Jan 5, 2022 - World

Scoop: Israel's military intel chief says Iran deal better than no deal

Photo of Naftali Bennett (center) sitting at a table with people on his left and right

Israel Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (center) hosts a Cabinet meeting. Photo: Ronen Zvulun/Pool via Getty Images

The head of Israeli military intelligence told ministers during a Security Cabinet meeting on Sunday that Israel will be better off if the Iran nuclear talks lead to a deal rather than collapsing without one, two Cabinet ministers who attended the meeting tell me.

Why it matters: While Israel campaigned vigorously against the 2015 nuclear deal, and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett continues to take hawkish positions on diplomacy with Iran, the statements from Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva reflect a broader shift in the thinking of the Israeli defense establishment.

Driving the news: Haliva, who was appointed as the head of military intelligence in October, told the Cabinet that a deal in Vienna would serve Israel’s interests by providing increased certainty about the limitations on Iran's nuclear program, and it would buy more time for Israel to prepare for escalation scenarios.

  • Haliva was reacting to a briefing by Mossad director David Barnea on the spy agency's annual intelligence assessment.
  • Barnea raised reservations about whether a deal would serve Israel’s interests and said there was still time to influence the U.S. position in Vienna, according to the two ministers who attended the meeting.
  • "It is not a lost cause, and it is worth putting the time and the effort in a dialogue with the Americans," Barnea told the ministers.

Behind the scenes: Israeli officials say the general assessment in Jerusalem had until recently been that Iran was only playing for time in Vienna, but now a deal is looking more likely.

  • "It will be a big surprise if some kind of deal doesn’t emerge from Vienna," a senior Israeli official told me.

What to watch: The two ministers who attended the Cabinet meeting say the consensus was that even if a deal is reached in Vienna, Israel should refrain from publicly criticizing the Biden administration over it.

  • Foreign Minister Yair Lapid warned in the meeting that such public attacks could seriously damage the relationship with the administration.

What’s next: In a briefing with reporters on Monday, Lapid said Israel would continue to engage with the Biden administration and other world powers to influence the parameters of a possible nuclear deal. "We are now in a trench war to improve the deal," Lapid said.

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