columnU.S.-Israel Relations

Must Bennett wave the white flag on a new Iran deal?

Israel’s preemptive surrender to Washington will also hamstring American critics of a disaster for the West as well as the Middle East. Biden critics in both countries must stop pulling their punches.

Then-Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid at Ben-Gurion Airport, March 21, 2022. Credit: Marc Israel Sellem/POOL.
Then-Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid at Ben-Gurion Airport, March 21, 2022. Credit: Marc Israel Sellem/POOL.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

As far as Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is concerned, there’s no point in getting into a fight you can’t win. Given the Biden administration’s unshakable commitment to cutting a deal with Iran that will revive the 2015 nuclear agreement, he’s right that the chances of stopping this disaster from happening are slim and none. But while he may think he’s saving himself a lot of trouble and perhaps even gaining some credit with President Joe Biden to cash in during a future crisis, giving up even before the battle has even formally begun is not the wise strategy he thinks it is. More importantly, his decision will have implications not just for Israel, but for Americans who wish to mount a campaign against this policy or to reverse it that he and friends of the Jewish state will have good cause to regret.

Speaking on Monday, Bennett sounded a familiar theme to those who have followed his attempts to justify his journey from a position to the right of the Likud Party to one in which he is now in a coalition with left-wingers and even Arab Islamists. He says his predecessor—former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—not only failed to stop former President Barack Obama from getting his way on Iran but that after that, “ears in Washington were closed on all other matters.”

It’s been the conviction of both Bennett and his coalition partner, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, that the best way to improve U.S.-Israel relations was to keep all arguments private rather than played out on the public stage. In theory, that makes sense. But as Bennett should have already learned in his nine months in office, refraining from public criticisms of the United States has gotten him exactly nowhere.

The low-key approach was supposed to help the Israelis persuade their American counterparts that instead of doubling down on the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), they should begin to reassemble an international coalition to pressure Tehran into giving up its nuclear ambitions.

But just as Bennett is determined to reverse whatever Netanyahu did, Biden would rather do anything than to concede that his predecessor—former President Donald Trump—was right to begin the process of undoing the damage that Obama did. Contrary to the claims of Obama and Biden apologists, the old deal didn’t forestall Iran getting a nuclear weapon; it actually guaranteed that outcome. With the sunset clauses in the 2015 pact expiring at the end of the decade, this will grant the Islamist regime a legal path to a nuclear weapon. Reviving this mistake makes no sense if Washington’s goal is to actually prevent that from happening.

American foreign policy is currently in the hands of former Obama staffers who are hell-bent on picking up where they left off with respect to achieving a rapprochement with the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism as well as in undermining Israel.

With people like Robert Malley in charge of the talks with Iran, Bennett had no chance to alter the outcome. That’s why the prime minister’s claim that his decision will now give him the leverage to persuade the Americans not to make even more disastrous concessions to Iran this time around is equally mistaken.

Bennett wants the Americans to rescind Malley’s reported decision to give in to Iranian demands to remove their Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations. But as we’ve already seen, once a concession is made to Iran, it isn’t reversed, because it will be claimed that to do so will torpedo the entire deal. This is not just diplomacy for its own sake but a dynamic that makes surrender to Iranian demands inevitable.

Nor is there any reason to believe that if Israel behaves like an obedient client state,  the US administration will look kindly on future Israeli  efforts to take matters into its own hands. Once a new deal is in place, Bennett knows very well that Biden won’t tolerate further attacks on Iran by covert means or an Israeli military strike on nuclear targets.

The Israeli government is entitled to decide what is best for its country. But their preemptive surrender to Biden will also undermine American critics of this effort to empower and enrich Iran.

Like the old deal, the new one is also a terrible blow to the security of the United States and the West. That’s why a decisive bipartisan majority of Congress opposed the original nuclear deal in 2015.

At that time, the Obama administration bamboozled the Republican leadership in Congress into accepting a process by which the pact would be given congressional oversight. The Republicans failed to demand, as they should have, that Obama submit the deal as a treaty, for confirmation of which the Constitution requires a two-thirds majority in the Senate. Demonstrating the weakness in dealing with the Democrats that would lead a year later to the GOP electorate choosing Trump as their presidential nominee, both then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and then-Foreign Relations Committee chair Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) acquiesced to a different process.

GOP leaders should have thrown down the gauntlet to Obama and told him that they would defund the State Department and refuse to confirm any diplomatic appointments until he respected the Constitution and submitted the deal for a treaty confirmation. Instead, they agreed to pass the Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 that allowed the deal to go into effect so long as one-third, plus one member of either House of Congress, approved it. In so doing, they allowed Obama and then-Secretary of State John Kerry to mock the constitutional process for approving treaties.

That left it to Netanyahu to attempt to galvanize opposition to the Iran deal by his speech to a joint session of Congress. Obama used this unprecedented gesture to rally his party around the deal. But the speech also sent a clear message to the American people about the nature of the threat facing both Israel and the United States. Without Netanyahu’s speech, it’s impossible to imagine the Trump administration prioritizing the reversal of Obama’s Iran policies.

By shutting down the fight against the new deal in advance of its announcement, Bennett has sent a message to the Republicans and Democrats who have been speaking out against Biden’s appeasement that they should also give up. After all, though this is about America’s best interests as well as Israel’s, US opponents of the deal now appear to be trying to be more Israeli than the Israelis themselves. Though Bennett may hope that the congressional majorities that Republicans aim to win in the midterms this fall will act to restrain Biden’s folly, his giving up now will tell them it isn’t important enough for them to prioritize the issue.

If Bennett were able to show the same foresight that his former mentor turned bitter enemy showed then, he would not be giving Biden a pass for a decision that presents an existential threat to Israel.

Why is Bennett doing this? Though it seems to be a case of wishful thinking, perhaps he really has convinced himself that waving the white flag on the deal will pay off eventually in a favor from Biden. Perhaps he also believes that keeping on the good side of both the Americans and his leftist coalition allies is the only way to ensure that he will be able to continue to serve as prime minister for another 17 months until Lapid is scheduled to replace him.

Either way, his backing down in the face of “the inevitable” will have consequences that are more important than Bennett’s own future. If Israelis want Americans to help them avert this threat, either now or in the future, knuckling under to Biden isn’t an option.

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

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