When Benjamin Netanyahu was still prime minister, Israel’s Iran policy was clear: The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is bad and we want nothing to do with it.
When the Biden administration announced its intention to return to the 2015 Iran deal that Donald Trump had abandoned and persuade Iran to roll back its nuclear advances, Netanyahu refused to talk to the White House about it. As far as he was concerned, anyone who wanted to uphold the JCPOA was not looking out for Israel’s best interests. The most Netanyahu was willing to do was to send Yossi Cohen, then head of the Mossad but only weeks away from retirement, to Washington in May to try to talk President Biden out of it. But Cohen did not sway the president, who had already sent his special envoy Robert Malley to Vienna for talks with Iranian negotiators.
But by June Israel had a new prime minister with a new approach. Naftali Bennett decided to combine working closely with the Americans with increased military preparedness in case Israel needs to act on its own to stop Iran from getting the bomb. Bennett was once Netanyahu’s right flank in multiple coalitions, taking a more hawkish position on handling Hamas in Gaza, among other issues. He fully stood with Netanyahu’s Iran policy during his seven years as a cabinet member, including a short stint as minister of defense. But since replacing Netanyahu, Bennett has shifted.
A large part of that shift can be explained by horse-trading: Bennett abandoned his position on Netanyahu’s right to form an ideologically diverse coalition that includes the far left and an Islamist party, in order to—according to Bennett—remedy the dire instability caused by four snap elections in a span of two years. (Netanyahu and his supporters called it mere opportunism, jumping at the chance to be prime minister.) Now, when it comes to Iran—as with every other issue—Bennett has to balance his own right-wing starting position with that of his center-left cabinet members, including Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, due to become prime minister in 2023, per a rotation agreement between the two men. Lapid’s party, Yesh Atid, has three times as many seats in the Knesset as Bennett’s party, Yamina, giving him outsize influence in the government’s decision-making.
Lapid has always believed that Iran cannot be allowed to obtain a nuclear weapon, and that the JCPOA was not as robust a deal as Israel would have wanted. But he believed that Netanyahu went about opposing it the wrong way, and said so as early as 2015, when Netanyahu spoke before both houses of Congress over the staunch objections of then-President Barack Obama.
Israel’s alliance with the United States is one of its greatest assets, and when Israel and the United States disagree in public, it’s usually Israel that comes out looking weaker. Lapid believes that Israel needs to work closely with any U.S. administration on stopping the Iranian threat, even if the two sides don’t agree on everything. To Lapid, Israel simply can’t afford to antagonize the Americans.
Bennett and his aides agree that a new Iran policy is necessary, owing to what they see as the failure of Netanyahu’s approach. In public, Bennett has said that his government “inherited a situation in which Iran is at the most advanced point ever in its race to a nuclear bomb … The gap between [Netanyahu’s] rhetoric and speeches and deeds is very big.” Behind closed doors, Bennett’s team explains that one of Netanyahu’s biggest mistakes was putting all his chips on Donald Trump. His bet that the United States would leave the Iran deal forever and slap sanctions on the regime until it collapsed or gave up its nuclear program ended instead in Trump’s electoral defeat and a greater level of Iranian uranium enrichment than ever before.
Like its predecessor, the new Israeli government is not enamored of the Biden team’s diplomatic efforts to get Iran “back in the box” of the JCPOA, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken has described it. Its main criticism of the Iran deal is, moreover, not so different from what Israeli officials have been saying for the past six years: It doesn’t address any issue other than uranium enrichment, even as Iran develops ballistic missiles, spreads terror, backs proxy armies in foreign countries, and launches drone attacks on U.S. allies. Even the deal’s limits on uranium enrichment don’t last long enough, and now that Iran has violated it, the deal has no recourse to hold the regime back.
But because even Netanyahu’s public campaign against the Iran deal didn’t stop Obama from entering it, Bennett and Lapid are working on the assumption that they won’t be able to talk Biden out of his efforts to save it. Instead, they’re trying a different approach—the one Lapid wanted in the first place—to work closely with the Americans on broader Iran policy even as the two sides disagree on the value of the nuclear deal. Israel is not and cannot be party to any negotiations with Iran; its only diplomatic influence is through its allies, and the new government will try to use that influence to its advantage.
Until last week, the plan seemed to be working. Iran walked away from indirect talks on returning to the JCPOA in June and, for as long as Bennett and Lapid had been in power, had yet to propose a timeframe for resuming those negotiations. Most crucially, that meant the United States could not yet rejoin the deal or lift sanctions. But the downside, as Lapid warned on a visit to Washington in mid-October, was that Iran was “dragging its feet” in order to advance its nuclear program while the world waited for it to return to Vienna. Then, on Nov. 3, Iran announced that it will resume negotiations at the end of the month. We may find out in a matter of weeks just how well the Bennett-Lapid strategy has really been working.
In his October press conference with Lapid, Blinken made sure to clarify that the United States prefers diplomacy, but he did not set a deadline for Iran to return to negotiations, which Lapid had hoped to discern while in Washington. Nor did Blinken say what the administration would do if Iran fails to return to negotiations later in November, as its chief negotiator recently said it would. Blinken did say—as Israelis have been warning for months—“We are getting close to a point at which returning to compliance with the JCPOA will not in and of itself recapture the benefits of the JCPOA, and that’s because Iran has been using this time to advance its nuclear program in a variety of ways.” Blinken added that the United States “will look at every option to deal with the challenge posed by Iran,” a shift from previous language, and an indication that the administration won’t rule out military action. Malley also said the United States will consider “all options to address Iran’s nuclear program if it’s not prepared to come back into the constraints” of the JCPOA.
Lapid came back from Washington hopeful, and Bennett’s team also sees cooperation with the Biden administration as fruitful. They view these shifts in language as small but significant victories, public testaments to increasing convergence between U.S. and Israeli policy on the Iranian threat. The public perception that Jerusalem and Washington are starting to see more eye-to-eye on Tehran is no small thing, they argue.
But in reality, “huge question marks still remain,” one senior diplomatic source admitted. Time is running out for the JCPOA to demonstrate even marginal benefits, rather than simply pave the way for the United States to lift sanctions on Iran in exchange for irrelevant, short-term limitations on uranium enrichment that the regime has already violated. And Jerusalem still hasn’t received a clear answer from Washington on its plan B.
“The idea is to talk and work together to build common positions as much as we can, even if we don’t agree,” the source told me. “The Americans know we reserve the right to protect ourselves in any way we see fit, but if we can come up with a joint plan of action that is more effective, we prefer that.”
Even if Blinken and Malley have publicly declared that time is running out for Iran, without setting a concrete deadline for talks or informing Israel of possible backup plans, it is clear at this stage that the administration remains committed first and foremost to saving the nuclear deal. That means time is running out less for Iran than for Israel, which needs to prioritize the formulation of its own plan B.
The challenge, Bennett argues, is that under Netanyahu, the IDF and Israel’s other security branches didn’t actually have a contingency plan in case Trump’s sanctions campaign didn’t work. It seems hard to believe that Netanyahu wouldn’t have a backup strategy, but four elections in two years, and no state budget for three years, disrupted and hindered much of the government’s work, including its Iran policy. The IDF’s top brass has since backed Bennett’s new course in off-record briefings to journalists, and IDF Chief of General Staff Aviv Kochavi has ordered a flurry of activity to make up for lost time.
Contrary to what former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and some Israeli commentators have said, there is no evidence that Bennett, Lapid, or Kochavi are resigned to living with the specter of a nuclear Iran. They have each maintained that Israel reserves the right to act unilaterally—including in the event that the United States rejoins the JCPOA, one senior official said. “Iran’s nuclear program has hit a watershed moment,” Bennett told the U.N. General Assembly in September. “And so has our tolerance. Words do not stop centrifuges from spinning.” “We will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon,” he added.
The “Begin doctrine”—that Israel will take preemptive action to stop its enemies from attaining nuclear weapons, which it did when it bombed nuclear reactors in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007—still appears to stand, even if its implementation has become less dramatic. Israel doesn’t always claim responsibility for such actions, but some are more obviously the work of Israeli forces and intelligence (such as targeted killings of Iranian nuclear scientists) than others (like mysterious power outages at Iranian nuclear sites). But these kinds of covert and quasi-covert attacks are a direct continuation of a policy that is at least 40 years old.
As Bennett tells it, the difference now is that Israel’s approach consists of “not just apocalyptic warnings, but initiative. We mean what we say.” In the Knesset two weeks before his U.N. speech, Bennett referred to the “gap between [Netanyahu’s] rhetoric and speeches and action.”
Indeed, the new state budget, approved by the Knesset last week, adds billions of shekels to prepare for the nightmare scenario of a nuclear-threshold Iran. Defense Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Benny Gantz told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee recently that the budgetary boost will “invest in our offensive and defensive capabilities, improve our technological superiority, and accelerate our efforts in order to ensure that—despite the fact that Iran is foremost a global and regional challenge—Israel will always have the ability to defend its citizens with its own forces.”
Gantz has long advocated for a Lapid-like policy of working closely with the Americans without making Israeli security interests too dependent on them. When Netanyahu pushed a mutual defense pact with the United States in 2019, Gantz opposed the proposal on grounds that it would subordinate Israel’s military needs to American interests and “limit Israel’s ability to protect the country from the threats it faces.”
Recent reports have shed more light on what Israel plans to do with increased appropriations for the Iran file, including a 5 billion shekel ($1.5 billion) shopping list that includes “bunker buster” munitions designed to reach underground targets, and the kind of aircraft needed to carry out these “massive ordnance penetrators,” which Israel does not currently have. According to Israel’s Channel 12, Jerusalem is eyeing the GBU-72 Advanced 5K Penetrator that the U.S. Air Force successfully tested in October, and which may be capable of damaging Iran’s Fordow nuclear facility, buried deep in a mountain. For its part, the Israeli Air Force has set aside funding and time next year to begin training for strikes on Iranian nuclear sites. Completing such plans of attack is reportedly the IAF’s top priority, but they are still being drafted, and some could take over a year to become viable.
Bennett’s Iran policy is, in short, to ensure Israel is prepared for a military strike, while working as closely as possible with Washington to make sure it will never be necessary. Call it the Mel Brooks doctrine: Hope for the best, expect the worst.
Lahav Harkov is the diplomatic correspondent for The Jerusalem Post. She tweets at @LahavHarkov.