Josef Olmert
Josef Olmert

Bennett, Biden and…Iran

It is customary after meetings between Heads of State to relate to them as ”successful” and ”helpful” due to their very existence, and the temptation is also to define the Bennett-Biden meeting as such. Not this meeting, and not in this timing.

President Biden was bending over backwards to signal, that Bennett was THE ”good” Israeli P.M, as opposed to the jibe directed at Netanyahu, the ”bad” Israeli one, but beyond and besides the niceties and the small talk, this was an important meeting, perhaps even crucial, because it was preceded by and ended with Bennett reiterating the fact, that overshadowed the entire meeting, and this is that Iran is SO close to the point where it could develop nuclear weapons and IF this is the case, and IF Israel is serious about that, then we are very close to the twelfth hour. The moment when an Israeli leader has to make a decision which can be defined as nothing short of being existential. So, it was not the Palestinian issue, not the Covid-19 situation which was THE pivotal point of the discussion, and since this is the case, it is important to establish an important fact: Bennett sent a clear message of extreme urgency about Iran, Biden did not.

The joint statement about” Iran never acquiring nuclear weapons ”is not new, and was made in the past by previous American presidents, nor also the reference to ”other options are on the table”. No need to either be overwhelmed by these words, as if they should calm down the stretched nerves of the Israeli leadership or also to dismiss them as insignificant. It is important, but it is the kind of statement whose REAL importance lies in viewing the overall context in which it was made. Here is the realistic context-the US is leaking its wounds as a result of the Afghan fiasco, and the post-Afghanistan situation is going to determine its policy in the Middle East in general, and with regard to Iran in particular. On the one hand, the war on terror which was supposed to officially end with the withdrawal from Afghanistan is far from over, in fact is that is going to intensify now. This is not the post 9/11 situation, but Afghanistan is back where it was then-the base and launching pad of a renewed wave of terrorism, which will be boosted no doubt, by the sense of victory of the Jihadists over the US, much the same as it was after the victory over the Soviet Union. The Taliban can make whatever promises they want, and some, maybe many Americans can believe them, but to do so will be to play in La La land.

Islamic Jihadism does not necessarily end when they have a setback, but surely thrives when they have a victory. War on terror can create a joint interest for the US and Israel, but that depends on the Americans deciding to turn it into their major priority in the Middle East, and this administration, as can be judged by its stated policies until now, would have very much preferred to believe, that the problem of Jihadist terrorism is behind it. I doubt whether the G.W.Bush and Trump resolve in their anti-terrorism campaign would be followed by the current administration. I suspect it will not, and even more so, I am afraid , that there will be pressures on Biden from within his administration and party to try and appease the terrorists also by including Israel in the equation. More specifically, it is not the Afghanistan fiasco which is the issue, but the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is a knee-jerk reaction of the Progressives in the Democratic party and they are influential. Some of my readers may consider this to be a typical paranoid fear, and hopefully they will prove right. I will be happy to be wrong. I am certain however that I am not wrong when I inject Iran into this already vexed situation.

When we hear the Bennett and Gantz statements about Iran we hear the Israeli desire to have a quick decision about this country, and any quick decision under current circumstances means presenting Iran with a very urgent dilemma;A resumption of the nuclear talks and making concessions to the US beyond the original agreement, or taking the risk implicit in the ”all the options are on the table” as appeared in the Biden-Bennett statement. Since the Israelis talk about time table of two months, the expectation is, that this is also the American time table. But it is NOT. It was not their time table before the latest developments in Afghanistan, and it sure is NOT after. The last thing that the Biden administration wants to see is, a military action against Iran, even IF conducted only by Israel, something which will be bound to unleash a wave of terrorism aimed at the US , not just against Israel. In simple terms-the Israeli and American time tables are diametrically contradictory. Israel wants ACTION NOW, whether diplomatic or military, the US wants PEACE AND QUIET NOW. With that in mind, the ball is back in the Israeli court, more precisely this is the burning potato which Bennett and Gantz have to deal with. This is the background to the fateful decision which they have to make.

The Israeli leadership has more or less pushed itself to a narrow corner-two months time until Iran can move on to produce the nuclear weapon. In two months time, therefore, things have to happen which will enable Bennett and Gantz to claim, that due to their pressure, dramatic changes have occurred which widens the window of time from two to more months. The US has to bring this about, as it seems clear, that Bennett and Gantz do give Biden time to put diplomatic and military pressure on Iran, but then there are the Iranians, and they are playing their own game, and until now they did not play the US and Israel game. The Ra’isi government seems far less inclined than the Rouhani government to cave in to pressures . SO- here is THE question; Do Bennett and Gantz mean business when they talk about the immediacy of any move about Iran, or was it and still is an attempt to pressure Biden ?.These two know the answer, but they have to take into account two factors factors; First, that Biden will NOT deliver, and second-the domestic Israeli situation. A man called Netanyahu is counting the days and weeks-two months is not too much time, and Bennett and Gantz stand the risk of losing any credibility not only in the eyes of the Iranians, possibly also the Americans, but as importantly, if not more, in the eyes of the Israeli public.

Bennett and Gantz dilemma raises a question larger than that of their own political fortunes, as it touches upon the more fundamental question of what REALLY is the level of Israel’s dependence on the US , or put simply, can Israel make such fateful decisions about its most vital national interests without a very clear green light from the US?. This is a question beyond the scope of this article, but we know from history that Such decisions were made in the past, and now two leaders, an unnatural, odd couple, Naftali Bennett and Benny Gantz are getting SO close to their moment of truth. The moment when they will have to make their decision
that could send them to either the hall of fame of Jewish history, or God forbid, the hall shame.

About the Author
Dr Josef Olmert, a Middle East expert, is currently an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina