Will Israel accept 'half a loaf' on Iran's nuclear program?

Will Israel accept 'half a loaf' on Iran's nuclear program?
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Despite the election of a zealot as Iran’s new president, Iran and the United States likely will return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, known as the JCPOA or the Iran nuclear agreement, with only minimal changes. Iran needs to stabilize its government to prevent a popular uprising, in part because of the economic collapse fostered by stringent American sanctions. At the same time, America wants to kick the proverbial “nuclear can” down the road and take the Islamic Republic off its to-do list by claiming victory. 

Newly elected Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz are well aware of what is happening in the negotiations and must figure out how best to approach the Biden administration about Israel’s stance. As Lapid said to Secretary of State Tony Blinken, “Israel has some serious reservations about the Iran nuclear deal being put together in Vienna. We believe the way to discuss those disagreements is through direct and professional conversation.” 

So, what should Israel do? Will Bennett play hardball like former Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuBenjamin (Bibi) NetanyahuMORE and take a confrontational approach, or will Bennett decide that a conciliatory strategy is better? Will he and the Israeli security cabinet accept a wish list of hoped-for military presents from the Biden administration in exchange for not lobbying against the deal?  

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It can be argued that Netanyahu’s hard-line stance, which did not stop President Obama from making the deal in 2015, was counterproductive. Israel received less money in the memorandum of understanding negotiated after the JCPOA took effect than was offered to Israel as an enticement before the agreement was completed. Netanyahu’s visit to Congress in 2015 to lobby against the deal over the administration’s objections also weakened the traditional bipartisan support for Israel in Congress.

But a stronger case can be made that Israel’s acquiescing to the Obama deal would have legitimized a nuclear agreement that endangered Israel’s security and not allowed it to thwart Iranian nuclear progress at sites in Iran over the past seven years.

The Bennett/Lapid team has made reconciliation with the Biden administration a priority. So will Bennett learn the lessons from Netanyahu’s approach? Will Bennett accept a generous American defense sweetener with armaments that previously were off the table, while also insisting on ironclad written agreements with the U.S. that would trigger new sanctions or even kinetic measures if Iran crosses specified thresholds?

According to Michael Herzog of the Washington Institute: “The best approach for both governments is to internalize lessons from 2015 and enter a comprehensive, discreet discussion focusing on constructive ideas and realistic outcomes.” 

Blinken’s promise of “strengthening and lengthening” the deal after the U.S. rejoins the original agreement of 2015 is a mirage. No serious analyst believes Iran will return to the table after receiving sanctions relief to negotiate and sign a more substantial, lengthier deal.

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Obama promised that he would not sign a nuclear deal with Iran if it didn’t end their ability to acquire a nuclear weapon. But he gave them a deal with a clear path to exactly that. So, if the sunset provisions that restrict Iran’s nuclear program are not extended and expire in the next few years, can Bennett find any common ground with the Biden administration?

Biden wants the U.S. to return to the deal, period. The Israelis want to delay the Iranian nuclear program for as long as possible. Is there a compromise? The U.S. administration wants Israel to commit to not attacking Iran preemptively or, at the very least, to give the U.S. a heads up to help avert an attack. For years, Israel reportedly has fought Iran with cyber attacks, assassinations of nuclear scientists, and sabotage of its nuclear facilities. Is there a way that Bennett can satisfy his American ally that Israel won’t blow up a deal down the road if Israel continues to take these actions, which it believes are necessary for its security?

Furthermore, would an Israeli commitment affect its ability to strike Iran-backed militias in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq if, in the future, an American administration claims Israel’s actions are provoking the Iranian regime and undermining the nuclear deal? And would any future American administration feel bound to honor an agreement negotiated by the Biden team if Iran crossed “red lines” agreed to today? Not likely. Biden is nearly an octogenarian, and Bennett’s term will end in just under two years, assuming that Netanyahu doesn’t force his government’s collapse sooner. Would Netanyahu honor a Biden-Bennett agreement? Probably.

The Biden administration will not give Israel leeway to significantly strike Iranian nuclear facilities, nor will it bind future U.S. presidents to protect Israel in a written agreement, especially since America is moving troops out of the Middle East

So, a more likely scenario is that Iran will rejoin the JCPOA for sanctions relief and continue to cheat on its commitments to the agreement. The United States will get to return to the JCPOA and pretend it is a significant achievement. The Israelis will be left to their own devices, which means a possible closing of ranks with the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia. Who could have imagined just a few decades ago that the words “Israel,” “Saudi Arabia” and “ally” could be put in the same sentence? Bringing the Saudis and Israelis together with American help would be greatly appreciated by Israel, and could be part of the “half a loaf” that Israel accepts on Iran.

Biden and Blinken’s strategy is to find some way to get Israel on board with the Iran nuclear talks. With all of the stumbling blocks, is there some understanding the new Israeli government can negotiate when Bennett and Biden meet in July that would satisfy both countries, knowing a return to the JCPOA is probably a given?                             

As the Jerusalem Post’s editor, Yaakov Katz, wrote: “Bennett will have to decide, in that first Oval Office meeting, what exactly he wants to ask of Biden. Is it an agreement on ‘red lines’ in the deal that, if crossed, will prompt the U.S. to restore sanctions or even take action? Or, is it a boost to Israel’s military capabilities … or both?” 

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the U.S. Senate, House, and their foreign-policy advisers. He is the  senior editor for “Security” at the Jerusalem Report/The Jerusalem Post.