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Unlike Netanyahu, Bennett opts for discreet dialogue with US on Iran

The Biden administration seems to welcome the approach of the new Bennett government, of conducting a discreet yet open dialogue on the Iranian file.
Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett arrives to the prime minister's office to attend the weekly Cabinet meeting, Jerusalem, May 6, 2018.

Israeli reports suggesting the United States had agreed to “suspend” negotiations on a return to the nuclear deal with Iran in order to delve into Israel’s reasons for opposing it were exaggerated. “The Americans are not withdrawing from negotiations and not delaying them,” a senior Israeli diplomatic source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “But they will hear us intensively in the coming weeks, which they have not done before, and they are approaching this process willingly and with an open heart.”

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid told Al-Monitor June 24, “The prime minister and I have changed Israeli policy regarding this process and the Americans were happy to accept it.” Asked how this change is manifesting itself, Lapid said, “Up to now, Israel screamed that the agreement was no good; the Americans screamed back that there is no better alternative and moved quickly ahead. Now, Israel will try to explain, demonstrate and prove its case to the Americans through intimate clandestine contacts. After all, we do agree on the fundamental principle that Iran must not be allowed to achieve military nuclear capabilities. We believe this way is effective, correct and serves Israel’s national security better than the previous way.”

This new tack Lapid talks about is nothing short of a dramatic shift for Israeli security and diplomacy in the wake of this month’s regime change. As former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu insisted for years that by even entering into concrete discussions with the United States on agreement with Iran, Israel would be legitimizing the nuclear negotiations and any past or future agreements. He wanted no part of such a process. Netanyahu, who views current events in historic perspective, wanted to isolate and sever himself and Israel from anything to do with the process that resulted in agreement between world powers and Iran. He has compared the 2015 nuclear agreement to the 1938 Munich Agreement between European powers and Nazi Germany.

Netanyahu is no longer in power, but his spirit hovers over closed-door discussions with officials who adopted Netanyahu’s line over the years. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Lapid had their work cut out making clear to the security and intelligence agencies that the rules of the game had changed.

Former Mossad Director Yossi Cohen, military intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Tamir Heyman, the Atomic Energy Commission and other influential officials and agencies were convinced of Netanyahu’s thesis that there was no way to deter the Americans from their course. They believed Israel would be better off positioning itself as an outspoken opposing force and issuing loud, clear warnings against the impending deal rather than trying to influence the process from within.

This has all changed. The Mossad is now led by David Barnea, who has adopted a totally different approach. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF), including its Intelligence Directorate, has also accepted the new policy and shifted gears accordingly. The Israel Atomic Energy Commission has also come around.

Netanyahu brought out three heavy guns in a bid to sway the Americans and the media against Iran — his former Ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer, and two former heads of the National Security Council — Maj. Gen. Yaakov Amidror and Brig. Gen. Yaakov Nagel. All three are no longer in positions of influence and the arena is now under the control of the newly installed premier and foreign minister.

IDF Chief Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, who delivered a particularly aggressive attack this past January against a return to the nuclear agreement, is now on the same page with the new leadership. In fact, Kochavi held a round of intimate talks with top brass in Washington this past week, presenting his interlocutors with intelligence information described by senior Israeli sources as highly significant. Kochavi met with national security adviser Jake Sullivan, CIA Director Bill Burns and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, among others.

Israel is now mulling how best to move ahead its dialogue with the Americans. Should discussions be led by the political echelons, or would having professionals at the helm be more beneficial? The most interesting proposal under consideration is to establish an interagency team comprising representatives of Military Intelligence, Mossad, National Security Council, Atomic Energy Commission, Foreign Ministry, prime minister’s office and the IDF’s Planning Directorate. The team would be led by the directors of the Mossad and Military Intelligence and would devise effective methods to exert its influence. A decision on this idea is pending.

Israel has already launched its campaign. In addition to Kochavi’s Washington talks, Lapid will meet in Rome with his US counterpart Antony Blinken June 27 for the new government’s first high-level confab with the Biden administration. Israel’s outgoing President Reuven Rivlin, who is held in great esteem in Washington, is on a farewell visit to the United States and will meet next week with President Joe Biden. Prior to his departure, Rivlin met with Bennett, Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz to prepare for his talks in Washington.

Meanwhile, it’s business as usual on the military front. Israel has avoided any reference to this week’s drone attack on a centrifuge production facility in Karaj, deep in Iran. According to Iranian sources, the unmanned craft took off from within Iran and did not penetrate its air space from another country. This has prevented Iran from blaming Israel for the attack as it usually does.

If this was an Israeli or Israeli-directed operation, it would constitute nothing short of a dramatic change similar to the shift in policy vis-a-vis the Americans. Bennett toyed in the past with changing the paradigm and rules of the game in Israel’s war with Iran. Diplomatic sources had quoted Bennett as saying in internal discussions there is no reason that Israel should sustain blows from Iranian proxies and fail to respond to Iran within its own territory. He had said that when something from an Iranian proxy blows up here, there’s no reason why something should not blow up there, in Tehran. It’s time to stop focusing on the tentacles of the octopus and strike its head.

Bennet was not prime minister at the time, but a member of the government’s security Cabinet under Netanyahu. Today, he sits in Netanyahu’s former chair. If, indeed, he ordered an aerial attack within Iran on only the second week of his term, it would constitute a real drama. The timing of the attack at a highly sensitive juncture of nuclear negotiations between world powers and Iran has also drawn widespread attention. Israel’s assessment in recent weeks that the United States and Iran are on the verge of signing an agreement has undergone a change. “Up to now, we thought the current round of talks in Vienna would be the last,” a senior diplomatic source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “Now it appears not to be the final round. The difficulties are real and everything is open.”

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