image A Bennett-Biden Breach beckons as Vienna talks reach junction.

Tehran Terrifies, Tel Aviv Threatens

Jealous, Jittery In Jerusalem

By Amir Oren

The savant yet sardonic writers at The Economist have a knack for producing news other media must echo. When they publish their annual global list of most and least expensive cities, it is certain to make headlines everywhere, especially in those places winning the dubious honour of being exorbitantly costly for residents and visitors.

A week ago, the world was told that all things considered, the new title-holder, the king of cost and the prince of price, was Tel Aviv. In its dust were left all major metropolitan hubs. With New York as the standard – one may call it Standard & Rich – of 100, Tel Aviv leaped over it with 106 index points. That’s the top, with the bottom firmly held by a neighbour, Damascus, at 12. By this measure, Tel Aviv is almost nine times more expensive than the war-ravaged Syrian capital.

But Israelis had little time to dwell on their new strong Shekel glory. An old spectre, always lurking around, came back to haunt them, though it emenates from the sanctioned city of Tehran, only number 29 on The Economist’s list, where it gained 50 notches in a year because its economy is hard-pressed.

Expecting an imminent breakthrough in the Vienna proximity talks between Iranian and American delegations on terms of reference for a revived Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action, better known as the 2015 – now probably 2022 – Nuclear deal, the Israeli governnent threw all caution to the wind. It was not merely alarmist, but hysterical, spreading doom and gloom, with the most dangerous enemy being not the Supreme Leader, but the Commander-in-Chief. Biden, rather than Khamenei. Privately and publicly, Israeli officials attacked the Biden Administration, in its effort to undo the damage brought about by Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the deal, in terms and tones unheard since Binyamin Netanyahu invaded Washington in a brazen effort to undercut Barack Obama’s JCPOA.

Netanyahu’s rivals, led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, his designated 2023 successor Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, managed to beat Bibi but not his ghost. They are haunted by the fear of being renounced as “soft on Iran”, a charge which is broadened to collaborating with Biden’s diplomacy. One has to step back for a moment and reflect on the absurdity of it all – Israel’s current leadership is afraid of being tainted with going along with the nation’s only benefactor, provider of more than four billion dollars annually in weapons and UN Security Council veto-wielding bulwark.

Historically, Israel has had three sources of power, contributing to its deterrence and diplomacy – the performance of the Israel Defense Forces, the prospect of resorting if absolutely necessary to whatever is being cooked at Dimona and the perception of an unshakable bond with, and political influence on, Washington.

Leaving aside the Dimona option Israel promised US Presidents from the 1960’s on to neither test nor declare, what Bennett and Co have been doing lately threatens to undercut the image of both the IDF and the solid American backing. The problem lies not only with the message, but with the messengers chosen – in addition to Jerusalem politicians, Tel Aviv-based military and intelligence professionals.

IDF Chief of General Staff Aviv Kochavi, Air Force Commanding General Amikam Norkin and even Mossad Chief David Barnea were all tasked with adding their voices to the choir. Barnea, five months into his job, which includes over-all responsibility for preventing hostile regimes from acquiring non-conventional capabilities, went the longest distance, guaranteeing personally and institutionally that Iran will never have a Nuclear weapon.

This begged the question, what else is new? Has not that been Israel’s proven policy for at least four decades? Is not that the point of having a second-strike submarine force, which Bennett indicated recently is having an impact on the “rational, not suicidal” decision makers of the Islamic Republic?

And being the first (in October 1980) to strike the Iraqi Nuclear reactor, then watch Israel destroy it in June 1981, are the Iranians not aware of Israeli determination to shoot first and ask questions later, when an existential threat looms? Were they not reminded of it in 2007, with the destruction of the North Korean Reactor in Syria?

These actions spoke much louder than words, and there was a lesson to be learned from the difference between them. The Reagan Administration, which was not forewarned by the Begin Government re Iraq, retaliated by a short-lived embargo on delivery of F-16’s of the sort used in the raid. The Olmert Government coordinated its military move with George W. Bush, who declined the generous offer to order an American strike.

It is difficult to reconcile a projected Israeli operation against Iran, especially one making use of American-supplied weapons, with a Bennett-Biden breach. Biting the hand that feeds you is an interesting but not promising tactic.

Barnea’s guarantee, reminiscent to Baseball fans of Babe Ruth pointing to the spot where his home-run will fly, may have been straightforward but could have hidden meanings, too. Domestically, it can be interpreted as a jab at Netanyahu, who appointed him in one of his last acts as Premier, because if Mossad is going to do the deed regardless of the politicans nominally above it – shades of the Deep State – then a Netanyahu comeback is not essential. Strategically, the certainty expressed that the Iranian Nuclear complex will be put out of commission sounds as if a doomsday machine is already in place, waiting only for an order to push a button or a keyboard.

It is not so simple, of course. An act of war, an anti-Persian Pearl Harbour, will start the war, not end it, with the United States and pro-Western oildoms dragged into it without being consulted beforehand. Israel will make its sovereign decisions, but independent action has its costs – and not only those measured bu The Economist index.

The other option is that Iranian demands prove too much for Biden, eager as he is to close the JCPOA file foolishly re-opened by Trump at Netanyahu’s prodding and move on to China, the so-called “pacing threat” of American military preparedness. Vienna us credited with hosting the meeting of the minds in post-Napoleon’s peaceful arrangement in Europe, which held for a century. But there were neither Ayatollahs nor Nukes in 1815. Biden may have to announce that his efforts have failed – in which case, Bennett will be blamed for once more undercutting a Democratic President and in the process helping Trump and the Republican Party. It will do Bennett no good. A desperate Biden may well turn his attention to Palestine, as a first step re-opening the East Jerusalem Consulate, a de-facto Embassy.

A no-win proposition for the Bennett-Lapid cabinet, then. Either way Vienna unfolds, Israel – as represented by its current leadership, though not according to critics of the present policy, a continuation of the failed Netanyahu’s – will lose. Rather than show self-confidence, it appears to have panicked, and for no real reason. And if the Israeli cries are credible, they can result in an Iranian condition added to the deal, an American vow to prevent Israel from pre-empting the re-legitimised Iranian nuclear enterprise.

One consequence  – again, either way, as the argument will hold whether Vienna fails or succeeds – is going to be increased pressure on Iran to curtail its aggressive activities in the region, or pay for ignoring the warnings. When Defense Minister Gantz highlighted the IRGC drone threat to shipping, pinpointing two bases in Southwestern Iran, the signal was loud and clear – the next time an Israeli-related vessel is hit, these bases will be taken out in retaliation, demonstrating the Israel Air Force’s ability to fly all the way to the other bank of the Persian Gulf and destroy its targets, conventional or otherwise. The Revolutionary Guards could be asking for it, and the intelligence and military practitioners in Tel Aviv will be happy to provide it.