Iran File Crucial To Netanyahu-Biden Relationship – OpEd
By Arab News
By Chris Doyle*
The US-Israel relationship is at the center of Washington’s vision of the region. This status has been evident ever since 1967, when Israel demonstrated its military superiority over neighboring Arab states.
To cement this, the US has provided more aid to Israel than any other state since the end of the Second World War. The Obama administration had a rocky relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but it still saw fit to pledge $38 billion in American military aid to Israel for the period covering 2019 to 2028.
Yet, for all the protestations of a strategic, unshakeable relationship, it often appears pretty shaken and much stirred. The relationship may currently be experiencing one of those phases. As the Biden administration craves calm and stability in the Middle East, its leading ally is shaking things up. Once again, Israeli leaders are pressing for Washington to get tough with Iran. The question being asked by commentators is whether Netanyahu and Joe Biden can come together on this file in a way they have not on the Palestinian question.
The US expects its allies to kowtow to Washington. This is not the role Israeli leaders like to play. The most audacious move by an Israeli leader was arguably when Netanyahu brazenly used a speech to Congress to lobby against the Iran deal in 2015. Many in the Obama administration saw Netanyahu as fighting the US, not Iran, even to the extent of risking bipartisan support for Israel by antagonizing the Democrats. If Israel’s security is so tied to American military and economic muscle, why pick a fight with your ally? Undermining that relationship is surely a threat to Israeli security.
Is Netanyahu prepared to go a full 15 rounds with President Biden too? Has the Israeli leader learned from 2015. Do not bet on this. The two know each other well, both their strengths and their weaknesses. In contrast, Netanyahu and Barack Obama only met for the first time in 2007, one year before the latter’s first presidential election victory.
The US-Israeli relationship is a mixed bag right now. On the plus side for Israel, the US is not backing off in terms of military support. In January, the US and Israel held their largest ever joint military exercise. And a military exercise last November involved long-range military flights, clearly with Iran in mind. This could just be saber-rattling, but also a product of Biden’s irritation at Tehran’s supply of military hardware to Russia.
In contrast, on the Palestinian file, the US is peeved. Officials feel that Netanyahu has ignored American messages on this issue and caved in all too easily to the settler demands of his coalition partners. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had thought his visit to Israel had dampened some of the settlement and demolition plans. If there was not quite a freeze, he expected a significant slowdown.
Far from applying any brakes, Netanyahu et al are pressing hard on the accelerator. The doomsday settlement of E1 is advancing through another approval stage, settlement outposts are to be legalized under Israeli law and 7,000 settlement units in 35 settlements are about to be approved.
The US and Israel have very different long-term goals. Israel wants the US to be permanently tied into the Middle East, backing its own agenda. With US backing, it can dictate its own vision on the region. It allows Israeli planes to bomb Iranian and other targets in Syria in full knowledge that the US is there as cover. That said, Israeli leaders do consider the scenario of the US moving away from Israel. Netanyahu has always had a close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, even now. And Israel and China have close ties, far closer than Washington would like.
But if there is one thing that US politicians have tended to agree on in recent years, it is that the US should be pulling back from the Middle East and paying more attention to the Pacific, particularly China. They know the fate of Iran and the Palestinians will not determine the course of the 21st century. Biden does not want to get sucked into the Palestinian issue, nor did Obama. The preferred option for Iran is to keep it under lock and key, hoping a diplomatic opening of consequence arises. Blinken last week made it clear that the negotiations were going nowhere, “but the door is always open to diplomacy going forward. A lot depends on what Iran says and does and whether or not it engages.” The US and its European allies cannot afford a war with Iran, not least because of Ukraine.
Israel too can barely afford a conflict. It appears that investors are taking money out of the Israeli economy in part because of the huge battle over the Supreme Court. Talk of a conflict with Iran only hastens this financial flight.
However, the US could still be sucked reluctantly into conflict with Iran. The CIA director has just stated that he does not believe that the Iranian supreme leader has yet decided on nuclear weaponization. But the International Atomic Energy Agency has determined that Iran’s uranium enrichment program has advanced to 84 percent purity and was in theory within weeks of achieving 90 percent. Iran denies this and claims it has not gone beyond 60 percent. Meanwhile, its ballistic missile program is making headway toward the stage of being able to carry nuclear weapons. Only last week, Iran unveiled its Paveh cruise missile that has the capability of reaching Israel.
Biden would find himself in a tricky position should Iran advance on enrichment and resume a weaponization program. The administration may be compelled to put itself on a more aggressive footing. Biden will remember how the Obama administration lived in constant fear of a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran, thereby sucking the US into war.
Washington is upping its rhetoric, possibly to deter Iran. Comments from US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides will have been a full orchestral symphony to Netanyahu’s ears. “As President Biden has said, we will not stand by and watch Iran get a nuclear weapon, No. 1. No. 2, he said, all options are on the table. No. 3, Israel can and should do whatever they need to deal with and we’ve got their back … The cooperation between Israel and the US vis-a-vis Iran is lockstep.”
Iran is well aware of the political and economic crisis Israel is facing. It can see the US as being conflict shy. Will the Iranian leadership try to exploit this? Perhaps. But they would be seriously ill-advised to do so.
Whatever differences exist between Biden and Netanyahu and whatever conflicting priorities the two have, one arena where they could come together is if Iran pushes too far on the nuclear file. Biden would be under pressure for action from Congress and Netanyahu would be under pressure from Israeli hawks. Whatever the Iranian hawks may think, Tehran has far better options on the diplomatic front than it does in any military scenario.
- Chris Doyle is director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding in London. Twitter: @Doylech