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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 1 March 2021

Israeli cabinet meets to discuss forming bipartisan Iran policy

Israel, which welcomed the US decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, wants to present a united front

US President Joe Biden (R) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, pictured in 2016, spoke before this week's meeting to discuss the Iran nuclear deal. AFP
US President Joe Biden (R) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, pictured in 2016, spoke before this week's meeting to discuss the Iran nuclear deal. AFP

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened cabinet rivals on Monday for their first discussion of Israeli strategy against the Iranian nuclear programme since US President Joe Biden took office pledging to pursue diplomacy with Tehran.

Mr Netanyahu's meeting with Defence Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi followed his first phone call with the US leader last week, and came a month before Israel holds another election triggered by coalition infighting.

Israeli officials said the conservative Mr Netanyahu, bracing for discord with Mr Biden's Democratic administration on Iran, wanted to present a united front with the centrist Gantz and Ashkenazi.

"This is a matter that is supremely important, certainly more than politicking," an Israeli official said. "We have to ensure everyone is on board and not tempted to speak out of turn in hope of getting more votes."

Under Iran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, it undertook to limit its disputed uranium enrichment programme in exchange for a lifting of international sanctions.

When he tussled with then-US President Barack Obama over the deal, Mr Netanyahu faced dissent from some of his own national security advisers. Mr Obama's successor, Donald Trump, quit the deal in 2018, asserting that it was one-sided in Iran's favour, and reimposed sanctions on Tehran – moves welcomed by Mr Netanyahu.

Mr Biden, who was Mr Obama's vice president, wants to rejoin the accord, a prospect Mr Netanyahu and the current Israeli military chief have closed ranks against, as long as Iran ends violations since 2018 and returns to full compliance.

Also on the agenda of Monday's meeting was the possible appointment of a special Israeli envoy on the Iranian issue.

Candidates include Mossad spymaster Joseph (Yossi) Cohen and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, both of whom took part in the meeting, officials said. As both answer directly to Mr Netanyahu, Mr Gantz had voiced worry that the Defence Ministry might be excluded from future diplomacy, one official said.

Mr Gantz and Mr Ashkenazi were kept in the dark about secret Israeli outreach that led to last year's establishment of relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Mr Netanyahu said he feared media leaks. Aides to Mr Gantz and Mr Ashkenazi accused him of trying to undermine the ministers' credibility.

Polls predict a trouncing for Mr Gantz and Mr Ashkenazi's Blue and White party in the March 23 election, and Mr Netanyahu's Likud maintaining enough of a lead to try to form the next coalition.

If the veteran leader fails at that, however, he and his rivals may have to keep working together in a caretaker cabinet.

Published: February 22, 2021 05:55 PM

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