Jan 27, 2021 - World

Netanyahu doesn't want a fight with Biden over Iran — yet

Photo illustration of Joe Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu looking at each other with a split Iran in the background.

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photos: Eric Baradat (AFP), Gali Tibbon (AFP)/Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, hoping to avoid an immediate clash with President Biden over Iran, will give dialogue a chance, Israeli officials say.

Why it matters: Biden intends to try to resume the 2015 nuclear deal, which Netanyahu vehemently opposes. The two are on a collision course, and memories are fresh of the crisis in U.S.-Israel relations when Netanyahu was publicly campaigning against Barack Obama's attempts to reach a deal — including in a speech to Congress.

Between the lines: A senior Israeli official who is well-informed of Netanyahu’s thinking draws a clear distinction between the two cases. Obama went behind Israel's back to hold secret talks with the Iranians, the official said, while Biden's team has earned goodwill by saying from day one that they intend to consult with Israel before making any decisions on Iran.

  • The senior official added that Netanyahu's warm personal history with Biden over four decades could be used as a shock absorber to help overcome difficulties and misunderstandings.
  • Two other Israeli officials said Netanyahu was hesitant to pick a fight with Biden from the start for another reason: Unlike Obama in 2015, he has Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, which will make it harder to exert pressure.

What they're saying: A senior Israeli official close to Netanyahu said that while the prime minister wants to begin with a stance of cooperation and consultation toward the Biden administration, he intends to stand firm in his opposition to a U.S. return to the deal.

  • “He doesn’t want to tweak it. He thinks the agreement is flawed to its foundations and that the Iranians will agree to compromise only if pressure continues," the official said.

Worth noting: On Tuesday, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Aviv Kohavi aligned himself with Netanyahu, coming out publicly against any U.S. return to the previous deal or even “a deal with cosmetic changes."

  • Kohavi said he ordered the IDF to prepare several new plans to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities should Israeli leadership decide to use that option.
  • That's a major shift in the position of Israel’s most senior security official. In 2015, then-IDF leader Gadi Eizenkot didn't oppose the deal and Kohavi himself, then chief of military intelligence, thought it had strategic advantages for Israel.
  • The Obama administration used such arguments from the Israeli defense establishment to counter Netanyahu’s campaign. Now, Netanyahu has the head of the military on his side.
  • And while former IDF chiefs of staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Benny Gantz were opposed when Netanyahu considered striking Iran between 2009 and 2012, Kohavi is now on the record in support.

The other side: Now foreign minister, Ashkenazi called on Tuesday for a much more cautious approach.

  • He said Israel must hold quiet talks with the Biden administration on Iran and avoid the sort of confrontational media campaign it launched in 2015.
  • Ashkenazi has argued that the past approach only sidelined Israel and can't be repeated if Israel wants to remain relevant to the process.

Driving the news: On Saturday, national security adviser Jake Sullivan spoke for the first time with his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat.

  • Israeli officials said the call was very good and were satisfied by the White House readout that stressed the U.S. would consult Israel and enter into a strategic dialogue.

What’s next: Israeli officials told me they expect talks with the Biden administration on Iran to start in the very near future, most likely in secured video conferences due to COVID restrictions.

  • Yes, but: Netanyahu’s willingness to engage with Biden and avoid confrontation could change quickly if he thinks it’s ineffective — or if he decides confrontation could help him in the March 23 elections.
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