Jul 7, 2021 - World

Israel's new prime minister to update Iran policy before Biden meeting

Bennett. Photo: Kobi Wolf/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has launched an Iran policy review to be concluded before his first meeting with President Biden, which is likely to take place in late July, Israeli officials tell me.

Why it matters: Bennett is in the process of shifting Israeli foreign policy on several fronts, with a particular focus on the Iran file. While Bennett and his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu are both Iran hawks, Bennett is considering taking Israeli policy in a new direction.

The primary debate is whether Israel is genuinely better off in the current scenario — with no deal and with Iran accelerating its nuclear program — than with both the U.S. and Iran returning to compliance with the 2015 deal, an Israeli official tells Axios:

“There are several questions in the discussions — is the current treading water better or worse than a U.S. return to the deal, if and how Israel can influence the Biden administration, and what the current situation means for developing an Israeli military option."

Driving the news: Bennett has already convened several meetings on Iran ahead of a wide-ranging policy review that includes the nuclear issue but also Israeli policy toward Iran’s regional behavior, Israeli officials say.

  • Bennett's immediate priority was to get up to speed on the latest intelligence and developments, including on the technical aspects of the Iranian nuclear program, in order to be fully informed when discussing Iran with other world leaders, especially Biden.
  • On Sunday, Bennett convened the first policy meeting on the Iran nuclear deal with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and the heads of the security and intelligence services. Several additional meetings will take place in order to complete the review before the meeting with Biden.
  • One change is already clear: Bennett wants to avoid a public clash with the Biden administration. Bennett believes the daylight between Netanyahu and Biden on Iran projected Israeli strategic weakness in the region and didn’t serve any reasonable purpose, an Israeli official says.

The big picture: The new Israeli government has already made several other initial foreign policy shifts.

  • Bennett has been working to repair relations with Jordan, which were deeply damaged during the Netanyahu era, including by quickly approving a deal to provide Jordan with additional water.
  • Bennett moved to block the transfer of cash from Qatar to Hamas after the latest fighting in the Gaza Strip and is insisting it be transferred via the UN, through banks or directly to people in need. The Gulf country has provided hundreds of millions of dollars since 2018 in an attempt to stabilize Gaza.
  • Bennett quickly approved a vaccine deal with the Palestinian Authority that Netanyahu had held up for months. He was disappointed when the deal collapsed, Israeli officials say, because he'd seen a positive first step in relations.
    • The PA called off the vaccine deal after determining the doses were too close to their expiration date.

The latest: Bennett told a bipartisan delegation from the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday that a U.S. return to the 2015 nuclear deal would be a mistake and stressed Israel won't allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon. “In any case Israel will know how to defend itself by itself," Bennett said.

What’s next: Lapid will travel to Brussels next week, where EU foreign ministers will be gathering for a monthly meeting. His message will be that Israel wants to strengthen relations with the EU after years of tensions with Netanyahu.

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