Will elections affect Israel’s Iran strategy?
Jul 1, 2022 | Lahav Harkov
The dissolution of the Knesset comes at a key time in Israel’s battle to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons – a time at which continuity, or a lack thereof, could impact the outcome.
Outgoing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, now set to become interim Prime Minister, have pointed to recent events on the Iran nuclear front as successes.
In February, when it seemed as though an Iran deal was around the corner, Bennett, Defence Minister Benny Gantz and Lapid started to become more vocal in speaking out against the negotiations to return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), setting their sights on Iran’s demand that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) be removed from the US State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) list.
At the time, a senior Israeli official said they weren’t bringing up the issue as a “poison pill” for the Iran Deal, but it became one anyway. The war in Ukraine and distrust of Russia derailed Iran talks, and with Iran insisting that the IRGC be delisted in addition to a restoration of the JCPOA, they never got back on track. In late April, US President Joe Biden told Bennett that the US would keep the IRGC on the FTO list. About a month later word had leaked to the press.
With the Iran deal seemingly less likely than ever, Iran started suffering the consequences of a lack of diplomatic process.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors voted to censure the Islamic Republic in early June for refusing to provide answers about uranium traces found at undeclared sites. This was the forum’s first rebuke of Iran in two years, though there had been repeated IAEA reports on its nuclear subterfuge.
Plus, the US began enforcing sanctions on Iran that it had mostly ignored for the past year because they were not compatible with the JCPOA.
How did Bennett’s strategy differ from Bibi’s?
All of this happened while Bennett decided to take a different track from his predecessor, Binyamin Netanyahu. In the early months of 2021, Netanyahu, his ministers and staff refused to discuss anything to do with Iran talks with their counterparts in Washington.
Bennett, however, decided to engage with the Biden Administration even though he opposed a return to the Iran Deal, and Washington was transparent with Jerusalem on related matters – as far as we know – to Jerusalem’s satisfaction.
Now, Bennett and co. sought to convince their partners in the West to pursue two simultaneous paths.
In the short term, Jerusalem wants the IAEA condemnation to be the start of a process that will bring the Iranian nuclear file to the UN Security Council, ideally to “snap back” sanctions, a step to try to use diplomacy to stop Iran from enriching uranium, which would go together with the growing regional partnership against the Iranian threat in case military action is needed.
When it comes to the “regional defence architecture”, as the Government calls it, the Negev Summit between Israel and four Arab countries in March was only the beginning; notably, Gantz’s comments on the matter in the Knesset were on the front page of the Saudi paper Arab News on June 21.
In the longer term, Bennett supports an Iran deal, but one that is lacking the JCPOA’s weaknesses. In other words, it would be a deal that is built to last forever, without the “sunset clauses” gradually lifting restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. In theory, Iran would be enticed to join the deal by the lifting of economic sanctions and deterred from leaving it by the threat of them snapping back.
It’s hard to say how far Bennett, Lapid and Gantz have gotten in convincing others of this path. Lapid said that the UK agrees with Israel, but the UK embassy said returning to the JCPOA is still a priority.
Will Lapid’s strategy change things once more?
If Lapid becomes prime minister, as he and Bennett plan, Bennett will have the non-job of “alternate prime minister”, which is somewhat like a minister without portfolio, except that they agreed that he would still be in charge of Iran policy. This would ensure continuity.
At the same time, it seems unlikely that someone who is not prime minister can really be in charge of such a major part of national security. If Lapid plays a major role on the Iran portfolio, some level of continuity could be expected, because the current policy was formulated in a government in which he and Bennett held the reins together.
However, Lapid generally has a less confrontational approach to the US and has said yes – or at least maybe – to things that Bennett had to roll back, such as a Palestinian consulate in Jerusalem. As prime minister of an interim government, he won’t be as beholden to the other elements of his coalition as Bennett was.
If Netanyahu somehow pulls together an alternative coalition in time to avert new elections, or returns to the premiership after this election, the diplomatic approach to the Iran nuclear issue may be entirely different. Though there are no longer any Iran talks to speak of for him to rail against, Netanyahu has generally been much more aggressive in his tone on the topic and more willing to anger leaders of countries involved in the talks. The close talks between Washington and Jerusalem on the matter could come to an end or be less frequent.
At the same time, Netanyahu would be likely to keep up the partnerships with moderate Arab states threatened by Iran, which built upon his government’s secret cooperation with these states and the Abraham Accords.
The fact that there is such political turmoil at such a pivotal time for Iran-related diplomacy will likely be a challenge for Israel. Bennett accused Netanyahu of not giving the matter enough attention during the four election campaigns held between early 2019 and March 2021. Let’s hope that Lapid and Bennett are able to give this matter of importance to Israel’s national security the time it needs, even while campaigning.