It’s a classic case of good news and bad news. The good news refers to reports that the United States appears to be backing off on its plans to reopen the Jerusalem consulate to the Palestinians that was shuttered when former President Donald Trump moved the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to the Israeli capital in 2018. The bad news is that if that is true, it may be more a function of the Americans realizing that it’s not in their interests to be fighting the Israeli government on two fronts rather than just one. Meaning, if President Joe Biden is, at least for now, not going to make good on his promise to the Palestinian Authority to compromise Israeli sovereignty over its capital, it’s because he is preparing for a major fracas with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett over the Iran nuclear threat.
The problem with monitoring the U.S.-Israel relationship these days is that while some of the action is out in the open, the most important things happening are most likely going on behind the scenes. That’s par for the course in international diplomacy. The problem for Israel, however, is that while Jerusalem is sending both public and private messages to its American ally about the dangers of being led down the garden path by the Iranians into another disaster like the 2015 nuclear deal, it may be that they are being kept out of the loop when it comes to contacts between Washington and Tehran.
The loudest Israeli message to the Biden administration was sounded by Defense Minister Benny Gantz during his appearance last week at the Israeli-American National Council Summit in Hollywood, Fla. Gantz said that he had notified his counterparts in the U.S. government that he had ordered the Israel Defense Forces to prepare for a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
This is far from the first indication that Israel is stepping up preparations for acting on its own to prevent Iran from attaining the status of a nuclear power. But for Gantz to come out and openly speak of IDF planning in such an open manner was a strong message.
Clearly, the Iranians took it as a threat to their facilities and their quest for a nuclear weapon. And they answered it within days with threats of their own, including having one of the regime’s press organs—the English-language Tehran Times—publish a map showing dozens of potential targets for Iranian strikes on the Jewish state under the caption of “Just One Wrong Move!”
The real intended audience for Gantz’s saber-rattling, however, wasn’t the theocrats running Iran. It was mainly intended as a warning to Israel’s American allies that they should understand that for Israel, Iran moving closer to the status of a nuclear threshold state is an existential threat as opposed to a mere security concern.
As the most recent New York Times compendium of leaks from the highly placed sources in the American government shows, the era of good feelings between the Biden administration and Israel’s coalition government may be on thin ice. The shaky alliance of right-, center and left-wing parties has done everything possible to make nice with Biden and his foreign-policy team in the hopes that they could influence U.S. attitudes towards Iran.
The spectacular failures of the American approach to Tehran are obvious. Iran has refused to re-enter the weak nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration in 2015—officially called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—and has instead begun to move towards a nuclear bomb, all the while also rejecting Washington’s diplomatic overtures at multiple bursts of talks in Vienna since April.
Biden and the Democrats place all of the blame for this dismal state of affairs on Trump for withdrawing from the nuclear deal and trying to force Iran to negotiate an agreement that would actually forestall an Iranian nuke, which the JCPOA couldn’t accomplish since the sunset clauses in it would have eventually given the rogue regime a legal path to a weapon. This claim ignores the fact that most of the rapid progress that the Iranians have made with respect to uranium enrichment took place after Biden took office. At that point, Tehran no longer had to worry about antagonizing Trump, who was eager to further tighten sanctions on them and drag America’s reluctant European allies along with him.
The administration has been making some noises of its own about the possibility that they will have to come up with some sort of “Plan B” after diplomacy inevitably fails. But the Israelis already know that the American response to Iran’s refusal to negotiate seriously was to back down and offer them a weaker temporary deal in exchange for some sanctions relief. While Biden’s team claims this is now off the table after the Iranians blew off the talks, which were slated to resume with a sputter on Nov. 29, the Israelis are right to be skeptical of these assurances.
So it was significant that the Times article alluded to the very real possibility that both the Israelis and the American public may be in the dark about the administration’s actions.
If, as the Times reports, the Israelis fear that the United States is currently conducting secret back-channel diplomatic discussions with Iran that will lead to renewed public negotiations, whose outcome will be a pre-ordained surrender of Western interests, then they have good reason to think so.
That’s what happened nine years ago when President Barack Obama was conducting his successful re-election campaign in 2012. During his foreign-policy debate with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, Obama promised that any nuclear agreement with Iran would mean the end of Tehran’s nuclear program. But he was already planning on ignoring that pledge. Senior White House Advisor Valerie Jarrett was conducting backchannel talks with the Iranians and preparing the way for a deal that would contradict Obama’s avowals. By the time new talks had convened in 2013, the Western slide to surrender to Iranian demands was a fait accompli.
While Jarrett is no longer on the federal payroll, most of the same cast of characters that were running foreign policy for Obama are doing the same for Biden. There’s every reason to believe that when their obsession for diplomacy for its own sake is stymied, their reaction will be to again double down on appeasement rather than honestly confront their mistakes and seek a different course.
The Israelis know their window for both attempts to influence Biden and/or to take action on their own may be closing. Once the United States and Iran are back in Vienna and moving towards concluding another nuclear pact that won’t actually stop Iran’s march to a nuclear weapon, it may be too late for the Israelis to act.
Just as troubling is the likelihood that the Americans aren’t taking Gantz’s threats seriously. They know how difficult a military campaign to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities would be even with the much greater forces that the United States can bring to bear on the problem than Israel. And, as the Israelis are finding out, American opposition to Israeli action can be made clear in ways other than diplomatic exchanges. As the Times later reported, the Americans are stalling on delivering new refueling tanker planes that will be needed if Israel is to attack Iran. That won’t impact events in the short term. But it is, at the very least, a symbolic gesture intended to warn the Jewish state to defer to Washington, even if it means sacrificing their defense interests.
At this stage, no one on either side of the alliance knows what the next move on Iran will be. But, if Israel’s all-too-realistic fears about an American secret betrayal prove justified, future protests about Biden’s policies may be a waste of time.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.