In Washington, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet meets US President Joe Biden to peel back enthusiasm for the Iranian nuclear deal.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met with President Joe Biden in Washington last week in an attempt to repair the damage caused to the bilateral relationship by Benjamin Netanyahu’s public campaign against the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) over the last six years.
Bennett remains opposed to US re-entry into the nuclear deal, but claims he wants to rebuild the relationship with Washington, and particularly with the Democratic Party. To that end, he put on a public show of goodwill that Biden reciprocated in full. Bennett hopes to kill the nuclear deal with kindness towards Biden, and there are some worrying signs that he may succeed.
Biden and Bennett’s tentative rapprochement comes after Netanyahu’s high-profile interventions in support of Republican candidates in the last three presidential elections and a steadily increasing partisan split in the US over issues related to Israel and Palestine. At the start of Biden’s presidency, he was slow to engage with the Netanyahu government, and then did so rather grudgingly. While Biden has long been conventionally “pro-Israel” and supported the Israeli government during its bombing of Gaza in May, the disagreement over the JCPOA had soured the relationship for the first half of the year.
Bennett came to Washington offering to adopt a new tone in his government’s dealings with the US. “I am bringing with me, from Jerusalem, a new spirit of cooperation,” he said, shortly before departing on his trip. During his meeting with Biden, he reportedly pledged to keep his criticisms of US efforts to rejoin the nonproliferation agreement private, in contrast to Netanyahu’s frequent denunciations. While the meeting with Biden was delayed by a day because of the suicide-bombing attack at Kabul airport, Bennett had good reason to be satisfied with the relative success of his visit. The prime minister declared at the end of the trip that his visit had “achieved and surpassed all the goals we set for ourselves for the meeting.”
On the US side, Dan Shapiro, former ambassador to Israel under Obama, has joined Biden’s Iran team as a senior adviser in the last week. Shapiro’s main responsibility in this role will be to serve as a liaison with Israel. Adding Shapiro to the team appears to be a gesture aimed at reassuring the Israeli government that its views will be taken into account. Both Biden and Bennett seem interested in papering over the cracks in the relationship, and Shapiro’s new role is more evidence of that.
Israeli officials in Bennett’s delegation were also reportedly optimistic that Biden would agree to the prime minister’s request that US forces remain in Iraq and Syria. To date, the Biden administration has expressed no interest in removing the roughly 900 troops in eastern Syria, and in Iraq, Biden has opted to re-label the remaining troops as advisers without withdrawing them. While the troops are ostensibly there to oppose the resurgence of the Islamic State, these missions have assumed a distinctly anti-Iranian cast since at least 2018. It is for that reason that the Israeli government wishes them to continue. As US airstrikes on Iraqi militias in Syria and Iraq remind us, US military presence in both countries is still a potential flashpoint between the US and Iran. Israel has an incentive to stoke those tensions as part of Bennett’s “death by a thousand cuts” strategy against Iran.
According to senior Israeli officials, the Israeli government remains committed to conducting covert sabotage operations against Iran’s nuclear program. The most significant sabotage attack took place in April and targeted Iran’s nuclear facility in Natanz. Underscoring the lack of trust between the old Netanyahu government and the Biden administration, the Mossad reportedly carried out the attack after giving the Biden administration only two hours’ advance warning. The attack at Natanz immediately provoked the Iranian government into increasing its enrichment of uranium to 60 percent, which is the highest level of enrichment in the history of Iran’s nuclear program to date.
As a tool for preventing the expansion of Iran’s nuclear program, Israeli sabotage operations have been a dangerous failure, but they have been somewhat effective in undermining the negotiations aimed at salvaging the nuclear deal. Each Israeli attack has prompted an Iranian response that takes it further away from the limits imposed by the JCPOA, and that in turn becomes fodder for critics of the agreement to argue against US re-entry. This might seem strange if nonproliferation were the real goal, but as an undeclared nuclear weapons state itself, Israel has never had much to fear from Iran’s nuclear program. Keeping Iran boxed in and isolated with sanctions seems to be the priority instead. Talking about Iran’s non-existent “race to a nuclear weapon” makes it easier to sell that policy of isolation.
Biden has not yet abandoned the effort to rejoin the JCPOA, but the negotiations in Vienna are still in limbo in the wake of Iran’s presidential election in June. The US president indicated that he was in favor of pursuing a diplomatic solution, but “if diplomacy fails, we’re ready to turn to other options.” This is slightly different from the usual euphemism for threatening military action (“all options are on the table”), but Bennett was quoted as saying that he was “happy” with Biden’s statement.
It is troubling that Biden felt the need to float the possibility of entertaining “other options” when diplomatic options have not been exhausted. What other realistic options are available besides continued negotiations?
The Biden administration knows that Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign is a failure, and they have said as much publicly. They must also know that military action against Iran would be a calamity for the US and the region; that it would expose US troops to reprisals, and give Iran new incentive to pursue nuclear weapons. If Biden was not prepared to keep a few thousand US troops in harm’s way in Afghanistan, he should not be willing to consider an attack on Iran that would endanger the lives of many tens of thousands more.