AnalysisPM, Likud officials are 'bent on starting a confrontation'

US wants to hear out allies on Iran. Netanyahu girds for fight unless it listens

Leaked comments indicate the prime minister is readying for battle over Biden’s insistence on rejoining the nuclear pact, even as Washington says it will hear Israeli concerns

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

A portrait of Benjamin Netanyahu is set on fire during an annual pro-Palestinian rally in Tehran, Iran, Friday, July 10, 2015. (AP/Ebrahim Noroozi)
A portrait of Benjamin Netanyahu is set on fire during an annual pro-Palestinian rally in Tehran, Iran, Friday, July 10, 2015. (AP/Ebrahim Noroozi)

As the Obama administration negotiated the Iran nuclear agreement behind closed doors in 2015, a frequent argument employed by officials to dismiss Israeli critics of the process went as follows: “You don’t know what’s in the deal, so how can you already be objecting to it?”

The retort angered many in the Netanyahu government, who demanded involvement in crafting an accord they argued would ultimately impact them more than the US and the other negotiating powers who were situated thousands of miles away from the region.

This lack of communication was one of the many reasons the two longtime allies feuded publicly during Obama’s time in office.

Evidently concluding that the strategy had been counterproductive, US President Joe Biden appears prepared to take a different approach.

Addressing senators at his confirmation hearing last week, Biden’s nominee for secretary of state Antony Blinken called it “vitally important” for the US to engage with Israel and its Arab allies “at the takeoff, not the landing” of its negotiations with Iran.

US Secretary of State nominee Tony Blinken testifies during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 19, 2021. (Alex Edelman/Pool via AP)

Now it’s Israel’s turn to decide how it wants to move forward with the Biden administration. The process is at an embryonic stage, but a pair of reports leaked to Israel’s most prominent TV network last week suggest that Netanyahu may once again be heading toward a confrontational approach, suspicious that Israel’s concerns will not truly be heard by Washington.

The two allies share the same goal — an improved agreement with Iran that prevents it from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

Where they seem to veer apart is on how to get there.

Biden officials have spoken about first returning to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and then using regained trust to negotiate a “longer and stronger” agreement that addresses Iran’s ballistic missile program and malign activities in the region.

“If Iran returns to compliance with the deal, we will do so as well… It would be a first step,” a person familiar with the Biden transition team’s thinking told the Associated Press last week on condition of anonymity.

But Netanyahu, a vociferous opponent of the JCPOA, appears to prefer keeping reimposed sanctions in place until the Iranians agree to completely dismantle their nuclear program, or at least come back to the table to negotiate an improved deal that will address all of Israel’s concerns.

“Israel fears that the US is not going to utilize the leverage that accumulated” as a result of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign, said David Makovsky, a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“The real discussion is how do you maintain your leverage, and what is the best way to get to that new and improved nuclear agreement, which both sides say they want,” he added.

Talk to the hand

Biden and his aides don’t view Netanyahu’s strategy as realistic or productive. But in saying they will hear Israel out, at least, they appear to be offering exactly what Israel has been asking for.

Given the opportunity on a November panel to offer a message to the incoming Biden administration regarding Iran, then Israeli ambassador to the US Ron Dermer said, “The first thing I would say to the incoming administration [is]: ‘Sit with your allies in the region. Listen to us.'”

“We have the most skin in the game. We have the most to lose. Try to work out a common position, which I think is possible, not only to do with nuclear issues but also to deal with the regional aggression of Iran,” he added, referencing issues outside the scope of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which Biden has said he also hopes to address.

Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer at the signing of the US-Israel military aid deal in the State Department on September 14, 2016 (Israeli Embassy, Washington)

So far, the new administration is listening about listening. “We will expect that some of [Biden’s] earlier conversations… [will] be with partners and allies, and we would anticipate that [they] would be a part of the discussion,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said shortly after Biden’s inauguration, backing up Blinken’s comments.

Makovsky, who served as senior adviser to the special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations during the Obama administration, was impressed with the Biden camp’s comments thus far.

“They are making clear that consultations are going to be held at the earliest stage before the administration locks into an Iran strategy,” he said. “It is hard for Israel or the Gulf states to ask for something better than this.”

But for the Israelis, this may not be enough.

Just hours after Biden’s inauguration but before Psaki’s statement, Channel 12, which has the country’s most widely-watched news broadcast, aired comments from a “very senior Israeli official” who warned, “If Biden adopts Obama’s plan, we won’t have anything to talk about with him.”

The comment followed several public assertions by Netanyahu and Dermer over the past two months that a return by Biden to the JCPOA would be a mistake.

While anonymous sourcing used by an often sensationalized Israeli press is worth taking with a pound of salt, a ministerial aide told The Times of Israel that the leak had been planted by officials close to Netanyahu.

Centrifuge machines in the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran, November 5, 2019. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP, File)

“They’re bent on starting a confrontation with the new administration,” assessed the aide, who works for a non-Likud party and was not privy to Netanyahu’s deliberations.

The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, surmised that the Wednesday leak was an extension of a “campaign” by Likud to push the US to pursue a “maximalist approach” toward Iran negotiations that would be more likely to fail.

The aide claimed those behind the Wednesday comments were also responsible for a January 17 story on the same network, which claimed, without any sources, that members of the Biden transition team had already begun holding quiet talks with Iran on a return to the 2015 nuclear deal, in an effort to “present Biden as a replica of Obama who wasn’t as forthcoming with us on Iran.”

But the aide pointed out that the incoming administration had staunchly refused to hold talks with any foreign government, including skittish allies like Israel, wary of repeating an incident in which former US president Donald Trump’s national security adviser Michael Flynn held talks with foreign officials during the transition period, leading to accusations that he had undercut the Obama administration.

“Biden didn’t want a repeat of the Michael Flynn incident and wasn’t in touch with us, or any US allies during the transition,” the aide said. “You really think [the Biden transition] would risk it by talking to the Iranians of all people?”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech on an archive brought out of Iran by the Mossad that documents Iran’s nuclear program, at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on April 30, 2018. (AFP/Jack Guez)

The Prime Minister’s Office did not respond to a request for comment on the matter.

The aide’s sentiment appeared to be shared by Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who declared Friday that he would not allow anyone to bypass Israel’s security establishment in the crafting of policy toward Iran —  a thinly veiled message to Netanyahu.

“I intend to make sure that no one even thinks to interfere with us maintaining Israel’s security with all sorts of tricks and bypassing measures that endanger us,” Gantz said then.

A source in the Prime Minister’s Office responded that contrary to what Gantz has claimed, Netanyahu will consult with all the relevant parties on the matter.

Olive branch or fig leaf?

Even if the leaks were made in bad faith, former ambassador to the US Michael Oren said Israel was not in the wrong in viewing the Biden administration’s offer as insincere if the White House had already made up its mind on rejoining the JCPOA.

“If the administration is committed to going back to JCPOA, there is in fact nothing to talk about,” said Oren, who is an opponent of the Iran deal.

Oren argued that for all the talk by Biden, Blinken and Psaki about consulting with Jerusalem before making any decisions regarding the JCPOA, the Israeli government is “afraid the olive branch is a fig leaf.”

“They’ll say that they’ve consulted with the Israelis and then turn around and basically return to the JCPOA,” he said. “But from Israel’s perspective, the JCPOA is so fundamentally flawed that any return to it, even with some cosmetic changes, is a real problem for us.”

Pressed why he thought the Netanyahu government might prefer a confrontational approach to dealing with Biden, Oren asserted that Israel was “not looking for a fight, but our national security is on the line.”

Kulanu MK Michael Oren, June 20, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“We have to prepare ourselves for war because that is what [a return to the deal] is going to lead to,” he maintained.

The former ambassador argued that Iran’s rapid enrichment of its uranium to 20% over the past several months in violation of the deal proved that it had not been effective in the first place.

Skeptics of the Biden administration’s conciliatory rhetoric have also pointed to the growing number of former Obama officials involved in crafting the original nuclear deal who have been appointed by Biden, including National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, and rumored Iran envoy Rob Malley.

Much talk, more questions

A well-placed Israeli defense analyst requesting anonymity argued that while an inflexible Biden administration would limit Jerusalem’s options, it would still be worth talking to the US if Jerusalem could receive some sort of “compensation” package to soften the blow of a return to an imperfect JCPOA.

“This could mean greatly expanding our military capabilities, but the Americans are unlikely to agree to that because they don’t want those to then be used in an attack that would scuttle the deal,” the analyst said.

US President Joe Biden delivers his inauguration speech on January 20, 2021, at the US Capitol in Washington. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP)

While he recognized Israeli concerns that a swift return to the JCPOA could lead to the squandering of what is believed to be newly obtained leverage against Iran, Makovsky argued, “I think what Israel will find is that the US wants to retain leverage in these negotiations as well.”

In fact, despite all the Israeli concerns, the Biden administration has been somewhat vague in public comments about its strategy for rejoining the JCPOA or what it will seek for doing so.

Psaki said Wednesday that Biden “believes that through diplomacy, the US seeks to strengthen nuclear constraints on Iran and other issues of concern.”

Then-US vice president Joe Biden, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a joint press conference at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, March 9, 2010. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

She did not specify whether the “strengthen[ing of] nuclear constraints” will be required in order for the US to return to the deal or whether that will be a goal of subsequent negotiations for an upgraded, follow-up deal to the JCPOA — one that Tehran maintains it has no interest in.

What’s clear though, is just how preliminary the process is for both sides. Netanyahu has yet to hold an inter-ministerial consultation to devise a strategy for engaging with the US on Iran. Biden, for his part, has yet to finish filling many of the key positions involved in crafting US policy on the matter.

And even after that is done, Blinken noted Tuesday that the US is still a “long way” off from a return to the JCPOA.

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