Hard Questions, Tough Answers: The Vienna talks and Bennett’s aggressive stance (December 6, 2021)


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.

Q: Just two weeks ago, you told us that the Bennett government had adopted a conciliatory attitude toward the US negotiating position in Vienna regarding Iran’s nuclear program: all disagreements would be ironed out through quiet diplomacy. Now PM Naftali Bennett is openly threatening not to honor any new agreement reached in Vienna. What happened?

A: Two weeks ago I discussed primarily the Israeli security community as a conciliatory and cooperative actor concerning the US stance in Vienna. By and large (with the one-off exception of the head of the Mossad, see below) it still is. Essentially, it is Prime Minister Naftali Bennett who has introduced tension into relations with Washington by declaring loudly in late November that“The mistake we made after the first nuclear deal in 2015 will not repeat itself. . . . We will learn from this mistake. . . . We will maintain our freedom of action. . . . Even if there is a return to an agreement, Israel is of course not a party to it, and is not bound by it.”

This week, Bennett added fuel to the fire by admonishing Washington to begin using “a different toolkit against Iran’s forward gallop in the enrichment sphere.” The tenor of Bennett’s remarks was echoed by Mossad head David Barnea, who in a rare public statement said last week that Israel will do “whatever it takes” to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. This, Barnea added dramatically, is the “Mossad’s commitment”.

Q: We’ll come back to Barnea and the Mossad. But is there something in Iran’s overt behavior that helped trigger these provocative statements from Israel, directed against the US negotiating stance in Vienna?

A: In Vienna, Iran’s chief negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani reportedly introduced demands that in effect cancelled understandings reached in previous rounds of negotiations in June concerning a renewed JCPOA. Meanwhile, back in Iran enrichment was being jacked up to percentages (20%, 60%, reports on planning for 90%) that are consistent only with a military program rather than a civilian one as Iran professes. Israel is not the only actor that found these moves alarming.

Perhaps most provocative was a revelation by Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, former head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, that research carried out by Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a nuclear scientist assassinated last year (allegedly by Israel), was part of a nuclear-weapons “system” for backing the Iran-led “resistance front” in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

In other words, and notwithstanding the Iranian Supreme Leader’s famous fatwa explicitly forbidding nuclear weapons, Iran has been developing nuclear weapons intended at the very least to back its own and its proxy forces that are challenging Israel from bases in the Levant, some on Israel’s very borders

Q: Is this what motivated Bennett to adopt such an aggressively critical position toward Washington? Just last August, when he visited the White House, he and President Biden appeared to be broadcasting on the same wavelength.

A: This last statement, by Abbasi-Davani, is undoubtedly of great concern. Israel has always argued that the Iranian nuclear program is at least in part military in design. Now a senior and knowledgeable Iranian has openly admitted this. Add to this the weapons-grade enrichment and what appear to be delaying tactics in Iran’s performance in Vienna. This, against a backdrop of a US negotiating stance that ignores Iran’s hegemonic military activities in the Levant and concentrates solely on a ‘sanctions-for-status-quo-ante-nuclear-freeze’ deal. Bennett’s concern is understandable.

Q: But why the arrogant histrionics?

A: We can go further. Why involve the Mossad publicly when its entire essence is to act clandestinely? What moved former prime minister Ehud Barak to berate Bennett for “public feuding, accusations and empty arrogance that perhaps make an impression on some Israelis but not on the Iranians and not on the negotiating partners [in Vienna].” Barak called on Bennett to tone down the arrogance, quietly develop an Israeli “Plan B”, and present it in constructive consultations with Washington.

Bennett’s apparent motives for issuing repeated panicky statements range, to my understanding, from the strategic to the banal. At the strategic level, Bennett wants Washington’s attention. As Ofer Shelah, a solid strategic thinker, wrote on December 6 in Yedioth Aharonot, “Today we are irrelevant to what is happening in the [Vienna] negotiations. The American administration does not hide the fact that Israel is something of a nuisance, and our capacity to influence the diplomatic dynamic is nil.”

Turning to more banal explanations, we can start with Bennett’s (and the recently appointed Barnea’s) general lack of experience and polish in international relations. With his low approval ratings, Bennett the rookie needs to show Israelis he is a “fighter”. He also wants to preempt the inevitable criticism from ex-PM Netanyahu, still his chief political rival, that he is failing at the prime ministerial job.

Then there are tactical explanations. Perhaps Bennett senses that the Vienna talks are destined to fail (not a bad guess) and is positioning himself to take credit (“I told you so. I warned you”). Conceivably he and Defense Minister Gantz (see below) are playing ‘bad cop, good cop’ vis-à-vis Washington. And this too: Bennett might feel a need to distract attention in the US and Israel from American anger at an Israeli hi-tech security firm, NSO, that has sold cellular-intercept gadgetry with Ministry of Defense permission to countries that use it to spy on US allies (Morocco, listening in on French President Macron) and even US diplomats (Uganda).

Q: How do you explain Barnea’s bluster?

A: This is without doubt the most bizarre episode in the entire bluster campaign by Bennett against the Vienna talks. For the Mossad, it marks a new high of exposure in the process that began under PM Netanyahu and Mossad head Yossi Cohen of giving the organization a high public profile both in Israel and abroad. When I served in the Mossad back in the 1970s, the word “Mossad” (technically, “institution”) was not known to the public in an intelligence context and the name of the head of Mossad was not made public. The only “Mossad” known to the public was the National Insurance Institution.

The Mossad reports directly to the prime minister (whereas IDF intelligence reports to the defense minister), and Barnea was presumably doing Bennett’s bidding. He should not have. I hope Barnea was as embarrassed making his remarks as I was listening to him.

Q: And, in contrast, how do you explain Gantz’s relatively reserved public profile on the Iran nuclear issue?

A: I doubt the good cop, bad cop explanation above. Defense Minister Benny Gantz is basically faithful to the views expressed consistently by most of the Israeli security establishment in recent months. Those views hold that the original 2015 JCPOA negotiated by Obama was deeply flawed, but it was better than nothing. And that the Trump/Netanyahu rejection of that agreement in 2018 was a mistake, particularly insofar as no alternative was offered and the assumption that ‘maximum pressure’ would cause Iran to capitulate was not supported by intelligence assessments.

Accordingly, Gantz, who is following Barnea to Washington this week, stated last week that “I am going [to the US] to support the international efforts.”

Q: Bottom line?

A: The gap between the United States and Israel regarding Iran is large. For the United States, Iran is a strategic problem that pales alongside what appear to be bigger and more immediate strategic threats like a Russian invasion of Ukraine or a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. In this sense, the Vienna talks are intended by the US to get the Iran-nuclear issue off the table, if only for a few critical years.

For Israel, Iran is an existential problem. True, for the foreseeable future Iran does not threaten Israel existentially. But not for lack of trying on Tehran’s part. Leading Iranian political and security figures constantly talk about destroying Israel--a phenomenon unique in current international discourse that is simply ignored by the rest of the world. President Rafsanjani, in his day, laconically defined Israel as a “one-bomb country”--a definition understood to imply an easy target for eventual Iranian nuclear attack. Iran’s current hegemonic military drive into the Levant--all the way to the Mediterranean Sea for the first time in some 1400 years of Persian history--is directed first and foremost against Israel.

Taking a charitable view of Bennett’s embarrassingly panicky statements, the sum total of the current Israeli effort, and particularly the Barnea and Gantz meetings with their counterparts (preceded by a visit of key IDF generals to CENTCOM headquarters in Tampa, Florida), appears to consist of two issues. First, Israel wants to ensure that Washington is aware of critical intelligence gathered recently regarding Iranian capabilities and intentions. And second, Israel wants to ensure that the US either acts on this intelligence or assists and equips Israel to act on this intelligence.

Whether Israel even has a workable plan to act alone if necessary (Ehud Barak claims it does not) is another, troubling question.