OpinionU.S.-Israel Relations

US-Israeli relations in the shadow of Vienna: A return to Ben-Gurion’s World War II strategy?

It is time to revive the spirit of David Ben-Gurion’s famous dictum: “We will fight the war as if there were no White Paper, and we will fight the White Paper as if there were no war.”

U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the White House in Washington, D.C., Aug. 27, 2021. Photo by Avi Ohayon/GPO.
U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the White House in Washington, D.C., Aug. 27, 2021. Photo by Avi Ohayon/GPO.
Eran Lerman
Col. (ret.) Dr. Eran Lerman, former deputy director of the National Security Council, is the vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies.

The Israeli government has committed itself to a policy of close cooperation with the United States and rebuilding bipartisan support in Congress. It has resisted being drawn into the highly polarized realm of American politics. While there is solid logic behind this policy choice, it now faces an unprecedented test due to the Biden administration’s apparent eagerness to restore the nuclear deal with Iran.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid expressed shock at reports that Washington is contemplating lifting sanctions on Iran“s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Top diplomats from the United States, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Egypt met in the Negev on March 27. All but U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken agreed that a nuclear deal rests upon the fraudulent claim that the Iranian nuclear project is not military in nature.

In addition, the deal would give the murderous Iranian regime far-reaching concessions without blocking its way to the bomb. Unfortunately, Biden’s rhetoric about a “longer, stronger” agreement has amounted to very little.

It is time to emulate Ben-Gurion’s famous World War II dictum regarding the British: “We will fight the war as if there were no White Paper, and we will fight the White Paper as if there were no war.”

Israel must challenge the deal, decry its weaknesses and insist on maintaining its own freedom of action as if there were no bond with the United States. At the same time, Israel should broaden and deepen its cooperation with the American defense and intelligence communities. Its concerns are well understood there, and Iran is still perceived as an adversary. This cooperation should continue as if there is no disagreement over the administration’s conduct.

This poses an overt contradiction. Therefore, at all levels—from the White House to Congress, to the American public and international opinion—Israel should clarify that this deal is disastrous and will likely lead to Iran’s achieving military nuclear capability within a short time. The decisive question, therefore, is how to use this precious time. At this stage, Israeli authorities must work in unison, mobilizing every relevant source of influence and maintaining a close dialogue with the American Jewish leadership.

2022 vs. 2015: What has changed?

There are striking similarities between the United States’ current policy course and the Obama administration’s ardent wish to reach a nuclear deal with Iran—using the backchannel with former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2013 and ultimately accepting the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015. The Biden team now conveys a similar sense of urgency, seeking to revive the 2015 understandings.

This came to the point of considering exempting the Russians from certain sanctions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Washington’s willingness to take the IRGC, sponsors and perpetrators of major regional attacks, off of its Foreign Terrorist Organizations list was even more galling. The implicit message was that of surrender to Iranian dictates.

The timetable for the expiration of all limits on uranium enrichment stipulated by the JCPOA—the so-called “sunset clauses”—has been dramatically shortened. The nuclear talks in Vienna regarding a potential return to the deal can thus only, and at best, delay—and not for long—Iran gaining the unrestricted ability to enrich uranium to 90% purity—i.e., weapons-grade. Moreover, the steps taken by Iran since Trump withdrew from the 2015 deal in 2018 have already significantly reduced the breakout time.

Another difference has to do with U.S. expectations and attitudes. In 2015, there were voices within the Obama administration that seemed to hope the deal would herald a broader change in Iranian behavior. No such illusions are entertained today, even by proponents of a new deal.

Despite the push for a deal, the Biden administration still sees Tehran as an adversary, not a peace-seeking nation. Moreover, the president and his team know that Tehran’s objectives are opposed to those of the United States, let alone Israel. Thus, unlike in the runup to the 2015 agreement, a new deal is not being advanced in the name of Iranian integration in the region as a constructive player.

Senior U.S. officials present the deal as a stop-gap measure necessary to repair the situation caused by the previous administration’s withdrawal from the accord.

A significant difference between then and now, however, is Israel’s stance. The Bennet-Lapid government, reversing the approach of its predecessor, knowingly decided—as a central aspect of its strategy—to reduce as much as possible the level of friction with the Biden administration and to cultivate better relations with Democrats in Congress.

This new attitude bore some fruit, but was also met with growing criticism. Detractors argue that Israel is silently submitting to the revival of a bad agreement based upon a lie and is liable to enhance the Iranian capability to harm Israel and destabilize the region.

Israel’s ability to sustain close cooperation with the administration thus faces a crossroads.

Israel’s dilemma

On the one hand, Israel, too, has a short-term interest in achieving an understanding between the United States and world powers, and Iran. Israel would approve as long as an agreement delayed the Iranian breakout for a significant period. In any case, Israel’s government is not eager to pick a fight with the administration, as it realizes it cannot change the American position.

There are substantive reasons for not carrying out a military strike against Iran or pushing the United States to take such action:

Politically, in a highly consequential congressional election year, a confrontation with the current administration is bound to be used by the Republicans to denounce the Biden administration—and would drag Israel once again into the American political vortex.

It would also rule out the diplomatic option and could trigger U.S. military involvement. Such involvement could undermine the special relationship, rooted in an understanding that Israel does not need American troops to fight on its behalf. This could also feed anti-Israel voices on the far left.

After the tragedy in Afghanistan and amid the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, the likelihood of Biden ordering a strike against Iran’s facilities is next to nil.

On the other hand, Israel must not consent to a highly problematic deal. There are no less than seven severe faults in the current outline emerging in Vienna:

1. There is hardly any reference to possible military dimensions of the Iranian project, which enables the regime to lie about its real nature.

2. There is an increasingly short timetable until the expiration of limits on enrichment (sunset clauses). This means that Iran would be allowed to pile up enough weapon-grade fissile material for a bomb within a few years at the utmost, without violating the deal.

3. The release of enormous amounts of money from frozen accounts, such as in South Korea, would allow for the resumption of oil exports. These funds are bound to stabilize the regime and arm its regional proxies.

4. Other than reports about an (empty) promise to “restrain” the IRGC from attacking Americans, nothing in the deal constrains Iran’s subversive, revolutionary activities in the region and beyond.

5. The IRGC’s removal from the U.S. list of terrorist organizations would be highly problematic for regional players, including Israel, all of which have suffered from IRGC attacks over the years.

6. A concession to Russia in diluting the sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine is both morally problematic and tactically likely to strengthen Iran’s position.

7. Iran continues to defy the relevant United Nations Security Council resolution on the development of ballistic missiles. Moreover, its efforts in this field pose a threat to the entire region and beyond.

Thus, the challenge for Israel is to oppose the developing nuclear deal without alienating the Biden administration or making support for Israel a partisan issue. This will require careful planning, full coordination among all relevant government agencies, cooperation with regional partners and the mobilization of organizations and the leadership of American Jewish organizations.

Israel should tread carefully with the higher echelons of the U.S. government—but members of the U.S. negotiating team, including Robert Malley, can be legitimately criticized for bending over backward to satisfy Iran’s demands. There can be a clear distinction between severe criticism of U.S. policy and ad-hominem attacks on Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken or National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.

In any case, Israel must make it very clear that it retains its freedom of action.

Moreover, it is essential at this junction to tighten working relations with the U.S. defense establishment and intelligence community, as was implied by the readout of the conversation between Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz and his U.S. counterpart, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.

In the ranks of the U.S. State Department, Department of Defense and other government agencies, many still view Iran as fundamentally hostile. Hence the need to apply Ben-Gurion’s dictum. Nevertheless, military and intelligence cooperation have been significantly upgraded since Israel was included in CENTCOM, and remain vital to Israeli interests.

The importance of time

Israel’s “dual” policy of openly disputing U.S. policy while closely cooperating with Washington can be rationalized by referring to the timetable for stopping Iran. Israel and the United States (especially the previous administration) assumed that maximum pressure would deliver the necessary outcome. However, without taking proper measures to prepare for the use of force against the Iranian project, such pressure will not be enough.

Therefore, while the deal being conceived in Vienna is extremely faulty, it also buys some time for the United States, Israel and others in the region to prepare for other measures.

If the Biden administration proposes that the deal serve as a long-term solution to Iran’s nuclear program, Israel will have no choice but to defy this narrative and expose it as an illusion.

However, if indeed the diplomatic response is merely viewed by the United States as a stop-gap measure, then it is meant only to temporarily stall Iran’s accelerated enrichment push. In that case, Israel should ask the following questions: What will the United States be willing to do to make the best use of this short timeframe to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions and regional aggression? What should be Israel’s role in this context?

Under these circumstances, Israel needs to develop its military option as soon as possible. This threat will serve as an asset for the U.S. in its negotiations with Iran.

IDF Col. (res) Dr. Eran Lerman is vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies. Lerman was deputy director for foreign policy and international affairs at the National Security Council in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office. He held senior posts in IDF Military Intelligence for more than 20 years and teaches in the Middle East Studies program at Shalem College in Jerusalem.

This article was first published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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