Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is in Washington for summit with US President Joe Biden and top officials. He flew with one main item on his agenda; proposing a comprehensive plan to contain Iranian nuclear threats and regional interventions. This was his first meeting with Biden, who had not invited outgoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House and waited until a new coalition government was formed in Israel.
Bennett, 49, heads a thinly united but a broad coalition that includes right wing, centrists and leftist parties including the first Arab-Islamist party to join an Israeli government. His approach to Iran, the Palestinians, Hamas, Hezbollah, colonies among others is no different from that of his predecessor. But he understands the damage that Netanyahu had inflicted on ties with US Democrats and American Jewish organisations by breaking with decades-old tradition of working with both parties in Congress. His alliance with Donald Trump had come at the expense of unconditional bi-partisan support for Israel. Netanyahu had opted to appeal to the radical sentiments of American evangelists and their biblical bias in favour of the state of Israel at the expense of the broad support of US Jewish and Zionist organisations, a good number of which do not support occupation and back a two-state solution.
But Bennett’s immediate concern was to present the White House with a solid case that repudiates attempts to revive the nuclear deal with Iran and allow the US to rejoin it. He has used the recent US debacle in Afghanistan and the election of Ebrahim Raisi in Iran to make a case that radical Islam remains a major threat to the stability of the region and presents an existential threat to the state of Israel.
Iran’s support of Hamas and Hezbollah remains a direct and immediate challenge to the security of Israel, as proven by the events of last May when Hamas fired hundreds of missiles into Israeli cities. Earlier this month Hezbollah claimed responsibility for the firing of missiles into northern Israel.
Iran’s military presence in southern Syria close to the occupied Golan Heights is also a cause of tensions. Israel has carried out numerous raids on Iranian targets in Syria.
There is no doubt that Bennett had made a good case. But how far has his arguments changed Biden’s mind on continuing to negotiate with Iran is unclear. After six rounds of indirect talks in Vienna, the US and Iran are yet to reach a common understanding. Bennett’s unsubstantiated claim that Iran is only weeks away from building an atom bomb works both ways.
If the US does not join the JCPOA then Iran will continue to enrich uranium at high levels with little or no international inspection. If the agreement is revived then Iran will have to adhere to its commitments under the deal and reverse the steps it had taken over the last two years. International inspectors will be allowed back to make sure that Tehran’s nuclear programme is a peaceful one.
What alternatives has he presented to the Biden administration? Bennett told the New York Times before his departure for the US that his “vision” includes strengthening ties with Arab countries opposed to Iran’s regional influence and nuclear ambitions, taking diplomatic and economic action against Iran, and continuing Israel’s clandestine attacks on Iran, including what he called “the grey-area stuff.”
“What we need to do, and what we are doing, is forming a regional coalition of reasonable Arab countries, together with us, that will fend off and block this expansion and this desire for domination” by Iran, Bennett said.
But this is what has been taking place for the last few years under his predecessor with little success. Iran and Israel have been exchanging strikes against corresponding naval targets in the Gulf, Mediterranean and the Red Sea with little impact on Tehran. Other than heightening tensions in the high seas and in the Gulf, the Israeli approach has barely changed Iran’s behaviour.
Furthermore, with the US showing signs of fatigue from two decades of military adventures in the Middle East, the Biden administration is not in the mood to engage in another open-ended war in the region.
Chances are that Biden and his aides, still reeling from a humiliating retreat from Afghanistan, had listened to Bennett but did not give an immediate response. The Vienna talks may still be salvaged as Iran faces growing domestic problems largely as a result of biting US sanctions. The best that Bennett will get for now is a renewed US commitment to protect Israel. A post Netanyahu reset in ties will be a credit to Bennett.
Behind closed doors, the US is likely to have reminded Bennett that Iran is not the only item on the agenda and that Israel must check its activities in colonies, allow for a better life for the Palestinians, facilitate the reconstruction in Gaza and normalise ties with the PA. Bennett is ideologically against most such demands and he is most likely to return to Israel empty-handed.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.