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Jerusalem still hopeful it can work with US against Iran – analysis

CM 22/04/2021

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After two rounds of indirect negotiations between the US and Iran, the sides seem to be progressing towards an agreement to rejoin the 2015 Iran deal, and the response from Jerusalem is near-silence.Sure, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said in recent public speeches that Israel will not be bound by a deal that does not protect its interests, and that Israel will defend itself by itself.But compared to his response back in 2015, speaking out against the agreement at every opportunity, including a joint session of Congress that then-US-president Barack Obama opposed, Netanyahu seems restrained.The adage that “actions speak louder than words” certainly applies here, with the explosion at the nuclear facility in Natanz, Iran attributed to Israel last week, and the explosion of an Iranian base on a ship in the Red Sea days before that, all while nuclear talks continued in Vienna. There are also continued actions against Iranian proxies operating in Syria, including targets struck in recent days.But there was action – like the 2014 interception of a ship used by Iran to smuggle rockets to Gaza, which took place in the Red Sea near Sudan and an explosion at a military explosives factory near the Parchin nuclear site – in the days of the original negotiations for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as well.The quiet from Jerusalem primarily reflects a difference between the Obama days and the era of US President Joe Biden and his administration, and the way the government views them.Under Obama, the US entered talks without telling Israel, and continued to leave Jerusalem in the dark as they went on. The Obama administration’s spokespeople created a dichotomy, by which it was either the JCPOA or a war between Israel and Iran. The message sent was that it was not only a deal to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon in the medium term, it was also a way to keep Israel in check.

That is not what the Biden administration has been broadcasting thus far. While its position differs from Israel’s, it is still focused on creating distance between Iran and the possibility of attaining a nuclear weapon, and curbing the Islamic Republic’s other aggressive behavior.In addition, the Biden administration was very open, in a very public way, about its intention to try to return to the JCPOA. Blinken and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi spoke before talks began and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and his Israeli counterpart Meir Ben-Shabbat have engaged in two rounds of a strategic dialogue that focused on Iran. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met with Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Netanyahu, and they discussed Iran, as well, among other talks between officials.Israelis are still concerned that, while the Biden administration is talking to them, they’re not quite listening. Ben-Shabbat told Sullivan that Israeli concerns are not sufficiently being taken into consideration. And Israel feels that the US could be more transparent about what is transpiring in Vienna and what Washington plans to offer to Tehran. At the same time, the Biden administration is reportedly frustrated that Israel is not giving it enough of a heads up before its operations against Iran.Despite the simmering frustrations, Washington and Jerusalem don’t want to get into round two of the Obama-era Iran fight, and their public statements reflect that.Netanyahu has not made a campaign out of opposing the ongoing talks in Vienna, because he wants to see if it is possible to work with the Biden administration, instead of taking an adversarial stance.“We’ll see how this plays out,” a senior official in Jerusalem said. “I can’t guarantee we can influence the process, but we can hope. I can guarantee an effort, but not success.”One indication that Jerusalem is trying to avoid a replay of the Obama-Netanyahu head-to-head is that Netanyahu is putting other players at the forefront of the fight against the Iran nuclear threat.Netanyahu taking a quieter role in opposing the current Iran negotiations also makes sense as he seems more and more like a lame duck lately. As it seems increasingly likely that Netanyahu will not form the next government, his voice will have less of an impact on the Biden administration.The fire-and-brimstone role went to Israeli Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan, who is also ambassador in Washington. He rebuked the international community for letting Iran literally get away with murder.”For Israel, Iran poses an existential threat. That is why we will not see ourselves bound by any agreement that does not fully address the threat against the existence of the State of Israel,” Erdan warned the UN Security Council on Thursday, echoing recent remarks by Netanyahu. “And every one of you would do the same if you were in our shoes, particularly in light of the Holocaust.”The JCPOA expires in a decide and does not effectively enforce inspection of nuclear sites, plus the Ayatollahs use sanctions relief to fund terrorism and secret advances in the military nuclear program, the ambassador warned.Erdan slammed “Iran’s relentless attempts to acquire military nuclear capabilities, its terrorist proxies that continue to destabilize the region and its grave human rights violations,” as well as those “members of the council [who] completely ignore the threat posed by the regime.””What more does Iran have to do to prove it is not trustworthy? How long can the international community ignore Iran’s provocative and dangerous behavior?” he exhorted the UNSC.Officials in Washington can take Erdan’s impassioned plea as a preview of what they will hear next week, when Mossad Chief Yossi Cohen, National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, along with other IDF officers, head to Washington to make Israel’s case against rejoining the 2015 Iran deal to their American counterparts.That case, in brief, is that the JCPOA would give Iran a path to a nuclear bomb with an international imprimatur when its restrictions expire, and that the deal does not address other malign actions from Tehran, such as its ballistic missiles program and its proxy wars across the region. In addition, Israel argues that rushing to lift sanctions in order to only return to the JCPOA – after former US president Donald Trump left it in 2018 – would leave the US without leverage to then push Iran to agree to the “longer and stronger” deal the Biden administration has said it wants, in order to address the 2015 deal’s aforementioned weaknesses.Keeping the meetings on the highest professional, not political, echelons, could help Israel’s concerns be taken more seriously and with less suspicion in Washington. Netanyahu, Ashkenazi and Gantz met with them on Thursday to discuss policy, but the people at the forefront of this blitz are not politicians.There is hope in Israel that the face-to-face meetings between defense officials – the first other than Austin’s visit – will bring a better result.“[Austin] heard our concerns very directly, and now other people will hear those concerns. It’s important. You can have secure phones, but sometimes you have to stand in the same room,” a senior official in Jerusalem said.The official said that when it comes to the negotiations to return to the JCPOA, “we don’t think it’s a done deal yet. We’re going [to Washington] because we’re going to try to influence the process.”
Source: Jerusalem Post

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