Like any gambler who is willing to seize on any glimmer of hope that irresponsible betting will be rewarded with an unexpected reversal of fortune, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid was sounding hopeful this week. The Israeli government that he now leads spent the last year wagering the Jewish state’s security on the idea that better relations with the Biden administration and a decision to downplay differences would influence Washington to finally show some spine and stop appeasing Iran. So, it was hardly unexpected that Lapid would seize on the news that the United States had “hardened” its response to the latest Iranian counter-offer in the talks about renewing the 2015 nuclear deal.
The “good news” consisted of a report claiming that Lapid had been told by Washington that it would not give in to Iranian demands that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) cease investigating Tehran’s nuclear program or take the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) off the U.S. Foreign Terrorist Organizations. Shorn of context, that might be an encouraging development. But with the international media publishing multiple stories based on leaks from the administration about an agreement between the two sides being imminent, the notion that any victory on these two points, whether temporary or not, vindicates the decision Lapid’s tactics is risible.
Even taken in isolation, these points don’t mean that much.
As bad as giving in on that point would be, the IRGC issue is largely symbolic. If a new deal is reached, Iran’s terrorist arm will be immeasurably strengthened and enriched along with the rest of the regime, regardless of whether they’re on a U.S. list of terror groups. It’s also true that even if Iran doesn’t get Biden to agree to drop the involvement of the IAEA altogether, that means nothing. As the Iranians have demonstrated ever since former President Barack Obama’s signature foreign-policy achievement was put into force in 2015, violating they have no compunctions about repeatedly violating it, especially with regard to flouting the components requiring compliance with IAEA regulations.
More to the point, if these provisions and other points of equal importance are the only obstacles standing between an agreement, then Lapid knows his hopes of persuading the administration not to sign a new deal are negligible. As Lapid has recently reiterated, Israel’s position is that the United States and its partners in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) are making a huge mistake. Mossad chief David Barnea has been adamant in insisting that the plan is a “strategic disaster” for Israel and based on “lies.”
Far from stopping the Iranian quest for a nuclear weapon, like the 2015 JCPOA, a new deal would more or less guarantee that they will soon have one. As Barnea said, it “gives Iran license to amass the required nuclear material for a bomb” in a few years, after which the restrictions on its program will expire at the end of the decade. At the same time, the lifting of sanctions will allow the Iranians to expand their oil sales and also give them billions in currently frozen money. That will make the despotic theocracy stronger at home and better able to repress dissent. It will also allow them to increase funding to their terrorist proxies like Hezbollah in Lebanon, Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip and the Houthis in Yemen, making the Middle East immeasurably more dangerous for Sunni Arab nations as well as Israel.
That’s why the decision Lapid made in conjunction with his erstwhile coalition partner, former Prime Minister Naphtali Bennett, to cozy up to Biden is also a disaster. The fact that Biden wouldn’t even take a phone call from Lapid in which he might have argued his case on the issue this week had to sting. Being told the president was “on vacation” and would speak to him another time—when an existential question like a nuclear Iran is on the table—is not exactly the response he expected when he heralded the shift from high octane advocacy on the issue that was favored by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to quiet behind-the-scenes diplomacy.
It’s true that few thought that 19 months into the Biden presidency, the United States would still be seeking a new accord with Iran. The widespread assumption, especially on the part of Biden and the Democrats, was that having taken former Secretary of State John Kerry’s advice to not negotiate with the Trump administration after it withdrew from the deal, Tehran would be eager to quickly sign up for more American appeasement. Instead, its leaders have returned to the same hard-nosed negotiating tactics that won them so many devastating concessions from Obama. The result has been more concessions and, contrary to Biden’s promises, another deal that will ignore Iranian terrorism, illegal missile-building and, like its predecessor, has an expiration date.
While Biden’s apologists blame Iran’s progress towards a bomb on former President Donald Trump for his decision to pull out from the deal, that is misleading. While we don’t know for sure what would have happened had Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign continued into 2021, it had a chance of success in forcing the Iranians to negotiate a better agreement. It was Biden’s election that doomed that strategy and nothing else.
But at this point, the dilemma facing the Israelis is not whether or not to blame Trump or—as some on the Israeli left also falsely claim—that it is somehow Netanyahu’s fault for not attacking Iran earlier or for opposing Obama’s effort.
Rather, Jerusalem must now confront two crucial issues. One is how to cope with the impending reality of a newly empowered and enriched Iran. The second is whether to risk angering Biden by taking actions, either military or further covert operations, to forestall the Iranian threat at a time when the United States will be trying to pretend that it has solved the nuclear problem.
Once a new nuclear deal is in place the assumption that Israel can act with impunity to attack or sabotage Iran’s nuclear facilities is magical thinking. The notion that, as Barnea and other Israeli officials continue to claim, Jerusalem will retain its freedom of action to do what it thinks is in its best interests, as well as that of its new Arab allies who are also afraid of Iran, is just not true.
It remains to be seen who will lead Israel after the Knesset election in November. Whether it is Netanyahu or Lapid (who is unlikely to win a majority but could hang on if the election results in another stalemate), the idea of openly flouting America’s wishes at a time when Washington will, however falsely, claim the nuclear peril is averted, isn’t something either man would do except as a last resort.
That means that in spite of the obvious dangers this presents in terms of eventual nuclear peril and an immediate increase in the threat level from terrorism, Biden thinks that he can force Israel to live with an Iran that is a threshold nuclear state. He will do this by offering carrots in terms of aid and empty assurances about taking action if Iran were to break out to a nuclear weapon.
Israel will have to wait until 2025—and the return of Trump or some other Republican to the White House—at the earliest to have an American president who will understand that unless the deal is scrapped and replaced with something stronger, the West will be standing by feebly accepting Iran getting a weapon once its restrictions expire. Having such an American partner in confronting Iran is a long way off, and even then, not a certainty. Until then, Israel’s government must learn from its mistakes.
By failing to raise the alarm about Iran in the vain hope of influencing Biden to stand up to Iran, Israel has undermined efforts to mobilize opposition to appeasement in the United States. Lapid and Bennett took for granted the ability of Israel’s friends in Congress to pressure Biden against this folly or simply discounted any possibility that the administration could be stopped.
That was a mistake.
Whoever runs Israel’s government in the coming year will need to drop the “nice guy” routine with Biden and return to a tougher approach that can encourage the Jewish state’s many friends to speak up. For all of the trappings and benefits of this great friendship even under Biden, a U.S.-Israel relationship that is predicated on Jerusalem keeping quiet about American policies that are abetting an existential threat is no alliance at all. While the Jewish left has acted as if standing up for Israel’s interests will damage the alliance, what we’ve learned in the last year is that not speaking up can do even more harm to it.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.