Discerning the truth about diplomatic activity is often a matter of sifting out what’s real from amid the surrounding noise of governmental spin. That means that at the moment, an accurate assessment of the possibility of a new American nuclear deal with Iran, as well as the state of U.S.-Israel relations may require one to ignore most of the headlines. If so, the optimism currently prevailing in Jerusalem about the prospects of the Biden administration betraying the security interests of Israel, the Arab states as well as the West could prove to be sadly deluded.
At the moment, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid are feeling good about their strategy for dealing with President Joe Biden and his foreign-policy team, composed of Obama administration alumni and bent on another round of appeasement of Iran.
When they entered office last June, Bennett and Lapid were faced with what appeared to be a certainty that Biden’s desperation would ensure Iran’s eventual agreement to revive Obama’s 2015 nuclear pact, albeit on terms far weaker than the already anemic ones in the original deal. Their response was not to sound the alarm about the impending betrayal of the security concerns of Israel, the Arab states and the West. Knowing that they had zero chance of persuading the Americans of the folly of their intentions, Bennett and Lapid reasoned that there was no point in starting a fight with Biden that they couldn’t win. By keeping criticism of the administration largely muted, they avoided trouble with the White House.
At the worst, the Israeli leaders thought this relative silence would give them some credit with Biden, which they might cash in at a later date in the form of heightened security assistance. They might also have hoped that giving Biden a break on an issue of existential importance to Israel might make him less willing to challenge their government to make pointless concessions to the Palestinians that wouldn’t advance peace, but might endanger the stability of their precarious coalition. And if Iran really seemed close to a bomb, Bennett and Lapid knew they could always resort to the use of force. Not burning their bridges with Biden could give them a slightly better chance of getting American support or acquiescence for a strike with no certain chance of success.
While sensible in some respects, it was shortsighted in other ways.
By making no effort to inspire or assist Americans who are critical of administration policy and who might seek to place legal obstacles in its way, Bennett and Lapid undercut Israel’s best friends. That strategy also lessened the chances that Republicans, who are odds-on favorites to control Congress next year and hope to regain the White House in 2024, could be counted on to reverse Biden’s Iran appeasement policy as former President Donald Trump did when he took office. The lesson of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s impassioned opposition to Obama’s deal, which led directly to a GOP turn against Iran, was lost on his successors.
Yet Bennett and Lapid have reason to think their position is about to be proven right. Iran has been far more obdurate than anyone thought it would be in the nuclear talks in Vienna. Rather than eagerly embracing Biden’s weakness, Iran has exploited it ruthlessly by making demands that would hamstring American opposition to Iranian terrorism. Though a revived Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is already set to expire by the end of the decade, Tehran is determined to push Biden’s team of appeasers even further than they imagined they’d have to go.
Still, Iran’s request that the United States remove its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from the list of foreign terrorist groups wasn’t so much an overreach as an embarrassment for Biden. Though American negotiators seemed prepared to accept even that outrageous demand as the price for a new deal, news of the concession leaked, generating more criticism, including even some from the Israeli government, than expected.
This apparent stalemate has led to a new confidence in Jerusalem that an Iran deal that was once seen as inevitable is now a longshot. At this point, Israeli government sources are telling reporters that they think the chances of a deal are currently “slim to none.”
On top of that, the Israelis are also pointing to Biden’s acceptance of Bennett’s invitation to visit Israel as evidence that everything’s coming up roses for them as far as the United States is concerned. Bennett avoided a breach with his country’s most important ally. If the American appeasement initiative has truly been spurned by an Islamist regime not content to wait just a few years to get a nuclear weapon, then this development must cause a change in Washington’s Middle East policy. Surely, even Biden’s foreign-policy advisers must now see Tehran as an implacably hostile enemy that can’t be reasoned into rejoining the international community. That ought to mean a return to a joint U.S.-Israel strategy on the issue, so as to ensure that the Jewish state and its Arab allies are not left isolated, as many thought was a certainty.
Yet Bennett and Lapid would be well-advised to put their self-congratulatory boasts on hold. The biggest mistake they could make is to underestimate the willingness of Biden and his band of former Obama staffers to do anything to get a new Iran deal.
Currently, the Americans are blaming their problems on Trump, whose decision to leave the Iran deal was, they say, a futile gesture that only brought Tehran closer to achieving its nuclear quest that Obama’s agreement had at least put on hold. This is a false narrative. But it’s also likely to provide a rationale for at least one more administration effort to ply Iran with concessions in the hope of rescuing the talks.
After all, on the very day that the Israeli government was spinning that nuclear talks being dead in the water, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki was telling reporters that the administration was deeply worried that Iran could be close to a nuclear breakout and a weapon in just a matter of weeks. After having been largely mum about the talks recently, Psaki’s willingness to talk about this is a clear sign that the White House may be discouraged by the lack of progress in Vienna but has by no means given up.
As was the case in 2015 with Obama, Biden’s justification for his Iran strategy is to claim the only choices are appeasement or war. In other words, Biden’s people think their options are either to conclude a deal at any price or be faced with a nuclear Iran that they aren’t prepared to confront militarily.
So, even though the Israelis may think they’ve been saved by Iranian intransigence, the fear of a nuclear weapon that Obama already made more likely in 2015 may be enough to persuade Biden to give on the IRGC designated or any number of other inducements. That might tempt Iran to sign a new pact—that will, as the 2015 deal did, guarantee that Iran will eventually get a nuclear weapon—at the last minute, just when the Israelis thought they were out of the woods.
If that occurs, and it would be foolish to bet against it, the supposed benefits of Bennett and Lapid’s defeatist approach may prove to have been illusions. Having done a deal with Iran, Biden will be unlikely to back a move against his new treaty partner or to reward a tottering Israeli coalition. And the Israeli government will have sent a message to its American friends not to care much about the greatest threat to the Jewish state’s security. That’s a disaster for Israel no matter how you look at it.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.