PM Lapid said in talks to meet Biden as new Iran nuclear accord looms

According to Kan, leaders may meet on sidelines of UN General Assembly session next month; Gantz tells Washington think tanks ‘improvements necessary’ in deal

US President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Yair Lapid meet in Jerusalem, July 14, 2022. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
US President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Yair Lapid meet in Jerusalem, July 14, 2022. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Israel and the US are looking to set up a meeting between Prime Minister Yair Lapid and US President Joe Biden next month, as Washington appears nearer to signing onto a renewed nuclear agreement with Iran, according to a Saturday report.

Kan news cited a senior Israeli official as saying the idea is to schedule a meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly’s annual session. A potential date is September 20, after Biden addresses the UNGA, the unnamed official said.

The report said the two leaders are also expected to speak on the phone in the coming days, a report also carried by the Ynet news site, which cited a senior American source.

Meanwhile, continuing his US visit, Defense Minister Benny Gantz told the heads of leading Washington think tanks Saturday that “improvements are necessary” in the emerging new nuclear deal with Iran.

“Iran has gained knowledge, infrastructure and capabilities” in recent years, Gantz said, “much of which is irreversible.”

He said that “this will enable Iran to further expand its nuclear program during the period of an agreement that would have fewer restrictions.” And Iran “would be able to acquire a nuclear weapon when said agreement would end in 2031.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz meets with the heads of Washington DC think tanks, August 27, 2022. (Yossi May)

Thus, he argued, “improvements are necessary in the nuclear agreement in discussion – with an emphasis on the ‘sunset’ clause,” which sees some restrictions end in nine years.

Gantz also noted that Iran provides hundreds of millions of dollars a year to regional terror groups, including Hezbollah.

“As such, regardless of any future scenarios, action must be taken against Iranian proxies, which threaten the entire Middle East region.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz meets with the heads of Washington DC think tanks, August 27, 2022. (Yossi May)

On Friday, Gantz met with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, telling him Israel “needs” the US to have a credible military option against Iran, a senior Israeli official said to reporters.

According to the defense official, Israel received “good hints” with regard to the US having a working offensive plan against Iran. He did not elaborate, but said that it would potentially ensure Tehran is more flexible during negotiations for the renewed accord.

The official said the meeting between Gantz and Sullivan in Washington was “intimate” and “positive.” He said Gantz emphasized Israel’s objection to the potential deal, which has been branded by Israel as “very bad.”

The official warned that Iran’s nuclear program has expanded significantly since 2018 when then-US president Donald Trump pulled out of the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The official said he personally viewed Trump’s move as a mistake.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz meets with US national security adviser Jake Sullivan in Washington DC, August 26, 2022. (Yossi Mai/Defense Ministry)

The official said the situation had reached a point where there are only two scenarios: No agreement, allowing Iran to gradually expand its nuclear program further, or a bad deal that does not serve Israel’s interests.

The official said Israel has two main concerns with regard to the potential deal: the so-called sunset clause, which will lift limitations on Iran’s nuclear program when the accord expires; and sanctions relief that would allow Iran to increase funding to its proxies.

The official added that Israel has attempted to influence the deal in certain aspects as much as possible, but “as of now, it is far from serving Israel’s interests as it sees it.” Israel seeks to make the deal “longer and stronger,” the official said.

Still, the official said Gantz’s objections were positively received by Sullivan. “I think that we are being listened to even if the Americans, in the end, don’t accept everything we want,” the official said.

The official said that Israel would still have its freedom to act against Iran, adding that whether an agreement is signed or not, Jerusalem would still continue its efforts against what it sees as hostile Iranian actions.

A readout issued by the US National Security Council spokesperson said “Sullivan emphasized President Biden’s unwavering commitment to Israel’s security, and the two exchanged views on ways to deepen the US-Israel security partnership, including via regional cooperation and coordination.”

Prime Minister Yair Lapid meets with the head of the Mossad David Barnea at the Defense Ministry, Tel Aviv, August 25, 2022. (Prime Minister’s Office)

“They discussed US commitment to ensure Iran never obtains a nuclear weapon, and the need to counter threats from Iran and Iran-based proxies.”

On Thursday, Gantz met with US Central Command chief General Michael Kurilla at CENTCOM’s headquarters in Florida. Gantz was briefed on the US’s plans for possible scenarios after a nuclear deal is or isn’t agreed upon.

Gantz and Kurilla’s discussion focused on ways to increase cooperation between Israel and the US military, methods for countering the Iranian threat in the Middle East, and a “Plan B” to the nuclear deal.

CENTCOM officially assumed responsibility for the US military’s relationship with Israel in September last year. Until then, Israel had been kept in the area of responsibility of the European Command (EUCOM) in order to prevent possible tensions between CENTCOM and the Arab and Muslim nations under its purview, many of which did not maintain formal ties with Israel and would therefore not want to be considered as mutual allies.

In recent years, however, CENTCOM’s Arab allies have increasingly developed relations with Israel, some informally, so the issue has largely faded.

“Israeli influence in the region is growing stronger,” the senior defense official told reporters on Friday.

“The region’s players are no less disturbed than we are by the emerging agreement. We have communication channels, and in many ways, they put their trust in us that we will convince and influence,” he said.

The official said such dialogue was taking place “under the umbrella of CENTCOM.”

Gantz was visiting the US the same week as a trip there by Israeli national security adviser Eyal Hulata, both carrying a message of displeasure from Jerusalem at the acceleration in talks toward reviving the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran

Iran said Wednesday that it had received the US’s response to its proposal for a return to the 2015 accord.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby declined to characterize the administration’s response to the latest proposal, but noted that “we are closer now than we were even just a couple of weeks ago because Iran made a decision to make some concessions.”

Emanuel Fabian and agencies contributed to this report.

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