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Bennett at the UN. Photo: John Minchillo/Pool/AFP via Getty

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett doesn’t think Israel needs to change its “nuclear ambiguity” policy for now as a response to Iran's latest nuclear advances, two senior Israeli officials tell me.

Why it matters: Israel has never acknowledged that it has a military nuclear program, and claims it “won’t be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East." But a new report is sparking an unprecedented public debate among politicians and experts about whether Israel’s nuclear posture needs to change to deter Iran.

The backstory: A recent report by the Institute for Science and International Security stated that Iran’s nuclear advances since Donald Trump's withdrawal from the 2015 deal are irreversible, and Iran's "breakout time" to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a single bomb is only one month.

  • The report, which was based on analyses of UN inspectors' public data, created a debate inside the Israeli security establishment as to whether Iran had become a de facto “nuclear threshold state" — already possessing the capabilities to build a weapon if it decides to do so.

What they're saying: Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak wrote in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper that Iran had “probably crossed the point of no return," and he hinted that Israel should review the nuclear ambiguity policy.

  • Haaretz editor-in-chief Aluf Benn wrote in an op-ed that Bennett will have to reconsider the ambiguity policy as Iran continues to advance its nuclear program.
  • Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pushed back in an op-ed of his own, stressing that any change to the posture would only serve the Iranians, allowing them to claim they need nuclear weapons to deter Israel.
  • Analysts believe Israel has had a military nuclear program since the late 1960s that now includes more than 200 warheads for its long-range Jericho missiles.

Behind the scenes: Bennett read Barak's article and rejected its premise, a senior Israeli official tells me. The prime minister isn't considering a change to Israel's nuclear posture.

“Bennett doesn’t think that it's game over about Iran’s nuclear program. He thinks that Iran is indeed very close to that point, but that there is still time, and if Israel acts on its own and with its allies in a systematic way, it is still possible to stop them."
— Senior Israeli official

Driving the news: In his speech at the UN General Assembly on Monday, Bennett threatened to take military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

  • “Iran’s nuclear program has hit a watershed moment and so has our tolerance. Words do not stop centrifuges from spinning. We will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon," he said.

State of play: The indirect talks between the U.S. and Iran to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal are still frozen, and the International Atomic Energy Agency accused Tehran on Sunday of violating a deal to allow inspectors to install new surveillance cameras at a key nuclear site.

  • The old cameras were damaged in an act of sabotage at the site in June, which Iran attributed to Israel.

What’s next: Israeli national security adviser Eyal Hulata will travel to Washington next week for talks on Iran with his White House counterpart Jake Sullivan.

Go deeper

Jan 5, 2022 - World

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

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.

Jan 5, 2022 - World

Biden administration presses Israel on Chinese investments

Biden with Bennett. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty

The Biden administration and the Israeli government held low-profile consultations last month on China — a sensitive issue given U.S. concerns about Chinese investments in Israel.

Why it matters: The meeting on Dec. 14, led by deputy national security advisers from both sides, was the first wide-ranging consultation between the two countries on China since President Biden took office. The Israeli side aimed to keep it very discreet, fearing a backlash from Beijing.

Jan 5, 2022 - World

Palestinians press Biden to take more active role in Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Abbas (right) meets Sullivan. Photo: Palestinian Presidency handout via Getty

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas warned national security advisor Jake Sullivan in their recent meeting that more active U.S. diplomatic engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is needed to avoid a new crisis in the region, Palestinian Minister for Civilian Affairs Hussein al-Sheikh tells Axios.

Why it matters: After a diplomatic deep freeze under the Trump administration, the Palestinian leadership hoped Biden would be much more active in rolling back Trump’s policies and taking steps to advance the two-state solution. So far, they've been disappointed.

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