Why Israel has dropped its 'nuclear option' in tackling Iran

Focusing on the 'Day After', Bennett is preparing to face down Tehran with Biden on his wing

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks during his meeting with US President Joe Biden in Washington last August. AP Photo
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The deafening beat of war drums on the Russia-Ukraine frontier has been drowning out the more hushed cadence of negotiations in Vienna, where final touches were put reportedly to a refurbished nuclear deal with Iran, latest Russian impediments notwithstanding. Those talks, and the sustainability of any agreement reached, may depend on the next steps of two sovereign elephants not actually seated at the table: the US and Israel. (The Americans are being represented by the Europeans in Vienna, while Israel is not a party to the discussions.) Leadership changes in both countries may augur better prospects for a more effective posture vis-a-vis Iran – and for the future of US-Israel relations – than when the original JCPOA was signed seven years ago.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is no less agitated by the parameters of the materialising bargain than was his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, with its 2015 version. On February 20, speaking in Jerusalem to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations, Mr Bennett confessed that Israel is "deeply troubled by what we see", warning that "the emerging deal is likely to create a more violent and less stable Middle East". He turned an incriminating spotlight on Iranian demands to shut down ongoing IAEA investigations of Iran's nuclear programme and to remove its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the list of foreign terrorist organisations. The tonality of Mr Bennett's dialogue with the Biden administration, however, could not be more strikingly different from that of Mr Netanyahu with then US president Barack Obama.

Naftali Bennett is avoiding any semblance of partisanship in his interactions with the US, and has firmly eschewed confrontation with Joe Biden

Crashing willfully into America's partisan debate, Mr Netanyahu accepted an invitation from then House of Representatives speaker John Boehner, a Republican, to present Israel's case before a Joint Session of Congress in March 2015; the White House apparently learned of this from the media. Not only did Mr Netanyahu's address fail dismally in its mission to block the JCPOA, but it drove a deep and debilitating wedge between Israel and many of its Democratic Party supporters, a number of whom literally boycotted his Capitol Hill appearance. Justifications by a Netanyahu aide that the speech was "one of the critical moments that most contributed" to the Abraham Accords process ring hollow. They belie the reality that Israel and a number of Arab states had already found common cause in campaigning for a reluctant US administration to put pressure on Iran. They also overlook the fact that it has been precisely Israel's friendship – not sabre-rattling – with the US that, historically, has sent a stream of world leaders knocking on its door.

This time around, Mr Bennett is consciously avoiding any semblance of partisanship in his interactions with the US; he hosted multiple congressional delegations of Democrats and Republicans in Jerusalem last month. More specifically, he has firmly eschewed confrontation with US President Joe Biden, with whom he appears to have developed a warm and productive rapport. (Mr Biden, according to the readout of his February 6 call with Mr Bennett, "looks forward to" visiting Israel later this year.) Their national security advisers, who maintain regular contact, attest to full and continued transparency in their discussions, even when disagreements may persist. This dynamic stands in glaring contrast to Mr Obama's launch of an Iran backchannel – which Israel discovered independently – and parallel US accusations of information leaks emanating from Israel, which eroded trust between the erstwhile partners.

Mr Bennett's current strategy reflects a sober assessment of Israel's predicament and a deliberate decision to play – and he hopes, win – the long game, instead of spending his credibility and resources on efforts that are doomed to fail. His primary focus is the "Day After". This reorientation will leave both Israel and America better off.

Israel, a senior official of its government acknowledged last summer, has insufficient leverage to exert any significant influence over the contours of the tentative accord. Mr Biden has been clamouring for a return to the nuclear contract with Iran, and Israel – no matter how closely allied it remains with the US – was never about to foil his ambitions. Plotting to defy his wishes would surely have put Mr Bennett back in the proverbial doghouse where Mr Obama put Mr Netanyahu during JCPOA 1.0. Neither Israel nor its Prime Minister, whose political survival is at perpetual risk, can afford to go back down that road.

Recognising the limits of his power, Mr Bennett is thus charting a prudent course to avoid antagonising Mr Biden – provoking him is likely to inflict damage on Israel's privileged standing in the Oval Office – and, thereby, preserve Israel's ability to co-operate closely with the US moving forward. The last thing Mr Bennett will want is to plunge head-first into the kind of lonely vacuum that succeeded previous US president Donald Trump's 2018 withdrawal from the JCPOA without a safety net, which Iran then exploited to further enrich uranium and move that much closer to a nuclear weapons capability.

The benefits of this approach for both Israel and the US are self-evident. Mr Bennett's assertion that Israel, not being a party to the agreement, "is not bound by what will be written in [them]" has garnered a personal statement of Mr Biden's "unwavering support for Israel's security and freedom of action". This provides Israel with a wider American berth than ever before to push back against the Iranian threat to its security, even after the Vienna consultations might conclude in a deal. It also speaks to the inherent willingness of the US to participate in these manoeuvres as they pertain to the active defence of Israel; Mr Biden's success in marshalling Nato muscle to oppose Russia in Ukraine might even speak to greater willingness by Europe to repel a belligerent Iran. These circumstances deliver a decisive advantage for the administration as well. Keeping Israel close in this way will reduce the potential of a formidable spoiler to go rogue and compromise US objectives in containing Iran.

On the enforcement side, stronger co-ordination between the US and Israel is likely to wield a forbidding deterrent effect over Iran – faced suddenly with the capacity for a robust response to any new violations of its signed obligations – which will almost certainly encourage greater compliance from Tehran. It could also serve as a platform to address festering concerns that lie beyond the purview of the present negotiation, chiefly Iran's involvement in global terrorism and its development of ballistic missiles. These products would constitute additional gains for both the US and Israel resulting from Mr Bennett's conciliatory path. They do not amount to Israel's "surrender", a charge with which Mr Netanyahu has assailed his successor.

Polling shows that a solid majority of Israelis view a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential danger to their country. That state of affairs makes it essential for Israel to remain tightly within America's graces. (It is no coincidence that Mr Bennett sought the blessing of the White House before embarking on his shuttle diplomacy to resolve the Ukraine crisis.) Whether there is an eventual agreement to uphold or, no less worrisome, whether no understandings are achieved – owing to Russia's or any other party's objections – and Iran maintains free reign to accelerate its nuclear programme, Israel will need to prepare meticulously for meeting the critical challenges that loom in the months and years ahead. It will be better positioned for this task with the US as a committed wingman.

Published: March 15, 2022, 8:00 AM