Surprise Sprung Or Support Sought
By Amir Oren
Over the weekend, three events which took place during the same time frame demonstrated the emerging reality in the Middle East, post-Trump in Washington and post-Netanyahu.
In Rome, Secretary of State Tony Blinken met Yair Lapid, Israel’s Foreign Minister, who is slated to assume the Prime Ministership in two years time. As they both acknowledged, they have two common features – born less than 20 months apart in the early 1960’s, they were raised by strong and prominent Holocaust survivors, and they have assumed their current positions only recently.
In Baghdad, the leaders of Iraq, Egypt and Jordan convened for an unprecedented summit in the post-Saddam era. One could not fail to recall that on the eve of Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait 31 summers ago, Hosni Mubarak and King Hussein, sure of their reading of the Iraqi dictator, were disastrously confident that he was only bluffing.
And in the frontier area of Eastern Syria and Western Iraq, American forces struck pro-Iranian militias who have recently enhanced their attacks on U.S. contingents there. With defensive measures against these attacks coming up short, the Biden Administration is obviously determined to show that it has not totally lost its will to fight. Ground troops will continue their withdrawal in a process started by previous presidents and shifting priorities towards the Indo-Pacific (read Chinese) region, but Naval and Air assets will remain to protect American – and on occasion Allied – assets and interests.
The common denominator for all of these events is the quest for stability and normalcy in the area between the Mediterranean and the Arabian Gulf, from Palestine through the Peninsula to Persia. The forces of moderation are trying to hold the fort against the forces of militancy and to lessen the frictions in the regional order. An American-led coalition is composed of the the Arab-Israeli peace triangle of Cairo, Jerusalem and Amman, hoping to add Baghdad and Ramallah along with several Gulf Monarchies. They are aligned against the Islamic Republic and its collaborators in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and Yemen.
With the ascent of Naftali Bennet and his Lapid-centered government, building a new relationship with Biden, Blinken & Co., Binyamin Netanyahu has taken on the new leaders – depicted as usurpers of his throne – with their Iran policy at the center of his onslaught. Putting Lapid ahead of Bennett, Netanyahu claimed that the Alternate Prime Minister is soft on Iran, will give in to American pressures now that Likud and Republicans are no longer in power, and has surrendered Israeli freedom of action by promising a “no surprise” policy vis-a-vis Biden.
Netanyahu’s remarks were immediately challenged by students and practicioners of the 70-odd years of U.S. Israeli relationship, starting with Truman and Ben Gurion. It is a given that if faced with existential peril, Israel will shoot first and ask questions – or supply answers – later, but this is a simplistic portrayal of strategic realities, because there is no once-and-for-all act. Everything is a process, a continuum. The morning after, surprise sprung gives way to support sought.
As far back as 1963, Foreign Minister Golda Meir told her cabinet colleagues that it is in Israel’s interest to refrain from surprising the Kennedy Administration. Not only was Israel involved in asking JFK to approve arms sales and contigency rescue operations should Egypt’s Army overwhelm the IDF, but no diplomatic initiative could survive in the UN without active American lobbying and willingness to use Security Council veto power against counter-resolutions. Four years later, when Prime Minister Levi Eshkol waited for LBJ’s red light to change to green so that Israel could go to pre-emptive war without fear of the consequences, Eshkol admonished the more gung-ho of his ministers that “one does not pull a Pearl Harbor on a President”. Indeed, Netanyahu himself knew better than to unleash surprises on Clinton and Obama. When he did not alert the White House to his intention to undercut Obama’s Iran policy in a speech to a joint session of Congress, he blamed the lapse on Republican Speaker John Boehner’s insistence on making the announcement.
At that time, in 2015, Netanyahu waged all-out war on the emerging Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action. He wanted no deal, rather than a better one. It was certainly not cost-free. Major General Yair Golan, then Deputy Chief of the General Staff and now a Knesset Member, recently recalled his participation in an ICE conference at MacDill USAF base in Tampa, Florida. ICE, for IDF-Centcom- Eucom, is a military forum seating senior officers from Israel, Central Command, European Command, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and usually Socom, Special Operations Command, too. The venues alternate. That particular session was held at the base hosting both Centcon and Socom hq’s. there were several agenda items, such as the fight against ISIS, but once Netanyahu chose war over diplomacy in his relationship with Obama, word came down from the top for U.S. Generals to refuse any exchange on Iran. Israel could not have its yellowcake and eat it, too.
Now under new management – but also under attack by the old one – Israel’s government is carefully treading the line. It proved Netanyahu’s charges regarding its fear of flying against Iranian targets baseless, going on with the strikes in Syria plan without missing a beat. As for the Vienna talks between American and Iranian delegations on reviving the dormant JCPOA, following Trump’s withdrawal from it per Netanyahu’s prodding, Lapid has taken a more nuanced line while still trying to protect his flank.
The Vienna negotiations are only indirectly held between Biden’s emissaries and Supreme Leader Khameini’s. The six rounds were conducted as proximity talks, with the adversaries speaking through the other (European, Russian and Chinese) parties to the deal. At least, this is the official version. It is hard to imagine that a secret back-channel is not used, in order to clarify positions and expedite the resolution of outstanding issues, especially as the clock is ticking towards the expiration of President Rouhani’s term August 6.
Before their Rome meeting, Lapid told the media in Blinken’s presence that “Israel has some serious reservations” regarding the quid-pro-quo being hatched at Vienna. Check, Netanyahu. As for how and where these points will be discussed, expect “direct and professional conversation, not in press conference.” Check, Biden. Actually, these conversations have already been launched by the visit of IDF Chief Aviv Kochavi to Washington, last week.
So for all practical purposes, Israel is embarking on a double-proxy system of conveying its positions to Tehran. Lapid talks with Blinken, whose emissary Rob Malley talks with European opposite numbers, who talk with their Iranian interlocutors. Hebrew translated into English as interpreted in Persian. This, in addition to the other proxies in the field, the pro-Iranians exchanging blows with the Americans in Syria and Iraq.
Regardless of the content and the consequences of this awkward arrangement, by which a prospective couple of bride and groom speak through several matchmakers, the unavoidable conclusion is that Israel and Iran should go out of their way to establish direct contacts and find spheres of common interests. Strange bedfellows, granted, but not impossible, unthinkable, ones, as evidenced on the 1980’s Iran-Contra caper, and hardliner incoming President Raisi has the right clerical credentials to authorise what relative moderates were too weak internally to try. With Netanyahu and his implacable rhetoric out of power, and a porthole (if not full-size window) of opportunity available in the Biden-Bennet, Blinken-Lapid relationship, there is no time to waste in clinging to obsolete dogmas.