Dec 8, 2021 - World

Israeli government divided over how to influence Biden on Iran

Benny Gantz (left), Yair Lapid (center) and Naftali Bennett. Photo: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty

Israeli Minister of Defense Benny Gantz will visit Washington Thursday as part of a renewed diplomatic push to influence the U.S. position on Iran amid the impasse in the nuclear talks.

The backstory: There is an internal debate inside the Israeli government about the best way to influence the U.S. position, with Gantz and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid growing concerned with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's increasingly confrontational approach, Israeli officials say.

  • Bennett promised President Biden when they met in August that he wouldn't engage in a Benjamin Netanyahu-style public campaign against a U.S. return to the 2015 nuclear deal.
  • But only 100 days later, Bennett is doing just that — drifting into a policy of criticizing the U.S. position and publicly opposing any talks with Iran.
  • Gantz is lobbying for a quieter approach of private engagement with the Biden administration.

Behind the scenes: Israeli officials say Bennett’s decision to abandon the commitment he gave Biden was influenced by his hawkish foreign policy adviser, Shimrit Meir, who is critical of the Biden administration’s approach.

  • Although national security adviser Eyal Hulata is the official point person for dialogue with the White House on Iran, Meir is Bennett's most influential adviser on this issue.

Driving the news: Gantz will land in Washington just as another round of nuclear negotiations begins in Vienna. He'll meet Thursday with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Tony Blinken.

  • Ahead of the trip, Gantz met the new U.S. ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides.
  • The director of the Mossad intelligence agency, David Barnea, is also in Washington this week for talks with CIA director Bill Burns and national security adviser Jake Sullivan, according to Israeli officials.

Gantz is expected to stress that the U.S. must convince the Iranians they face a credible U.S. military threat — through additional diplomatic pressure and a projection of power in the region — in order to get Iran to return to the 2015 deal, Israeli officials say.

  • Between the lines: While the Israeli government opposes a restoration of the 2015 deal, Gantz and many in the Israeli security establishment believe the current limbo is actually far more dangerous.
  • Israeli defense officials say Gantz thinks the stalemate in the Vienna talks gives Israel more time to work with the Biden administration on developing a "plan B."
  • Gantz is also expected to raise the delay in congressional approval for $1 billion in aid to replenish Israel's Iron Dome anti-rocket system. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is holding up a vote in the Senate.

What to watch: The Israeli government is content with the deadlock in Vienna so long as it leads to more sanctions on Iran rather than an alternative approach that's more favorable to Tehran.

  • One such option, Israeli officials say, is an interim deal in which the Iranians get wide-ranging sanctions relief in return for suspending their 60% uranium enrichment.
  • The U.S. floated this idea with the Israelis several weeks ago, but Iran has said it wouldn't agree to such an interim deal. The Israelis also oppose any interim deal.

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