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Match game: What the press is saying about Bennett pushing Biden on Iran

Both sides are looking to rekindle the bipartisan love affair between the US and Israel, but with Bennett seeking a tougher Tehran line, the new flames may not be in total lockstep

US President Joe Biden speaks about COVID-19 vaccine requirements for federal workers in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, July 29, 2021. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
US President Joe Biden speaks about COVID-19 vaccine requirements for federal workers in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, July 29, 2021. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

1. Sultans of sync: Israel is deep in what should be the doldrums of a mercifully calm summer cucumber season. But pesky news keeps getting in the way, like Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s trip to Washington.

  • Whereas Bennett struggled to get much love on Wednesday, on Thursday his plan to discuss how to stop Iran with US President Joe Biden later in the day is the top story in all major print dailies.
  • “Bennett will provide Biden with a joint plan of action against Iran,” reads the headline in Yedioth Ahronoth, seemingly riffing on the 2015 nuclear deal’s official name: The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
  • One might say to oneself that joint plans are usually planned, er, jointly and not presented by fiat by one party, but a Bennett aide tells Israeli reporters on the trip that the two governments are so closely coordinated on Iran that they often use the same terminology and raise the same questions as they discuss their options if Iran does not return to the JCPOA.
  • The aide also says Israel believes Washington is nearly ready to throw in the towel on going back to the deal, but ToI’s Jacob Magid reports that “a source familiar with the matter said growing assumptions in Israel that Biden has all but given up on the Iran nuclear deal are exaggerated and misguided. ‘Biden is going to use the meeting to ask Bennett how Israel will react if there is a return to the JCPOA and how it will respond if there isn’t,’ the source said. ‘He’s going to expect clear answers for both.’”
  • Even Israel Hayom, smarting over having to watch former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rival on the main stage in DC, plays up the visit, running the headline “Four eyes looking to Iran.” (It’s not a glasses joke, but rather a reference to Biden and Bennett’s planned closed-door meeting, which in Hebrew is called a four-eyed meeting.)
  • The paper’s Ariel Kahana intimates that Biden should be in Bennett’s pocket regarding Iran, because Jerusalem went after Beijing at the UN recently at the US’s request.
  • “There is no doubt that we are on Washington’s side, and we always will be. Curbing Iran’s regional aspirations is in the interest of both Israel and the US,” he writes, while also advising Bennett to bare his teeth. “Such a goal cannot be achieved with kindness and smiles. Israel’s message should be sharp and clear: in the face of the new threat, UN petitions alone will not suffice.”
  • Not everyone agrees fightin’ words are the best approach. Think tanker Nadav Tamir tells ToI’s Lazar Berman that “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.”
  • And some see the optics of the meeting as just as important, if not more so, than the content: “The picture that will emerge from this visit is the important event,” Haaretz quotes a “foreign policy” official saying. “It’s a clear signal to Iran and world leaders that the new prime minister receives an American embrace and the same support from the White House as his predecessors. There’s also an important message to Israelis about Bennett’s standing as a prime minister in the post-Netanyahu era: The change of government in Israel has not damaged the unity of interests between the two countries, just the opposite.”
  • Walla reports that US officials were pleased as punch to hear Bennett’s comments before flying to the US in which he spoke about Iran advancing its nuclear program. “They claimed that it’s proof that former president Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the deal was a mistake,” the news site reports.

2. Hey Joe, where you going without a gun in your hand: Despite all the talk of being on the same page, Reuters reports that “Biden will tell Bennett that he shares Israel’s concern that Iran has expanded its nuclear program but remains committed for now to diplomacy with Tehran, a senior administration official said.”

  • The official also said that “if that doesn’t work, there are other avenues to pursue,” which some in Israel take as a reference to a military option, and wouldn’t you know, that appears to be exactly what Bennett wants to hear from the Americans.
  • “What is important, concrete, from a deterrence perspective, is putting the military options back on table. If in a joint statement they say that it’s not only forbidden for Iran to get a nuclear weapon, but also that they will use any options available, meaning all options are on the table, it will restore deterrence,” former ambassador Danny Ayalon tells Army Radio.
  • ToI’s Judah Ari Gross notes that IDF chief Aviv Kohavi and Defense Minister Benny Gantz made clear that Israel, at least, is all about rattling its sabers, putting the military option on the table and surrounding it with spotlights and bunting. “Israel hopes for a fresh nuclear agreement that would see permanent caps on Iran’s uranium enrichment and more robust oversight mechanisms. The IDF believes that the only way to achieve this goal is with a credible threat of a military strike,” he reports. “The IDF has made this view known to the Pentagon, with which it maintains a close and open relationship, though the US is not actively involved in Israel’s plans, The Times of Israel has learned.”
  • That’s no shock to former diplomat Yaki Dahan, who writes in Haaretz that “Bennett is coming to a country that has no appetite for conflict, or even for a military threat. … Most Americans are adamantly opposed to shedding blood, money and tears anywhere that is not the United States. The current U.S. administration has zero desire to get into another adventure. Any military threat it makes, especially in light of the departure from Afghanistan, will not be seen as credible.”
  • But Kan’s Shmuel Rosner reads between the lines of Bennett’s claim to the New York Times that Israel is a regional powerhouse, extrapolating that it’s recognition of Israel as the US’s strongest outstretched arm in the region.
  • “Instead of screaming gevalt and explaining how much the US pullback [from the Middle East] will hurt Israel, and damage its deterrent threat, Israel is saying go, have a ball,” he writes. “Israel understands that it can’t keep the US from retreating, so it has no choice but to grab what it can from the move.”

3. Ups and downs: It’s impossible to know yet whether a slight decrease in the number of coronavirus patients hospitalized in serious condition will be sustained for more than a day let alone be the start of a trend, but journalists and the experts they speak to are not letting the rare good news pass them by.

  • “Encouraging news,” reads a headline on Channel 12 news’s website.
  • While Health Ministry data considers those with two doses and those with three to both be fully vaccinated, Haaretz reports that “the number of fully vaccinated Israelis who suffer serious symptoms continues to decline: From 364 on Sunday it dropped to 314 on Thursday.”
  • Coronavirus czar Salman Zarka is less than encouraged. “Our situation is not good,” he tells Radio103. “I don’t have good news for the country this morning. Coronavirus is infecting a lot of people. The virus is not in the air but traveling between people who are not keeping distance, are not masking, not bothering with the Green Pass and not vaccinating… The number of serious cases is not dropping but stabilizing.”
  • Others are also still worried about the situation, with increasing talk of more restrictions, or even a delay in opening schools.
  • Walla reports that health official Ilana Gans told a Knesset committee that the opening of schools on September 1 will be reconsidered. She tells the lawmakers that if they open after the fall holidays in October instead, “we’d be in a much better place. Right now it’s getting in the way of the push for more vaccinations.”
  • “We are authorized and even obligated to consider the numbers again,” Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar tells Kan. “That will probably happen at the start of next week. We’ll have to decide what the more correct path will be. I’m of the opinion that the step needed is restricting gatherings.”
  • Sa’ar says much the same to Ynet, which notes that just a day earlier, Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman claimed that the numbers were looking good and “there is reason for optimism. We need to stop talking about new restrictions and let the economy work.”
  • Modiin Mayor Haim Bibas, who heads the association of local council heads, says local authorities should be able to decide about schools themselves.
  • “You can’t look at Israel as one entity,” he tells Army Radio. “You need to differentiate. Why should vaccinated kids be punished? The vaccinated should come to school, and those who are not should study by Zoom.”

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