Bennett Shows Up: The Bull in the China Shop in Vienna

The prime minister, who only a week ago stressed how much Israel is not a part of the nuclear agreement and the talks to restore it, decided to offer advice to the United States on the issue. Why, in fact, when it appears that the negotiations in Vienna are in real danger, does Israel decide to flex its muscles and assume a position that antagonizes the United States?

At some point over coffee in the White House last August, Naftali Bennett told President Joe Biden that he would not organize an aggressive and massive campaign against the nuclear agreement. “When the world sees that you are fighting against the agreement, and losing, does this strengthen Israel’s position, or does it weaken it?” Bennett later wondered. After the meeting, the prime minister’s aides asserted that Bennett had not said he would refrain from such a campaign, but rather that he felt it would be pointless and ineffective.

Bennett’s thinking was clear. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went all out to oppose the agreement in 2015 and lost. Despite his address to Congress, despite the threats, despite everything, the major powers and Iran signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

But despite the failure of Netanyahu’s campaign, as the leader of the opposition, Netanyahu takes credit for a later effort, which he considered much more successful.

In 2018, Netanyahu campaigned for the United States to withdraw from the nuclear agreement. That campaign succeeded. As for results, however, the consensus among the security apparatus and the professional ranks is that this was a failure. Tamir Pardo, former director of the Mossad, called the U.S withdrawal a “disaster.” Israel Defense Force Major Gen. Nitzan Alon, who was the project manager for Iranian issues in the IDF during the same time period, said the withdrawal worsened the situation for Israel with respect to the Iranian nuclear program.

Bennett is currently in between elections, which raises the question of whether, six months into his term, he has decided to flex his muscles against our good friend, the United States. It was the prime minister’s office that decided yesterday to take a harsher tone with the Biden administration. His inner circle briefed him on a long and complicated conversation between Bennett and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. A short time after the conversation, there was an official communique from the prime minister’s office explaining what the United States needs to do at the Vienna talks. “Iran is conducting nuclear blackmail as a negotiation tactic,” Bennett said. “This must be met by an immediate cessation of negotiations and tough steps by the major powers.”

It is interesting to see that the person who emphasized how much Israel is not part of the agreement or the talks in Vienna a week ago to bring Iran back to the table is giving advice to the negotiating team. Also, Mossad Director David Barnea, in his first political appearance, contributed to the festivities yesterday amid the Israeli blitz, saying, “This is a bad agreement that I hope they do not reach; this is intolerable.”

In Washington, for some reason, there was not much excitement over these statements from Jerusalem. Blinken, in front of the cameras yesterday evening, described his talks with Bennett as detailed and good. There are clearly disagreements, administration officials said, but they do not understand why Israel is adamant about behaving like a bull in a china shop at this stage. The talks, according to an official familiar with the details, have run into difficulties; it is unclear where they are going.

Why is Israel again placing itself in an adversarial position with the United States? At times, this has felt like a sophisticated version of the “bigger elsewhere” strategy. After the saga involving Bennett’s wife, Gilat, and her travels abroad, there is something else to deal with.

About this publication

About Charles Railey 61 Articles
I recently retired from the federal government, having worked for many years on Middle East issues and regional media. My fascination with the region has never changed and this is one reason why the work of Watching America caught my eye. I live in the DC area with my wife, two grown children, and three cats.

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