Jan 6, 2021 - World

Netanyahu aides fret that "Obama people" will shape Biden's Iran policy

Some members of Netanyahu's inner circle aren't happy to see Susan Rice and John Kerry back in the White House.

Members of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's inner circle are concerned that President-elect Joe Biden is filling his administration with veterans of the Obama administration, some of whom they've had difficult relations in the past, particularly over Iran.

Why it matters: The Biden and Netanyahu administrations are on course for an early clash over the Iran nuclear deal. Several of Netanyahu’s aides at the Israeli National Security Council have been grumbling about the fact that Biden will be surrounded by "Obama people" — including the deal's architects and some of its fiercest advocates.

What they're saying: Israel's outgoing ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, has told several interlocutors in Washington that he's worried about the influence John Kerry and Susan Rice will have on Biden's foreign policy, according to an Israeli official and a U.S. official.

  • Both Kerry and Rice will be joining the Biden administration, but their new posts have little to do with Iran or Israel. Kerry will be Biden's climate czar while Rice will head the Domestic Policy Council.
  • As secretary of state, Kerry had a very tense relationship with Netanyahu, mainly over the Iran nuclear deal and the Palestinian issue.
  • As national security adviser, Rice viewed Dermer as essentially a Republican political operative and once joked that she hadn't met with him because he was "too busy traveling to Sheldon Adelson’s events in Las Vegas."

The big picture: Relations between Barack Obama, Netanyahu and their respective staffs were strained, particularly in Obama's second term. Biden's incoming team looks a lot like Obama's from that time.

  • But while Netanyahu's aides are particularly concerned about the return of Rice and Kerry, they've had fewer complaints about incoming national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Biden's pick to run the State Department, Tony Blinken.
  • One Netanyahu adviser told me he's less concerned about Kerry and Rice than Biden's expected choice of Wendy Sherman for deputy secretary of state. Sherman was the lead U.S. negotiator on the Iran deal.

Driving the news: Sullivan reiterated Sunday on CNN that Biden intends to return to the deal if Iran returns to compliance, and then he'll seek to negotiate a broader deal. But Netanyahu won't be Biden's only headache as he attempts to carry that policy out.

  • Iran announced on Monday that it had resumed the production of 20% enriched uranium, and Tehran has also threatened to expel nuclear inspectors.
  • A minister from Netanyahu's government, Tzachi Hanegbi, said on Tuesday that Israel should respond to Iran's enrichment move with a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, “because the world is sitting idly by."
  • The other side: The Institute for Policy and Strategy, a think tank headed by retired Israeli Gen. Amos Gilead, released a paper on Sunday calling for quiet dialogue with Biden's administration on Iran in order to avoid a public confrontation that could prove damaging for Israel.

What’s next: There have still been no contacts between the Israeli government and the new Biden administration, and it's unclear who will handle Israel's outreach to Biden on Iran. One name that has been mentioned is Mossad director Yossi Cohen.

Worth noting: A Biden transition official said Biden had been "one of Israel’s strongest supporters" and that the Biden-Harris administration "will not only further strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship but also ensure that it enjoys bipartisan backing." Dermer declined to comment for this story, as did Netanyahu's office.

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