Bennett’s mission to Moscow could help Ukraine. But can he stop a new Iran deal?

The Israeli prime minister sought to mediate a halt to Putin’s aggression. But the wild card is Russia’s role in brokering a new Iran deal that poses an existential threat to the Jewish state.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett delivers an address at the Mossad headquarters in Tel Aviv, on March 1, 2022. Credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett delivers an address at the Mossad headquarters in Tel Aviv, on March 1, 2022. Credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

After more than a week of being criticized for his lack of outrage about Russia’ invasion of Ukraine, Israeli Prime Minister Naftfali Bennett sought to reverse the script by undertaking a mission of peace that no one else seemed able to attempt.

Flying to Moscow to meet authoritarian President Vladimir Putin with the acquiescence of both the United States and Ukraine’s embattled President Volodymyr Zelensky, Bennett was uniquely positioned to try to end the bloody war that has horrified the civilized world.

The first Orthodox Jew to lead an Israeli government flew there on Shabbat—something only permissible if it is to help save a life—in a gesture that was either heroic or an act of epic grandstanding, depending on your point of view about him.

Time will tell whether Bennett was on a fool’s errand or did something that might lead to an end to the suffering in Ukraine. Either way, he deserves credit for not standing on the sidelines while thousands die and millions are forced out of their homes, as collateral damage to Putin’s quest to reassemble the old Tsarist and Soviet empires by crushing Ukrainian independence.

But while the world remains laser-focused on the war, Putin’s perfidy, Zelensky’s heroism and the impotent fury of Western governments whose weakness set the stage for this atrocity, Bennett actually has an even more important task to accomplish. As much as he may want to stop the war, he also has a responsibility to try to prevent a new Iran nuclear deal that will pose an existential threat to Israel from being concluded.

Though with war raging to the East, few are paying attention to the nuclear talks going on in Vienna, reports have circulated in the last week that the parties are close to an agreement. The details haven’t been made public yet, but the outline of a renewed pact was already understood to be an even weaker version of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that had a loose enforcement regime and let Iran hold on to its sophisticated nuclear equipment and advanced research capabilities.

It was also set to expire at the end of the decade. Though coverage in the mainstream media rarely mentions the sunset clauses, they give the lie to the promises made both by the deal’s original authors and those trying to revive it that they are preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. To the contrary, the JCPOA guarantees that Iran will become, at the very least, a threshold nuclear power.

But, as bad as the broad outlines of the renewed deal are, leaks from the talks point to it’s being even worse than its critics thought. Gabriel Noronha is a former U.S. State Department official whose work focused on Iran. As Melanie Phillips reported, he tweeted this week that he was contacted by former colleagues still working in the government that they have been shocked by the concessions to Iran made by Robert Malley, President Joe Biden’s envoy in charge of the nuclear talks.

Far from a die-hard right-winger, Noronha was fired from his job because of his criticism of former President Donald Trump. But in a lengthy thread that makes for hair-raising reading, he laid bare the extent to which the current administration in Washington is willing to go to get a deal.

Among the gifts being prepared for Iran is an American commitment to take the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a major arm of the Tehran regime that is in charge of, among other things, state-sponsored terrorism, will be removed from the U.S. list of terrorists. Sanctions will also be lifted on a host of IRGC murderers and the various entities they operate.

While the original deal was rightly criticized for ignoring Iranian terrorism and illegal missile-building, the new pact will grant Tehran a permission slip to continue as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and, by lifting sanctions, will help it finance more mayhem aimed at allies like Israel and Arab countries, as well as at Europeans and Americans.

And in exchange for this, the Iranians have given up nothing, since the sunset clauses will remain in the new pact.

Bennett has foolishly sought to ingratiate himself with Biden and the Democrats by keeping his criticisms of this new round of appeasement of Iran private rather than public, thus making it harder for American critics of this diplomatic disaster to speak out. But with a deal that is nothing less than a dagger pointed at Israel close to being concluded, the prime minister is now faced with the obligation to do anything and everything to stop it.

That is where Russia comes in.

One of the odder sidebars to the invasion of Ukraine was a recent report that Putin was threatening to withdraw his support for the new Iran deal unless the Americans backed down on their efforts to sanction Russia as punishment for its aggression. As a member of the P5+1 group of powers that concluded the original pact, Moscow is deeply involved in the effort to revive it in Vienna.

Indeed, according to some sources, Russia played a key role in getting the Iranians—Russian allies and partners in another brutal war waged by Putin to slaughter Syrians opposed to the regime of President Bashar Assad—to go along with this fiasco that will greatly benefit it.

This means that while Biden and the West have been inveighing against Putin for his crimes in Ukraine, they are simultaneously counting on him to assist them in producing an agreement with Iran that they will falsely claim to be a diplomatic triumph. The administration has defended its desire to continue working with the Russians in Vienna as unrelated to their efforts to isolate Moscow. But Biden’s willingness to reward Iran while punishing Russia is not so much hypocritical as it is amoral.

So while Bennett was undoubtedly sincere in offering his good offices to help arrange for peace talks to end the fighting in Ukraine, his priority ought to be somehow persuading Putin to help stop Biden’s appeasement of Iran. The same applies to his subsequent trip to Germany, which is also involved with both the sanctions on Russia and the attempt to use Putin to end the sanctions on Iran.

It’s far from clear that Bennett will be able to either assist diplomacy in Ukraine or stop the new Iran deal. But as much as the Jewish world is, like just about everyone else, completely riveted by the unfolding tragedy in Ukraine, it should not be treating Iran as a secondary issue.

That’s a difficult sell at a moment when Ukraine’s fight for independence has captured the hearts of supporters of democracy and those who sympathize with underdogs seeking to resist much stronger predators, such as Putin’s Russia. Jewish communities are mobilizing to provide aid for the refugees created by the war and calling for America and the West to do whatever they can to aid Zelensky—a new Jewish hero who has won praise for his Churchillian performance since the war began—to save Ukraine.

But to ignore, rationalize or excuse Biden’s efforts to enrich and empower Iran while granting it a clear path to a nuclear weapon with which it could potentially make good on its repeated threats to eliminate the one Jewish state on the planet just because Ukraine is the current priority is indefensible.

Bennett could win a Nobel Peace Prize for ending the war in Ukraine, while sabotaging diplomacy with Iran will only earn him opprobrium from the international press. But being as admired as Zelensky is now shouldn’t concern him. Stymying Biden’s feckless appeasement of Iran must be his sole priority.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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