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August 25, 2021 5:51 pm

Arriving at Biden White House With ‘Clean Hands,’ Bennett Seeks to Refresh US-Israel Relations

avatar by Sharon Wrobel

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett gestures as he speaks during a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., U.S. August 25, 2021. Olivier Douliery/Pool via REUTERS

During his first meeting with US President Joe Biden at the White House on Thursday, Israel Prime Minister Naftali Bennett will seek to turn over a new leaf in bilateral ties, especially over confronting Iran’s nuclear and regional threats.

“This is a unique opportunity for Bennett to put the relations between him and Biden on a different level, and even restart the relations as he comes to the meeting with clean hands,” Eldad Shavit, senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) told The Algemeiner. “What Bennett will try to do is to develop a different way in how to deal with the US administration following the problematic and difficult relations between his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu and the Democratic leadership.”

Bennett will try to present his government’s strategic objectives and challenges while at the same time proving to Biden that Israel remains a “reliable and valuable partner,” Shavit added.

The new Israeli prime minister’s visit comes as indirect talks — started in April between the US and world powers over the restoration of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal — have stalled, as the Islamic Republic inaugurated its new hardline president Ebrahim Raisi. Iran has steadily violated restrictions on its nuclear activities imposed by the 2015 deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), following the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the accord.

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Under the government headed by Netanyahu for 12 years, Israel strongly rejected any discussion of the US reentering the deal. Bennett, albeit sometimes less vociferously than Netanyahu, is also opposed to reviving the JCPOA, which he views as giving the Iranians a “lifeline” to build a nuclear weapon. Last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran, which has called for Israel’s destruction, had accelerated uranium enrichment to near weapons-grade.

Ahead of the visit, Bennett, who started his term in June, said he would bring to Washington a “new spirit of cooperation” and will push for a new Iran strategy — both in the nuclear sphere and vis-à-vis regional aggression.

“It’s very difficult to design a new approach, when the bottom line is that Israel sees Iran as an existential threat,” Shavit said. “It is no secret that there are some differences between Israel and the United States on tackling Iran, and that is okay. The importance is how you deal with the differences, and this is where Bennett could make a change.”

Shavit advised that Bennett use the White House meeting for a strategic discussion on two main scenarios: a return to the JCPOA, which is still preferred by the US, and a collapse of the talks.

“For both scenarios, we will have to create cooperation or coordination on how to deal with the outcomes,” Shavit suggested. “If it will be resumed, a lot of issues will be raised concerning how we go on from that point, because Iran will continue to violate terms and will continue to gain more capabilities.”

“We have to be honest: neither the Americans nor the Israelis have a plan B on what will happen if the negotiations collapse, except more sanctions,” Shavit added.

Developing a “plan B” to deal with Iran must not only focus on the nuclear challenge, but the regional challenge — including missile-based terrorism, regional destabilization, and cyber maritime harassment, according to Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD).

“One successful byproduct of the meeting is getting the US to at least approach the problem differently,” Ben Taleblu said, citing examples like the recent US Treasury sanctions against illicit oil smuggling funding Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force.

Speaking at a briefing to 60 ambassadors, Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz warned Wednesday that the Iranian threat is partly land-based, as the Islamic Republic operates via its proxies in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza.

On the aerial front, Iran is employing UAVs and guided missiles, while in the maritime arena Iran continues to disrupt international trade, Gantz said. He noted Israel’s assessment that the UAV employed in the recent attack on the Israeli-managed Mercer Street ship was launched from Iranian territory.

“The way that the Biden administration has treated the Iran threat thus far is to disaggregate the nuclear from the regional and to try at all costs claw back the nuclear deal,” Ben Taleblu told The Algemeiner. “So we have to wait and see what the Israelis take away from the meeting with Biden, and if they see any changes both in rhetoric and policy and in posture, moving forward on Iran.”

“Israel will literally be bearing the costs of any kind of mistake, or any kind of resumption of diplomacy or any kind of deal, that turns a blind eye to the regional issue and empowers Iran and empowers the IRGC to keep doing what it’s doing in the region,” he continued.

Ben Taleblu suggested that a positive outcome would constitute a joint statement of closer cooperation on the security and military intelligence side, and on tackling the Iran regional threat. A possible “course correction” in the way the US sees the Iran challenge could in turn could get the White House to enforce existing penalties more vigorously, and make Washington more comfortable in employing pressure.

The INSS’ Shavit argued that the meeting would likely be seen as success from both parties, even if no new agreements on Iran are reached.

“We still don’t know if the Iranians will agree to resume the talks, but both countries have to be prepared for the day after,” he said.

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