Joe Biden has been in office for about a month. I have my doubts about the degree to which Joe himself is running things, but because he has always bent pragmatically to the winds of political (and perhaps personal) advantage, it’s not really important. Someone is making policy, in particular policy that concerns Israel. The course set by the Biden Administration appears to be almost 180 degrees from that taken by Donald Trump, and promises to bring back the sharp disagreements between the two nations that characterized the Obama period. He has already brought back most of the same people.
There are two main areas with which Israel must be concerned: the Palestinian and Iranian arenas. The Palestinian question seems to be on the back burner now, perhaps because everyone realizes that no solution is likely. But the Iranian desk is buzzing with activity. Obama’s people had four years to lick their wounds and plan for a rematch. Now their time has come, and they are moving swiftly.
Indeed, it has recently been revealed that during the Trump Administration, John Kerry and Robert Malley met with Iranian and EU officials and advised them to ignore overtures from President Trump’s people to fix the defects in the deal, and wait for their team to return with the expected Democratic victory. Seeing no alternative, Trump took the US out of the deal in 2018 (several European nations remain in it with Iran).
Biden’s declared Iran policy seems to be more or less the same as Obama’s, and it will be implemented by the same people: Malley, Jake Sullivan, Wendy Sherman, and Anthony Blinken. Before his appointment, Malley’s “International Crisis Group” prepared a report that recommended that the new administration should “move swiftly to revive the nuclear agreement on its existing terms.”
This is the deal that provided for an inspection regime with holes big enough to drive a truck through, which had sunset clauses that in effect guaranteed that after a certain point Iran’s weapons development would be legitimate, which revoked UN prohibitions on missile development, and which suffered from numerous other flaws – to the point that Binyamin Netanyahu risked an open break with the US, its essential ally and prime supplier of critical military equipment, in order to oppose it.
The new administration has already begun to make concessions to Iran in order to initiate a process of mutual moves to restart the deal. It removed the designation of Iran’s proxy Houthi rebels in Yemen as terrorists, and announced that it would no longer support Saudi Arabia’s military campaign against them. Biden also reversed Trump’s “snapback” to honoring pre-2015 UN sanctions on Iran.
Iran, for its part, has said that it wants to see all sanctions lifted and the deal reinstated at the point Trump left it. It’s not clear what the Iranians would do with the prohibited high-enriched uranium and even uranium metal that they have produced in violation of it since then.
Biden’s policies, from Israel’s point of view, are extremely dangerous. And the political situation in Biden’s Democratic Party is becoming more and more anti-Israel, as it moves to the left. There is little to restrain the administration, and there are forces pushing it to take positions even more disadvantageous to Israel.
The evaluation in Israel is that we cannot simply leave it to the US and trust that everything will be fine. A return to the deal without significant changes – which nobody thinks the American negotiators can, or even want to, obtain – will ultimately result in a nuclear Iran. On the other hand, direct opposition to the US could leave Israel in trouble, a result of the excessive dependence of the IDF on American aid. Israel is locked into extremely complex weapons systems that in many cases are integrated with our own systems, and switching to (for example) Russian systems, or even trying to develop our own, would be a very long, difficult process.
Caroline Glick thinks that Israel can maintain good relations with the US while working to decrease dependence, and establish relationships various political factions in the US as well as with other allies who are not happy with the prospect of Iranian nuclear hegemony.
I am afraid this is wishful thinking. Everything she suggests about developing our allies, and so forth, is worth doing, but there is no way Israel can avoid direct conflict with the American administration if it will not “concede either its sovereignty or its core interests to satisfy an administration committed to policies that harm both,” as Glick puts it. In my opinion, a confrontation is unavoidable, even if our PM does not travel to the US and speak to a joint session of Congress, as Netanyahu did in 2015.
I can see one way out of the dilemma. That is to present the Americans with a fait accompli that will at the same time send an unmistakable message that Israel cannot accept a nuclear Iran, and that will significantly set back the Iranian project. I mean, of course, military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities. And the sooner – before the US becomes fully enmeshed in negotiations with Iran – the better.
Although there is no doubt it will anger those in the American administration who are more anti-Israel than worried about Iran’s expansionism, it will speak to those who have a realistic attitude and understand that the primary goal is to keep Iran from going nuclear. The Rob Malleys will not approve. The Tony Blinkens might. You may recall the condemnation of Israel that followed her destruction of Saddam’s reactor in 1981; ultimately, almost everyone agreed that it was a good thing.
This time the job is much more difficult. Is it possible to carry it out without too much damage from the certain retaliation? Is there a way to neutralize Iran’s ability to retaliate? What are the probabilities?
These are questions that I can’t answer. They are questions for our Chief of Staff, and I believe the Prime Minister has already asked them.