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US -Israeli Relations in the Shadow of Nuclear Talks in Vienna: A return to Ben-Gurion’s WW2 Dual Strategy?

– By Colonel (Res.) Dr. Eran Lerman Editor-in-chief Jerusalem Strategic Tribune, Vice President of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

It is time to revive the spirit of Ben-Gurion’s famous dictum from the days of WWII regarding the stance toward the British: “We will fight the war as if there were no White Paper, and we will fight the White Paper as if there were no war.” This makes sense concerning Israel’s dilemma towards the US in the context of the renewal of the JCPOA.

The Israeli government has committed itself to a policy of close cooperation with the United States and rebuilding bipartisan support in Congress.

Israel has resisted the temptation to be drawn into the highly polarized realm of American political tensions. Yet, while there is solid logic behind this policy choice, it now faces a tough and unprecedented test due to the Biden administration’s apparent eagerness to restore the nuclear deal with Iran.

The joint statement made by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister (and Alternate PM) Yair Lapid expressed shock in reaction to reports that Washington is contemplating removing sanctions on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Top diplomats from the United States, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Egypt met in the Negev on March 27. All but Secretary of State Tony Blinken agreed that a nuclear deal rests upon the fraudulent claim that the Iranian nuclear project is not military in nature.

In addition, the deal would give the murderous Iranian regime far-reaching concessions without blocking its way to the bomb. But unfortunately, Biden’s rhetoric has left very little of a “longer, stronger” agreement.

It is time to emulate Ben-Gurion’s famous dictum from WWII regarding the stance toward the British: “We will fight the war as if there were no White Paper, and we will fight the White Paper as if there were no war.”

Israel should challenge the deal, decry its weaknesses, and insist on maintaining Israel’s freedom of action as if there is no bond with the US.

At the same time, Israel should broaden and deepen its cooperation with the American defense and intelligence communities. These concerns are well understood there, and Iran is still perceived as an adversary. This cooperation should continue as if there is no disagreement over the administration’s conduct.

This poses an overt contradiction. Therefore, at all levels – to the White House, Congress, the American public, and international opinion – Israel should clarify that this deal is disastrous and would likely lead to Iran’s breakout towards a military nuclear capability within a short time. Therefore, the decisive question is how to use the precious time remaining before this happens. At this stage, Israeli authorities must work in unison, mobilizing every relevant source of influence and maintaining a close dialogue with the American Jewish leadership.

2022 vs. 2015: What Has Changed?

There are striking similarities between the present course of US policy and the ardent wish of the Obama administration to reach a nuclear deal with Iran – using the backchannel with former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2013 and ultimately accepting the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015. The Biden team now conveys a similar sense of urgency, seeking to revive the 2015 understandings.

This came to the point of considering exempting the Russians from certain sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine. Washington’s willingness to de-list the IRGC, sponsors, and perpetrators of major regional attacks was even more galling. The implicit message by the United States is that of surrender to Iranian dictates.

The timetable for the expiration of all limits on Uranium enrichment – the so-called sunset clauses, which allow restrictions to lapse – has been dramatically shortened.  The Vienna talks can thus provide, at best, a delay – and not a long one – for Iran to gain the ability to enrich uranium to 90% purity – i.e., weapons-grade fissile material. Moreover, the steps taken by Iran since Trump withdrew from the 2015 deal have already significantly reduced the breakout time.

Another difference has to do with US expectations and attitudes. In 2015, there were voices within the Obama administration that seemed to hope that the deal would herald a broader change in Iranian behavior. No such illusions are entertained today, even by proponents of a new deal.

Despite the push for a deal, the Biden administration still sees Tehran as an adversary, not a peace-seeking nation. Moreover, the president and his team know that Tehran’s objectives are opposed to those of the US, let alone Israel. Thus, a deal is not being advanced in the name of Iranian integration in the region as a constructive player.

Senior US officials present the deal as a stop-gap measure necessary to repair the situation caused by the previous administration’s withdrawal from the 2015 accord.  Iran has accelerated its program – with neither Israel nor the US positioned to go beyond the diplomatic channel. In their view, it is thus the only way to achieve a delay.

A significant difference between then and now is Israel’s stance. The Bennett-Lapid government, reversing the approach of its predecessor, knowingly decided – as a central aspect of its strategy – to reduce as much as possible the level of friction with the Biden administration and cultivate better relations with Democrats in Congress.

This new attitude bore some fruit but was also met with growing criticism. Detractors of the government argue that Israel is silently submitting to the revival of a bad agreement based upon a lie and is liable to enhance the Iranian capability to harm Israel and destabilize the region. Israel’s ability to sustain close cooperation with the administration thus faces a crossroads.

Israel’s Dilemma

On the one hand, Israel, too, shares the short-term interest in achieving an understanding between the US, world powers, and Iran. Israel would approve as long as an agreement would delay the Iranian breakout for a significant period. In any case, Israel’s government is not eager to pick a fight with the administration when it realizes it cannot change the American position.

There are substantive reasons for not carrying out a military strike against Iran or pushing the United States to take such action:

Politically, in a highly consequential congressional election year, a confrontation with the current administration is bound to be used by the Republicans to denounce the Biden administration – and would drag Israel once again into the American political vortex.

It would also rule out the diplomatic option and could trigger US military involvement. Such involvement could undermine the special relationship, rooted in an understanding that Israel does not need American troops to fight on its behalf. This could also feed anti-Israel voices on the far-left.

After the tragedy in Afghanistan and amidst the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, the likelihood of Biden ordering a strike against Iran’s facilities is next to nil.

On the other hand, Israel must not consent to a highly problematic deal. There are no less than seven severe faults in the current outline emerging in Vienna:

  1. There is hardly any reference to possible military dimensions of the Iranian project, which enables the regime to lie about its real nature.
  • There is an increasingly short timetable until the expiration of limits on enrichment (sunset clauses). This means that Iran would be allowed to pile up enough weapon-grade fissile material for a bomb within a few years at the utmost, without violating the deal.
  • The release of enormous amounts of money from frozen accounts, such as in South Korea, would allow for the resumption of oil exports when there are high prices. These funds are bound to stabilize the regime and arm its regional proxies.
  • Other than reports about an (empty) promise to “restrain” the IRGC from attacking Americans, nothing in the deal constrains Iran’s subversive, revolutionary activities in the region and beyond.
  • Should the IRGC be de-listed from the US list of terrorist organizations, the message would be highly problematic for regional players, including Israel, which have all suffered from IRGC attacks over the years.
  • A concession to Russia in diluting the sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine to cement Russia’s role in the arrangements to guarantee adherence to the deal is both morally problematic and tactically likely to strengthen Iran’s position.
  • Iran continues to defy the relevant UNSC resolution on the development of ballistic missiles. Moreover, its efforts in this field pose a threat to the entire region and beyond.

Thus, the challenge for Israel is to oppose the developing nuclear deal without alienating the Biden administration or making support for Israel a partisan issue. This will require careful planning, full coordination between all relevant government agencies, cooperation with regional partners, and the mobilization of organizations and the leadership of American Jewish organizations.

Israel should tread carefully with the higher echelons of the US government – but members of the US negotiating team, including Robert Malley, can be legitimately criticized for bending over backward to satisfy Iran’s demands. There can be a clear distinction between severe criticism of US policy and ad-hominem attacks on Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, or National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.

In any case, Israel must make it very clear that it retains its freedom of action.

Moreover, it is essential at this junction to tighten working relations with the US defense establishment and intelligence community, as was implied by the readout of the conversation between Minister of Defense Benny Gantz and his US counterpart, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.

In the ranks of the US State Department, Department of Defense, and other government agencies, many still view Iran as fundamentally hostile. Hence the need to apply Ben-Gurion’s dictum quoted above. Nevertheless, military and intelligence cooperation have been significantly upgraded since Israel was included in CENTCOM and remain vital to Israeli interests.

The Importance of Time

Israel’s “dual” policy of openly disputing US policy while closely cooperating with Washington can be rationalized by referring to the timetable for stopping Iran. Israel and the US (especially the previous administration) assumed that maximum pressure would deliver the necessary outcome. However, without taking proper measures to prepare for the use of force against the Iranian project, such pressure will not be enough.

Therefore, while the deal being conceived in Vienna is extremely faulty, it also buys some time for the US, Israel, and others in the region to prepare for other measures.

If the Biden administration proposes that the deal would serve as a long-term solution to the problem posed by Iran’s program, Israel will have no choice but to defy this narrative and expose it as an illusion.

However, if indeed the diplomatic response is merely viewed by the United States as a stop-gap measure, it is meant to stall Iran’s accelerated enrichment push temporarily. In that case, Israel should ask the following questions: What will the US be willing to do to make the best use of this short timeframe to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions and regional aggression? What should be Israel’s role in this context?

Under these circumstances, Israel needs to develop its military option as soon as possible. This threat will serve as an asset for the US that it can use in negotiations with Iran.

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