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Gantz urges softer tone with US on Iran, seems to knock Netanyahu’s ‘provoking’

Defense minister says dialogue with Washington over nuclear deal should be behind closed doors, not via media; US officials push ‘immediate’ aid for Gaza during series of meetings

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, right, gestures to Defense Minister Benny Gantz on June 3, 2021, at the State Department in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, right, gestures to Defense Minister Benny Gantz on June 3, 2021, at the State Department in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Thursday that Israel will stay engaged as the US tries to return to a nuclear deal with Iran, sidestepping what has long been an area of open disagreement between the United States and the now-jeopardized government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Senior Biden administration officials raised the need for “immediate” humanitarian aid to enter the Gaza Strip during a series of meetings with Gantz, who was in Washington for a snap visit.

In addition to discussing last month’s 11-day Gaza conflict and its aftermath, Gantz presented Israel’s concerns about Iran in successive meetings with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and offered implicit criticism of the more confrontational approach pushed by Netanyahu.

Gantz, who is now part of a coalition that appears poised to oust Netanyahu after 12 years in power, said Israel will stay engaged on the terms as the US tries to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Gantz told reporters before a meeting with Austin that Iran’s nuclear program and other actions were an “existential threat” to Israel. “Stopping Iran is certainly a shared strategic need of the United States,” Israel and other countries, Gantz said.

But Gantz — unlike Netanyahu — stopped short of openly opposing the Biden administration’s efforts to get the United States back into a deal limiting Iran’s nuclear program, in exchange for relief from sanctions.

According to a readout from the Defense Ministry, Gantz implicitly criticized Netanyahu’s approach of publicly lobbying US and world leaders on the matter.

“We will continue this important strategic dialogue in private discussion … only, not in the media in a provoking way,” he said, calling for “open dialogue behind closed doors.” It echoed Biden’s own embrace of what the administration has called quiet diplomacy when dealing with Israel.

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin hosts an honor cordon welcoming Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the Pentagon in Washington on June 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Sitting across a table from his US counterpart at the Pentagon, Gantz said, “Our dialogue is so important to ensuring that any deal effectively meets its goal of keeping Iran away from nuclear weapons.”

“Of course, given the scope of the threat, Israel must always make sure that it has the ability to protect itself,” Gantz added.

In US readouts from the meetings, Biden officials stressed their commitment to Israel’s security while the statements from Gantz’s offices highlighted the defense minister’s appreciation for the American support.

Sullivan during his meeting with Gantz “highlighted the importance of ensuring that immediate humanitarian aid is able to reach the people of Gaza,” according to the White House readout.

The Biden administration has expressed its interest in playing a major role in Gaza reconstruction efforts, saying they should be led by the United Nations in cooperation with the Palestinian Authority in order to ensure that the international aid does not reach the Hamas terror group that rules the coastal enclave.

Gantz appeared to be in sync with that goal, tweeting that he told Austin that the military “achievements” made by Israel during Operation Guardian of the Walls “must now be leveraged in a diplomatic initiative that will [allow for the return of two captive Israeli civilians and the bodies of two IDF soldiers], strengthen the Palestinian Authority and bring peace, stability and growth to the people of Gaza.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (L) and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan at the White House on June 3, 2021. (Shmulik Almani/Defense Ministry)

In a press appearance ahead of his meeting with Blinken, Gantz said “As the defense minister, I think the combination of moving forward with [Gaza] construction and making sure that everything stays secure is very important.”

Austin and Sullivan also highlighted the US commitment to replenishing Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, which faced over 4,000 rockets from Gaza during last month’s war.

US Senator Lindsey Graham told reporters earlier this week in Israel that Gantz would submit a billion-dollar request to the Pentagon to replenish the interceptor arsenal during his visit to Washington.

US President Joe Biden already announced his commitment to replenishing the missile system last month in a speech hours after the ceasefire ending Operation Guardian of the Walls was reached.

The parties also discussed the broader Palestinian issue, according to the various readouts, which were light on detail. Washington has made clear that it is not interested in launching high-level peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, but is interested in promoting positive steps that keep a two-state solution alive while preventing unilateral moves that distance the parties from that resolution.

It has warned Israel against settlement building, demolitions of Palestinian homes and evictions of Palestinian families, including in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem. Meanwhile, it has condemned PA incitement and payments to security prisoners, including ones with blood on their hands.

Israeli and American flags are visible on the table as US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin hosts a bilateral meeting with Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the Pentagon in Washington on June 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Netanyahu’s years-long fight to torpedo the Iran nuclear deal — struck during the Obama administration in 2015, but rejected by former president Donald Trump after his election — included Netanyahu denouncing it to a 2015 joint session of the US Congress as a “very bad deal.”

Netanyahu has continued that open opposition in recent days, saying a deal “paves the way for Iran to have an arsenal of nuclear weapons with international legitimacy” and that the fight against that was worth any “friction with our great friend the United States.”

Biden has pressed for a return to the nuclear deal as the best way to keep Iran from building up what it says is a civilian nuclear program, and to calm a flashpoint in the Middle East. European negotiators expressed some optimism this week as they closed the latest round of talks in Vienna on getting the USS and Iran back in the deal.

AP contributed to this report.

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