of his Likud party to convey two messages in press interviews: that Israel can work well with Biden, just as it worked with Trump; and that they hope Biden will continue to push Arab countries to normalize relations with Israel and to stand up to Iran, without reversing the Trump administration’s decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

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