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Netanyahu: Lapid’s ‘no surprises on Iran’ pledge to US endangers Israel

Foreign and defense ministers refute claim by opposition chief, who made a similar commitment to Washington when he was PM

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and head of the Likud party leads a faction meeting in the Israeli parliament on June 21, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90)
Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and head of the Likud party leads a faction meeting in the Israeli parliament on June 21, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90)

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday accused Foreign Minister Yair Lapid of endangering Israel by pledging to update the US in advance on any military actions Israel could take against Iran.

According to the Foreign Ministry, Lapid and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken agreed on a policy of “no surprises” when they spoke on Thursday, and promised to maintain open and regular communication channels.

During the previous government led by Netanyahu, senior Israeli officials also agreed in talks with the US on the Iran nuclear file that there would be “no surprises” on the matter, and that disagreements would be addressed behind closed doors, a source familiar with the matter confirmed to The Times of Israel on Monday.

“If there were no surprises, we wouldn’t have been able to destroy the reactor in Iraq,” Netanyahu said Monday, of the 1981 strike ordered by former prime minister Menachem Begin, claiming that he had been asked for such a commitment several times by Washington over his 15 years in power and always refused.

Netanyahu said he was asked specifically by US President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, “Don’t surprise us,” regarding Iran, but refused to make such a commitment, telling them only, “I’ll take your request into account.”

“From now on, the new Israeli government must coordinate all of its actions against the Iranian nuclear program with the administration in Washington, an administration that is rushing to rejoin the dangerous nuclear deal, and, which it is obvious to all, won’t take military action against Iran,” said Netanyahu.

“I cannot think of a weaker and more feeble message we could be sending Iran,” he said, adding that the Islamic Republic’s ayatollahs can now “sleep well at night.”

This satellite photo provided from Planet Labs Inc. shows Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility on Wednesday, April 14, 2021. Iran began enriching uranium Friday, April 16, 2021, to its highest level ever at Natanz, edging closer to weapons-grade levels to pressure talks in Vienna aimed at restoring its nuclear deal with world powers after an attack on the site. (Planet Labs via AP)

He concluded that the new government is “not fit to lead” and vowed to do his utmost to topple the coalition, which removed him from power last week.

“This is not a political issue. This is an issue of security, of lives being endangered,” charged Netanyahu.

In response, Lapid said: “The first part of the sentence is not true and the second part will not happen,” disputing both Netanyahu’s claim about an agreement with Blinken, and the Likud head’s vow that he’ll replace the current government.

“I thank the opposition leader for his suggestions. We’ll take it from here,” Lapid said.

Yair Lapid speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset on June 21, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who also served in the position in Netanyahu’s government, chided the Likud leader for his comments.

“The use of our intimate conversations with our closest ally by the former prime minister for political gain is embarrassing and dangerous,” said Gantz. “As defense minister of Israel, I declare that Israel will continue to uphold its right to self-defense against any threat, anywhere.”

His comments Monday notwithstanding, Netanyahu, as premier, also agreed to a “no surprises” policy with the United States on Iran, former foreign minister Gabi Ashkenazi confirmed to reporters in March. A similar agreement was reached in 2014, during the nuclear deal talks between Iran and world powers, including the US.

Head of the Blue and White party Benny Gantz leads a faction meeting in the Knesset on June 21, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90)

In April, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told NBC News: “We believe, profoundly and passionately, in making sure that we and Israel have a policy of no surprises, that we are communicating with one another on a going forward basis, so that we have a better understanding… on what the other side intends to do with respect to a whole range of security issues in the region.”

Since taking office earlier this week, the newly inaugurated Israeli government has clarified that it too opposes Biden’s plans to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, but that, unlike its predecessor, it would voice its criticism in private.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Sunday opened the first cabinet meeting of his new government with a condemnation of the newly elected Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi. He said Iran’s choice was a sign for world powers to “wake up” before returning to a nuclear agreement with Tehran.

Ebrahim Raisi, points during a campaign rally in Eslamshahr, southwest of Tehran, Iran, June 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)

Raisi is sanctioned by the US in part over his involvement in the mass execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988, at the end of the Iran-Iraq War. Raisi has not commented specifically on the event.

Bennett said at the cabinet meeting in Jerusalem that “of all the people that [Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei could have chosen, he chose the hangman of Tehran, the man infamous among Iranians and across the world for leading the death committees that executed thousands of innocent Iranian citizens throughout the years.”

He said that the new government would follow the previous Israeli administration’s policy of determinedly opposing Iran reaching a nuclear weapon.

“A regime of brutal hangmen must never be allowed to have weapons of mass destruction that will enable it to not kill thousands, but millions,” the prime minister said, speaking briefly in English.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett arrives for his first cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on June 20, 2021 (Emmanuel Dunand/Pool Photo via AP)

Iran and world powers resumed indirect talks in Vienna on Sunday to resurrect the tattered 2015 nuclear deal, which granted Iran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.

For weeks, Iranian and American diplomats have been negotiating a return to the accord in the Austrian capital through European intermediaries.

The talks are the first since the election of Raisi, which will put hardliners firmly in control across Iran’s government.

The landmark nuclear deal between world powers and Iran, which Israel opposed, collapsed after former US president Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew Washington from the accord in 2018. That decision has seen Iran, over time, abandon every limitation on enrichment, with Tehran currently enriching uranium at its highest levels ever, though still short of weapons-grade levels.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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