Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.
Biden’s dramatic foreign policy decisions: the Israeli dimension
Q. The Vienna talks regarding renewal of the 2015 JCPOA Iran nuclear deal are reportedly progressing despite the recent sabotage of the Natanz enrichment plant attributed to Israel. Biden seems determined. Where is Israel on this issue?
A. Prime Minister Netanyahu opposes the Vienna talks and vows that Israel will not be bound by them, meaning it will feel free to continue to actively counter Iran’s nuclear program. Indeed, the Natanz sabotage was carried out in defiance of the Vienna talks, and on the occasion of an important visit to Israel by US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin--hardly a friendly gesture on Israel’s part toward a superpower ally.
On the other hand, it is notable that Washington did not publicly criticize Israel’s timing and selection of target at Natanz (reportedly it did so behind the scenes, and angrily). Iran has proceeded with the Vienna talks as if Natanz never happened. After all, the Natanz damage delays Iran’s nuclear program and highlights Iran’s truly shoddy security network.
Iran desperately needs a respite from enemy attacks on its nuclear program. And it needs relief from Trump-era economic sanctions. In this sense, the Natanz attack constitutes an unintended incentive on Netanyahu’s part for both the US and Iran to proceed. Israel emerges from Natanz and Vienna badly isolated on Iran.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s anti-JCPOA cause is suffering additional setbacks beyond Washington. The embattled Israeli prime minister, still struggling to put together a new coalition before his deadline runs out in a fortnight, was forced on Sunday to convene his Security Cabinet for the first time in two months. There he had to discuss Iran with his arch-rival and coalition nemesis Benny Gantz, who like many in the security establishment is more moderate regarding the need for Israel to engage the US constructively regarding the JCPOA.
In parallel, it was learned that Saudi Arabia, hitherto a staunch backer of Israeli opposition to the JCPOA, has for the first time in five years engaged in security talks with Iran. The Saudis see the writing on the wall regarding (see below) US military disengagement from the Middle East. They are well aware of Biden administration criticism of their human rights record and involvement in the Yemen civil war. Without American backing, they apparently feel they have to temper their own confrontation with Iran.
The dilemma Netanyahu has maneuvered Israel into regarding the Iran-nuclear issue was described on Sunday in bleak terms by Gideon Frank, former director general of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission. In a radio interview, Frank stated that currently he sees no Israeli strategic thinking regarding Iran--only tactical thinking. Frank recommended that Israel focus on influencing the US position regarding the JCPOA rather than confronting Washington with faits accomplis.
Clearly Benjamin Netanyahu does not think this way. His chilly relations with President Biden hardly point in the direction Frank proposed. Yet surely Netanyahu realizes that Israel cannot proceed against Iran without a high degree of intelligence and operational collaboration with the US. Open support by the Saudis and additional Gulf Arab states is also important, both regionally and globally, and that may be waning too.
Q. In parallel with all this, President Biden has committed to a total US withdrawal from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021. Is this a problem for Israel?
A. Here Israel can hardly complain. After all, Netanyahu’s ally Donald Trump took the initiative. Biden has merely postponed the deadline for withdrawal from May to September.
Still, at the risk of generalizing, Israeli security planners feel better with American troops in the Greater Middle East region. They can be a stabilizing influence. US military withdrawal from Afghanistan may, logically, be followed by withdrawal from Syria and Iraq as well.
On the other hand, Israeli regional experts have always tended to belittle American democratization and nation-building efforts in the region, describing them as naïve and misguided. The past two decades experience in Afghanistan and Iraq broadly support that Israeli assessment. Jerusalem can hardly fault Washington for finally quitting.
Moreover, US withdrawal from Afghanistan worries Iran, which fears renewed or increased Sunni Islamist violence in neighboring Afghanistan. This can only give comfort to Israel. So in terms of Israeli strategic interests, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is a mixed bag.
As for Afghanistan itself, once the US departure (and that of its NATO allies) is complete, within a year this will again be essentially a Taliban state. The big question is, will al-Qaeda be welcomed back by the Taliban.
Q. And the Biden administration’s final okay for Trump’s $23 billion arms deal with the United Arab Emirates that includes F-35 advanced stealth aircraft?
A. This deal was hatched during the Trump era and had Netanyahu’s approval as a quid pro quo for Abu Dhabi’s decision to normalize relations with Israel. But Netanyahu gave his consent behind the backs of the Israeli security establishment and particularly the Israel Air Force, which is currently the only air arm in the Middle East that deploys F-35s. Now that normalization agreements with the UAE and three other Arab countries are anchored, no one in Israel would have shed a tear if Washington had refused to okay the F-35s for the UAE.
True, the UAE has never been at war with Israel and Israel-UAE relations are blossoming. But now that Abu Dhabi is getting F-35s and additional highly sophisticated American weaponry, the day can’t be far when the Saudis and Egyptians line up for their F-35s. A UAE F-35 downed in Yemen or Libya, where the UAE has been active militarily, could compromise the aircraft’s stealth technology. And then there is Turkey, a country unfriendly to Israel that the Biden administration is patching relations with and whose F-35 order was frozen by Trump because Ankara bought sophisticated Russian surface-to-air missiles.
So looking ahead, the broad ramifications of the sale to the UAE will also cloud US-Israel relations.
Q. Let’s move a little further afield. The Biden administration is imposing heavy sanctions on Russia in response to Moscow’s hacking, disinformation and interference in US elections. The US is highly critical of Russia’s massing of troops along its Ukraine border. How will Israel deal with deteriorating US-Russian relations?
A. Israel is already under pressure from Washington to back off from some of its more sensitive infrastructure deals with China (for details see last week’s Q & A), now defined as America’s principal global rival. An escalation of tensions between the US and Russia could be problematic for Israel for two reasons.
For one, the Israeli and Russian militaries closely coordinate and monitor Israel’s attacks on Iran-related military convoys in Syria. In this regard, Moscow and Jerusalem have built up a reservoir of trust that could be complicated by US pressures.
Iran is engaged in hegemonic expansion in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, with the objective of posing a major military threat to Israel from its north. This is the threat Israel’s ‘campaign between wars’ is directed against. Here Israel, the US and Russia are on the same page. But we must bear in mind that even as Washington is slowly withdrawing its military from the Middle East, Moscow is escalating its presence: in Syria, Libya and at bases on the southern Mediterranean and Red Sea coasts. This is a presence Israel has to live with, preferably harmoniously.
Then too, around a million Israelis of recent Russian extraction maintain close ties with Moscow and vote in both Israeli and Russian elections. Those five or six Aeroflot flights a day to Moscow are important.
When in early 2014 Russia snatched Crimea from Ukraine and a United Nations General Assembly resolution to condemn the act was put to a vote, Israel’s UN representatives conspicuously absented themselves in deference to Russian sensitivities. Washington was not happy. A repeat performance by Israel would be extremely problematic.
Q. Bottom line?
A. President Biden would presumably be making these same decisions with or without close consultation with Israel’s leadership. I happen to believe that JCPOA renewal is good for Israel, but some of the other US decisions may be more problematic.
Unfortunately, there is not much sympathy globally for Israel’s approach to Iran. You scan American and European media coverage of Israel’s ‘campaign between wars’ against Iran in Syria and at sea and media treatment of Israel’s alleged acts of assassination and sabotage against Iran’s nuclear weapons project. You look in vain for mention, in the ‘background’ paragraphs, of the fact that Iran, alone among Middle East countries and in the world, continues to preach Israel’s total destruction and elimination. You hope someone will take the trouble to explain that this is what motivates Israel’s anti-Iran campaign. That a friendly or even neutral Iran would not be the object of Israeli aggression. That for Israel, this is existential.
Instead, the media treat Iran and Israel as two ‘regional rivals’ engaged in a tit-for-tat conflict.
Netanyahu, by fighting JCPOA renewal and speaking out against Iran, is not making things better. Only worse. Because on the nuclear issue--not the campaign between wars--he is simply mistaken. Ask Israel’s generals. But also because he has lost all credibility. No one believes him anymore.
This is why every day that Netanyahu remains prime minister is bad for Israel’s overall strategic security.