Israel’s assessment regarding the state of negotiations between world powers and Iran on its nuclear program has shifted dramatically. Most Israeli analysts believed until now that the prospects of a compromise between the P5+1 and Iran were poor. They assumed that the sides would fail to bridge their differences and hit a stalemate, or — an option of which Israel was less enamored — that the pointless talks would continue for many months to come.
Recently, however, this assessment has changed, as has Israel’s response to negotiations with Iran. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid was the first to hint at a change when he admitted on Jan. 3 that according to Israeli assessments, the involved world powers are apparently heading for a return to the nuclear deal, or at least an interim agreement that would lead toward that goal. Lapid said that Israel had successfully maintained the international community's interest in the Iran nuclear issue, adding that Israel is now focusing its efforts on preventing a lifting of economic sanctions without appropriate Iranian concessions.
“The prime minister, defense minister and I said that we are not against any agreement; a good deal is a good thing. There is an intense discussion of what a good deal entails. In that discussion, we are at the table. The world, including the involved parties, is listening — including this morning.” Lapid also noted that the Vienna talks “won’t reach an optimal result as far as we’re concerned, but we are always working with the people involved to improve the result for Israel.”
Behind closed doors, Israeli sentiments are deeply negative. Outwardly, Israeli officials are maintaining a façade of moderation to avoid a public clash, even an indirect one, with the US administration at all costs. “Israel realized it had gone too far vis-à-vis the White House and State Department,” a senior Israeli official told Al-Monitor last week on condition of anonymity. He added that even Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who is still waiting for President Joe Biden to call him, has realized it.
Bennett’s understanding was clear in a series of interviews he gave last week ahead of the New Year. He essentially said that he would not oppose any possible agreement with Iran. “We are not automatic naysayers. We’re taking a practical approach,” Bennett told Army Radio. “At the end of the day, of course there could be a good deal,” he conceded, but expressed doubts about such an outcome under the current circumstances.
Behind the scenes, Israel continues to lobby the signatories to the original deal with Iran and especially the United States not to give in on major principles. Israel is hoping the new agreement, if reached, will include not only painful compromises with Iran but also tangible achievements. Since the Vienna talks began in late November, Israel and the United States have been examining the possibility of conditioning a return to the nuclear deal and removal of sanctions on extending the deadline of the 2015 agreement, which expires in October 2025. For Israel, one of the agreement’s major flaws is its so-called sunset clause, which sees some restrictions on Iran's nuclear program lifted in 2025 and 2030. The relaxing of restrictions, says Israel, would grant Iran a license to become a nuclear threshold state.
Israel has been warning against this flaw, as it sees it, since the agreement was first reached and has convinced some of the Americans involved in the current negotiations of its dangers. The United Kingdom also prefers to extend the expiration date by five to 10 years.
Up to several weeks ago, some senior Israeli defense officials maintained hope that the United States would fulfill its ambiguous promise to improve the agreement and refuse to return to the original deal.
However, the prospects for such an agreement are unclear. The Iranians are demanding guarantees that the United States will not pull out of the agreement as it did in 2018 under President Donald Trump, while Israel is hoping that in return for such guarantees, the United States will demand an extension of the agreement’s expiration date. “What is the point of going back to an agreement that is expected to expire within four to five years?” wondered a senior Israeli security source who spoke with Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “I think everyone understands this.”
Meanwhile, in discrete channels, Israel continues to exert pressure on world powers and accuse Iran of nuclear blackmail in conducting negotiations over the agreement. A Jan. 3 readout from the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting quoted warnings issued by national security adviser Eyal Hulata. “He said that although Iran was engaging in nuclear extortion, he believed that a unified and determined international community could still impose on Iran greater strategic concessions than in the past.” Hulata, it was said, also “pointed to the Iranian nuclear program as the primary core challenge facing the NSC and Israel.”
Hulata’s comments dovetail with Lapid's remark of “We are now in trench warfare in order to obtain small achievements … and keeping our options open to act by not being a party to the agreement.”
Israel's new strategy is to maintain restraint and avoid criticism of the United States and the other powers while keeping up pressure on them through back channels, work to establish red lines and exert pressure to extend the agreement’s expiration date while emphasizing that Iran is an international problem and that as Israel is not a party to any deal with Iran, it will not be bound by one. At the same time, the Israel Defense Forces and Israel Air Force are continuing preparations for the military option, having been allocated billions of shekels to complete its readiness within a year to 18 months.