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[Research Reports] The New Israeli Government and Iranian Issues

Ryoji Tateyama (Professor Emeritus, National Defense Academy of Japan)
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Research Group on 'the Middle East and Africa' FY2021-#4

"Research Reports" are compiled by participants in research groups set up at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, and are designed to disseminate, in a timely fashion, the content of presentations made at research group meetings or analyses of current affairs. The "Research Reports" represent their authors' views. In addition to these "Research Reports", individual research groups will publish "Research Bulletins" covering the full range of the group's research themes.

The nuclear and other "threats" posed by Iran

Israel finally saw a new coalition government formed on June 13. As a result, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu lost the premiership he had held for more than 12 years. The new government is made up of eight political parties, including right-wing, centrist, leftist and even an Islamist Palestinian party. The new administration faces a number of challenges, including rebuilding an economy devastated by the coronavirus pandemic and tackling the Palestinian problem after massive military clashes. In particular, its responses to Iranian issues will have a major impact on the situation in the Middle East.

Israel has long viewed Iran as a serious threat and believes that possession of nuclear weapons by Iran would constitute an existential threat to Israel. Additionally, Israel sees Iran's threat in many other ways, including its involvement in Syria, Iraq and other parts of the Middle East, its development of ballistic missiles and its support for terrorist activities.

Netanyahu, who sought to boost domestic support by expressly stressing external threats, continued to push a hostile policy toward Iran front and center. He completely opposed the Obama administration's 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) deal with Iran and welcomed the Trump administration's unilateral exit from the JCPOA and its policy of "maximum pressure" on Iran. During his time, it is also said that Israel carried out sabotage of Iran's nuclear facilities and the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists. For the Biden administration, such moves by the Netanyahu government are not welcome, as they worsen the negotiating environment with Iran. In mid-April, the Biden administration called for an end to the leaky "chatter" of Israeli officials about the sabotage at Iran's Natanz nuclear facility1.

A prime minister, foreign minister and defense minister with differing opinions

What will be the policy of Israel's new government towards Iran? Disparate statements have been made by Prime Minister Naphtali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Ganz, who are expected to play major roles in determining the Iran policy of the new administration.

Bennett, leader of the right-wing Yamina party, is a hawk who, like Netanyahu, has opposed the JCPOA and supported Trump's exit from the agreement. In addition, he has for some time advocated the necessity of attacking Iran itself by insisting on his own 'Octopus Doctrine' -- if you fight an octopus, you should attack not only the tentacles but also the head - and has even made such hawkish remarks since becoming prime minister. In the aftermath of Iran's presidential election on June 18, he called the elected hardline conservative Ebrahim Raisi 'an executioner' and warned that the world must understand the nature of an Iranian regime that would choose such a leader.

Lapid, who leads the centrist Yesh Atid ("There is a Future") party, opposed Trump's withdrawal from the nuclear deal, but does not see the JCPOA as sufficient. At a debate held in Washington this past March, he said that the best option would be to reach a comprehensive agreement to limit Iran's involvement in ballistic missile development and terrorist activities, in addition to extending the sunset clause on the period of restrictions on nuclear activities and strengthening the inspection regime2.

Benny Gantz, the leader of the centrist Blue and White party, emphasizes dealing with Iranian issues through dialogue with the Biden administration. At a meeting with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in early June, he said he would achieve an agreement to ensure Iran's possession of nuclear weapons is prevented through dialogue with the United States. What is interesting about this statement is that Gantz refers only to preventing Iran from possessing nuclear weapons and not, like Lapid, to a comprehensive agreement that includes other issues.

Israel backs two-stage approach to nuclear issue

Biden and his aides have so far not said what kind of agreement they intend to eventually reach with Iran. During the presidential election, Biden said he would first return to the JCPOA and then seek a new agreement to extend and tighten restrictions on Iran's nuclear activities. On top of that, the US would also tackle issues such as Iran's involvement in the Middle East, its terrorism-supporting activities and its ballistic missile development, he explained3. However, Biden has also said that the best way to stabilize the Middle East is to reach an agreement with Iran on the nuclear issue, indicating that the realization of a nuclear agreement is a top priority4.

His negotiating partner Raisi, who will take office as Iran's new president in August, is known as an anti-American. Raisi himself says he respects the JCPOA and does not deny the possibility of reaching an agreement with the United States. At a press conference shortly after his election, however, he said he would not negotiate on the missile issue or Iran's activities in the Middle East at all, making it clear that he had no intention of reaching a comprehensive agreement. But the current Rouhani administration also insists that it will not accept the comprehensive agreement, so Raisi's remarks are not new. In light of this reality, some in Israel are voicing support for the Biden administration's two-step approach to the nuclear issue: first return to the JCPOA, and then achieve a new agreement that is longer-term and stronger. In April, for example, a former Mossad director and a former Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Israeli Armed Forces contributed a joint commentary in Foreign Policy in support of the Biden administration's efforts5.

Behind Biden's emphasis on achieving some sort of agreement with Iran is the belief that the United States has involved itself too much in the Middle East with too many resources invested over the past 30+ years. For the Biden administration, countering China and tackling domestic issues are priorities. If an agreement can be reached in the negotiations that satisfies Israel and other Middle Eastern countries to some extent on the Iran issue, Biden will be liberated from the Iran issue in a sense and will accelerate his detachment from the Middle East.

Changes in the Israeli lobby as well

This is the context in which a new government was formed in Israel. Bennett, though hawkish, has also placed an emphasis on dialogue with the Biden administration. During a telephone conversation shortly after the start of the new Israeli government, Biden and Bennett agreed to consult closely on all security issues in the Middle East, including Iran. Lapid and Gatz are also seeking to reach an agreement in Israel's favor through dialogue with the Biden administration. However, there is no consensus within the new government on what is advantageous for Israel, as evidenced by differences in the positions of the three key ministers.

Eventually, the Biden administration will work on a second round of negotiations between the United States and Iran, including more restrictions on Iran's nuclear activities. However, the negotiations will inevitably face difficulties, including the degree to which sanctions will be lifted, as the conservative hardliner Raisi will be Biden's counterpart in the negotiations. Fortunately for the Biden administration, however, hard-liner Netanyahu has left and the new Israeli government has shown some flexibility. This has also something to do with moves in the US Congress and the Israeli lobby. In the 2014-2015 period--leading up to the agreement on the JCPOA--Netanyahu directed Israeli efforts to pressure Congress through the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), regarded as 'the strongest lobbying group in the US,' as well as various other US Jewish organizations to block the deal. However, Netanyahu's hard push failed, and the influence of the Israeli lobby, represented by the AIPAC, has come into question.

Six years on, the liberal Israel lobby 'J Street', which has become increasingly vocal, is clearly in favor of the Biden administration's two-stage approach. On the other hand, AIPAC, which once called for "firm opposition" as a 'spokesperson' for Netanyahu in Washington, has so far not presented a clear position. Netanyahu's hardline stance has produced a number of negative effects on the US-Israel relationship, including Israel's unilateral reliance on the Republicans for support, divisions in American Jewish society, and the growing criticism of Israel among Democrats. Such change in circumstances may be causing AIPAC to take a cautious stance.

Can the Biden administration elicit any flexibility from Israel? If they succeed, Biden's regime would not have to shoulder an extra burden in tough negotiations with Iran.

(This is an English translation of a paper originally published in Japanese on June 30, 2021.)

1 "US warns Israel to stop 'dangerous, detrimental' chatter on Natanz attack-TV," The Times of Israel, April 16, 2021.

2 "Countdown to Israel's Election: A Conversation with Yair Lapid," The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, May 1, 2021.

3 Joe Biden, "There's a smart way to be tough on Iran," CNN, September 13, 2020.

4 Thomas L. Friedman, "Biden Made Sure 'Trump Is Not Going to Be President for Four More Years'," The New York Times, December 2, 2020.

5 Tamir Pardo and Matan Vilnai, "Israel Should Support Biden's Efforts to Revive the Iran Nuclear Deal," Foreign Policy, April 19, 2021. According to the two authors, this commentary represents arguments by 'Commanders for Israel's Security' comprising more than 300 former military and intelligence high officials with no party affiliation.