After Defense Minister Benny Gantz said he was prepared to accept a scenario in which the US negotiates a fresh nuclear deal with Iran, Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu went on the offensive Wednesday, saying Israel’s new government was a “huge disaster” for national security.
“[Prime Minister Naftali] Bennett, [Foreign Minister Yair] Lapid and Gantz are rushing into a dangerous nuclear deal that will allow Iran to develop a nuclear arsenal,” Netanyahu wrote in a social media post.
Bennett assured US President Joe Biden at the White House last month that he would not publicly campaign against Washington’s efforts to coax Iran back to the 2015 accord, brokered by former US president Barack Obama and abrogated by Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump in 2018, Israeli officials said.
“This is a dangerous mistake. He should not be allowed to make such a commitment because Iran is an existential threat and an existential threat must be fought in every way,” Netanyahu said.
As prime minister, Netanyahu had campaigned aggressively against the deal and even accepted an invitation to address a joint session of Congress, where he unsuccessfully lobbied lawmakers against it in 2015, aggravating an already growing rift between Israel and the US Democratic Party.
“But now it is also clear why Bennett pledged not to act against Iran’s return to a nuclear deal: A large portion of his government supports Iran’s return to the agreement!” Netanyahu said regarding Gantz’s interview with Foreign Policy, published Tuesday.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, right, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz speak in the Knesset on September 2, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
“The government of Bennett, Lapid and Gantz, with the support of Meretz and Ra’am, is a huge disaster for Israel’s national security,” Netanyahu said.
“The current US approach of putting the Iran nuclear program back in a box, I’d accept that,” Gantz had said in the interview, employing rhetoric used by the Biden administration to describe the goal of the 2015 nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
While Israeli defense officials not in government have indicated a degree of tolerance for the JCPOA or a negotiated nuclear deal of any kind in the past, that sentiment has not extended to public officials, and Gantz appears to be the most senior cabinet member to reflect it on the record.
A spokesperson for the minister later clarified that Gantz does not support an American return to the JCPOA, but rather maintains that Israel would accept some other longer, broader and stronger nuclear agreement.
Bennett has made it clear that he opposes a negotiated nuclear deal and has not publicly stated that its resurrection is something that Israel could live with, as Gantz did in his Tuesday interview.
TV cameras in front of the ‘Grand Hotel Vienna’ where closed-door nuclear talks take place in Vienna, Austria, June 20, 2021. (Florian Schroetter/AP)
The defense minister also made clear that he wanted to see a “viable US-led plan B” that includes significant political, diplomatic and economic pressure against Tehran imposed jointly by the US, Europe, Russia and China — as well as a credible military threat — if talks in Vienna seeking a US-Iran return to the JCPOA fail to bear fruit.
“We have to connect China in this too, Asia has to play a role,” Gantz said, noting Iran’s growing economic ties with the Far East. “Israel has no ability to lead a real plan B, we can’t put together an international economic sanctions regime. This has to be led by the US.”
“Iran has to fear that the US and its partners are serious,” he added.
Gantz also indicated to Foreign Policy that Israel had its own “plan C” that would involve military action.
“If push comes to shove, we’ll get there,” Gantz said, switching to English to make the point, adding: “We’re not America, but we have our capabilities.”