What a difference a month makes. In July, Israel’s new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, met with his military, security and intelligence advisers to plan for his Aug. 26 summit with President BidenJoe BidenTexas announces election audit in four counties after Trump demand Pennsylvania AG sues to block GOP subpoenas in election probe House passes sweeping defense policy bill MORE. Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid were considering a less confrontational approach than the previous Israeli administration, trying to work more closely with the United States regarding Iran’s aggression while not raising the ire of the Biden administration about Israel’s actions in the West Bank. National security advisers from both countries also met to lay the groundwork for the summit.
Now, the Biden administration is dealing with the repercussions to America’s reputation from its Afghanistan withdrawal, and allies including Israel are uncertain about trusting U.S. assurances going forward. Add to that the raging COVID-19 pandemic in Israel, where Bennett’s public perception of his handling of that domestic crisis overshadows the planned summit and could determine his political survival. The confluence of many variables makes the prospect for a successful summit that enhances the security interests of each nation much less certain than just a few weeks ago.
The Biden team thought, and may still think, that it holds the upper hand over Israel, able to force Israel to acquiesce in its rapprochement with Iran to restart the nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Israel hopes that the U.S. has re-evaluated its position now that a new hardline Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, has taken the reins. If nothing else, Raisi unmasks the false moderation attributed to the last Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani. Raisi and Iran’s Supreme Leader are simpatico in their desire for a nuclear weapon.
Israel’s mantra never allows another nation to dictate its existential security needs, but its best friend’s advice is always taken seriously in strategic planning. Unfortunately, in the aftermath of the rise of the Taliban, America appears to the world more akin to its weakness during the 1980 hostage crisis of the Carter presidency — unreliable and inept. Will the situation in Afghanistan make Bennett less accommodating on what Israel is willing to accept as “tolerable” from the United States concerning America’s rejoining the nuclear agreement? New rounds of negotiations were to begin this fall.
According to Ben Caspit, writing in Al-Monitor, Israel’s plan regarding the JCPOA is to greatly increase ($7.64 billion) its military budget for “restoring Israel’s military capacity to inflict significant damage on the Iranian nuclear program,” and to ask the U.S. for weapons not previously offered. Is this still the plan?
The Iranians likely feel empowered by America’s humiliation by the Taliban and may be willing to test America’s resolve with attacks on its allies’ interests. What Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei demands in return for returning to the JCPOA just became much higher, knowing that America has lost some leverage because of Afghanistan, and that there has been no reprisal for Iranian attacks on international shipping in the Persian Gulf.
Will the law of unintended consequences move the Israelis and moderate Sunni Gulf nations closer together, as they began to do with the Abraham Accords? They now need one another more than ever as a counterweight to an increasingly assertive Iran that doesn’t fear consequences for its actions.
The meeting between Bennett and Biden was postponed once this summer. Despite the questionable timing of an August summit, its importance in the aftermath of the Afghanistan pullout cannot be overstated. What could the U.S. offer Israel to lie low if Biden is still all-in on the JCPOA? Former Iran envoy Dennis Ross has suggested giving Israel the massive bunker-buster ordinance to hold as a sword over Iran’s head. The U.S. also would have to provide Israel with the aircraft needed to deliver these weapons. But would that undermine Biden’s goal to disengage from the Middle East?
Biden, Bennett and all the Middle Eastern allies need humility in not believing they know what will come next in the region. If they are wise, they will not make promises to one another that cannot be kept. Just as the speed of the Taliban’s advance blindsided America, Israel’s well-meant withdrawal from Lebanon and Gaza followed a similar path — the result contributing to the rise of radical Islamism, something much worse than the previous situation.
Biden’s approach is all about diplomacy without a credible threat of the use of force: Walk softly and carry an olive branch, instead of the big stick recommended by Theodore Roosevelt. This interpretation of American resolve has gained steam in the aftermath of Afghanistan.
It would be wise for the Biden team to reevaluate its approach with the Iranian negotiations. Biden must resist the temptation to return to the Iranian nuclear deal to obtain a foreign policy “photo-op moment” with the hope that it would deflect attention away from Afghanistan.
The more immediate security crisis for Israel could be new agitation from Hamas, which has called on West Bank Palestinians to continue nighttime riots, a tactic adopted from Gazan militants. Hamas continues to undermine the Palestinians Authority, the Palestinian entity the US has hitched its horse to.
Israel also will want to know if America will keep its small contingent of forces in Iraq and Syria. Like the 2,500 troops in Afghanistan before they were removed, these forces exert disproportionate American influence, maintaining an uneasy status quo. A vacuum created in Syria and Iraq by an American withdrawal would shift the burden to Israel’s doorstep. Bennett would want a heads-up, because an American withdrawal from Syria and Iraq could set Israel and its neighbors on fire.
Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN (Middle East Political Information Network). He regularly briefs members of Congress and their foreign policy aides, and is the senior security editor for the Jerusalem Report/Jerusalem Post.