As news emerged last week that the United States and Iran are on the verge of concluding a new nuclear deal, Israelis were given two very different interpretations of events. Caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, along with their media flacks, responded by insisting that although the deal is bad, Lapid and Gantz are handling it like pros and reducing the damage in profound ways.
Barak Ravid, their media mouthpiece, reported that as a result of National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata’s meeting with his U.S. counterpart Jake Sullivan, the administration toughened its positions on the key issues of International Atomic Energy Agency investigations of three nuclear installations that Iran did not disclose, and of sanctions against entities controlled by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps. Lapid is bragging that Israel is satisfied with U.S. responses to Israel’s concerns.
Gantz traveled to the U.S. on Thursday. He leaked his similar “satisfaction” with the results of his trip. Ravid reported that Gantz left his meeting with Sullivan with the sense that the Biden administration is preparing a military option against Iran’s nuclear installations. To be sure, Sullivan said nothing of the sort. But Gantz, all the same, got the feeling that this is the case.
Discordantly, even as the media pumps out the Lapid-Gantz propaganda, quieter reports have streamed in that Biden hasn’t spoken with Lapid for more than a month and a half and refuses to take his calls now or set up a time to meet with him at the U.N. General Assembly meeting in September.
More importantly, Mossad Director David Barnea set off the alarm bells loud and clear in a media briefing on Thursday. Barnea said the Biden administration has betrayed Israel’s most basic existential interests with this deal, which he referred to as “a strategic disaster” for Israel. He explained that the agreement “gives Iran license to amass the required nuclear material for a bomb,” as well as the financial means to massively expand its regional aggression through the likes of Hezbollah, the Assad regime and Palestinian terror groups supported by Iran in Gaza, Judea and Samaria.
Barnea said the United States “is rushing into an accord that is ultimately based on lies.” The main lie is Iran’s claim that its nuclear activities are peaceful in nature—a claim that has been unsustainable since Israel seized and exposed Iran’s nuclear archive in 2018. Barnea added that U.S. President Joe Biden believes it is in his interest to reach a deal, and that Iran, for its part, wants the hundreds of billions of dollars it is expected to receive after the U.S. lifts its economic sanctions against Iran as part of the new deal.
Lapid reportedly dressed Barnea down for breaking with the government’s line. After refusing to walk back his remarks about the Biden administration, Barnea has been subjected to withering criticism by Ravid and multiple other government mouthpieces in the media who received briefings from Lapid. Among other things, Ravid called Barnea “messianic,” that is, delusional.
The gross disparity between the calming messages Lapid, Gantz and their media flacks are putting out on the one hand, and Barnea’s insistence that the approaching agreement is a strategic catastrophe on the other, is but the latest iteration of a longstanding dispute at the highest echelons of Israeli leadership over how to understand the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (aka the 2015 nuclear deal), and the challenge it poses for Israel.
The JCPOA was the culmination of the Obama administration’s efforts to realign the United States away from Israel and its Sunni Arab allies and towards Iran. Obama’s determination to abandon Israel and the Sunnis in favor of Iran upended what had been the underlying assumption of Israel’s military and intelligence leadership since the 1970s.That assumption was and remains that Israel’s greatest strategic asset isn’t the IDF, or the Mossad, but the United States.
For nearly 50 years, the guiding concept of Israel’s military and intelligence chiefs has been that Israel could make what appeared to the naked eye to be insane strategic concessions, like withdrawing from the Golan Heights or Judea and Samaria or the Jordan Valley, or canceling the Lavi fighter jet program, because Israel didn’t need to be able to defend its borders, or field the best air platform in the world. It could trust the United States to protect it.
Military leaders like Gantz and all of his predecessors since Ehud Barak argued that Israel had to make concessions to the Arabs to help America help Israel. As for the Lavi, Israel has no business building fighter jets. That’s America’s job. Israel doesn’t need strategic independence or defensible borders. It needs to keep the U.S. on its side. Because America, not the IDF, is the guarantor of Israel’s security.
The JCPOA was a profound rebuke to this claim. The deal guaranteed Iran would become a nuclear-armed state within 15 years at most, with the U.N. Security Council’s seal of approval. It also gave Iran the financial means to massively expand and accelerate its regional and global aggression.
Israel had two options for contending with the JCPOA. It could respond rationally, by developing a flexible, self-reliant strategy based on bold, independent initiatives and the creation of new regional alliances. Or it could respond irrationally, by doubling down on its dependence on the United States and lashing out against anyone who questioned the credibility of U.S. protestations of its “sacrosanct” commitment to Israel’s security.
From 2009, when then President Barack Obama began flirting with Iran, through May 2021 when then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was ousted from office, Israel implemented both options. Netanyahu adopted the rational response, while the security establishment, including two Mossad directors, Meir Dagan and Tamir Pardo, and three IDF chiefs of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, implemented the irrational one.
With the heads of Mossad and the IDF undercutting him at every turn, Netanyahu used the Foreign Ministry and the National Security Council, both of which he controlled, to reposition Israel as an independent regional power. He massively expanded Israel’s relations with states in Africa, Asia, Latin America and east-central and southern Europe. He developed personal ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He transformed Israel into an energy power by developing its offshore natural gas deposits. And beginning with the Arab Spring, Netanyahu opposed the U.S.-supported ouster of long-serving Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and his replacement by the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012. Netanyahu supported the Egyptian military’s overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi in 2013.
These actions earned him the gratitude and respect of the Egyptian military, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Those sentiments led to operational partnerships against Hamas and Iran that later formed the basis of the Abraham Accords.
When Netanyahu finally got an ally as Mossad head with his appointment of Yossi Cohen to replace Pardo in 2016, Cohen and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat worked together both operationally and diplomatically to expand Israel’s regional military and intelligence ties, and carry out strikes against Iran’s nuclear installations.
For their part, Israel’s generals did their best to discredit and subvert Netanyahu. From 2010 through 2012, Dagan, Pardo, Ashkenazy and Gantz all rejected repeated orders from Netanyahu to prepare the security services to attack Iran’s nuclear installations. In 2010 Dagan flew to Washington without authorization to tell then CIA chief Leon Panetta that Netanyahu had ordered the Mossad and the IDF to attack Iran. Pardo and Gantz similarly refused Netanyahu’s order to prepare to attack Iran in 2011.
Israel’s military and intelligence leaders also worked to undermine Netanyahu’s credibility by refusing to stand with him when he waged his public campaign against the JCPOA in 2014 and 2015. While refusing to publicly criticize the deal which gave Iran a glide path to a nuclear arsenal, military and intelligence leaders gave off-camera interviews applauding the deal. Eisenkot openly embraced the JCPOA after he retired in 2019.
During Donald Trump’s presidency, Pardo condemned Netanyahu for revealing that the Mossad had seized Iran’s nuclear archive, despite the fact that the operation, and its publication, paved the way for Trump’s abandonment of the JCPOA and implementation of his “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, which brought the regime to its knees and dried up its funding for its terror proxies. Gantz and Ashkenazy opposed the Abraham Accords and torpedoed Netanyahu’s sovereignty plan in Judea and Samaria. Gantz refused to fund a project Netanyahu advocated that would significantly improve Israel’s ability to attack Iran’s nuclear installations.
Last year, with the newly elected Biden having pledged to return the United States to the JCPOA, and with Netanyahu out of power, Israel’s dual rational-irrational response to the JCPOA came to an end. Irrationality won out.
Upon entering office, then prime minister Naftali Bennett, Lapid and Gantz made the security establishment’s defense of the JCPOA and its refusal to recognize its strategic implications the basis of their policymaking. They adopted a policy of silencing criticism of the administration’s Iran policy, and continuously blaming Netanyahu for Iran’s nuclear advances. They ignored the fact that all of Iran’s nuclear advances happened after Biden won the presidential elections in November 2020, and attributed them instead to Trump’s abandonment of the JCPOA. Indeed, they claimed Netanyahu’s public opposition to the JCPOA was the reason Obama signed onto it, and that Netanyahu’s success in persuading Trump to abandon the deal is the reason Iran is now a nuclear threshold state.
Bennett, Lapid and Gantz announced a policy of “no surprises” in relation to Israel’s operations in Iran, giving Biden an effective veto over all of Israel’s actions—which all but ended shortly thereafter. Lapid ended Israel’s independent foreign policy and opted to transform Israel into the State Department’s echo chamber. In so doing, he destroyed Israel’s relations with Russia, endangering Israel’s operations in Syria and paving the way for Russia’s decision to upgrade its ties with Iran.
Whereas Obama’s JCPOA was a looming strategic disaster for Israel, Biden’s nuclear deal is an imminent existential threat to Israel. Despite Lapid and Gantz’s calming messages, Barnea’s warnings are entirely accurate. Even if it is true that Sullivan whispered sweet nothings in Hulata’s and Gantz’s ears, the fact is that under Biden’s deal, the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear operations begin expiring next year, and effectively end in 2025. Biden’s deal leaves Iran’s illicitly enriched uranium in Iran. It hamstrings the IAEA. And it massively enriches Iran, transforming it into a regional power, boasting a nuclear weapons program legitimized by the UN Security Council and guaranteed by an administration that will remain in power until the nuclear restrictions end.
So too, as Barnea warned, Biden’s deal with Iran endangers the Abraham Accords, by compelling the Sunnis to reach accommodations with a hegemonic Iran, leaving Israel without regional partners.
The rational response to this catastrophic turn of events is to disengage from the Biden administration, work with the Republicans to wage a public relations war against the deal, ratchet up Israel’s ties with the Gulf states, mend fences with Russia and work intensively to develop and deploy military means to destroy Iran’s nuclear installations. The irrational response is to fly to America, pretend that everything is fine, and proclaim, based on a “feeling,” that the Americans will solve the Iran problem for us.
Reprinted with author’s permission from Jewish News Syndicate