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Netanyahu mourns Limbaugh, pushes for confrontational path over US-Iran talks

Feb 19, 2021

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waited four weeks for his first phone call from US President Joe Biden, whom he has known for almost four decades. Netanyahu’s office reported that the Feb. 17 conversation was “very warm and friendly,” lasting nearly an hour and covering all the key issues on their agenda. Truly idyllic. The Israeli announcement also reported that the president “commended the prime minister on his leadership in the fight against the coronavirus.” The White House statement did not — maybe a reflection of the fact that while Biden’s election is behind him, Netanyahu’s is still a month away.

The very next day, Netanyahu was already kicking the milk bucket that had just begun to fill by tweeting particularly effusive condolences on this week’s passing of conservative provocative talk show host Rush Limbaugh at the age of 70. Netanyahu is well aware that Democrats despised Limbaugh, his views and his right-wing preaching. He knows that his tweet is tantamount to a finger in the eye of the entire party. He is familiar with the ins and outs of US politics and with the backrooms of the Washington power structure and understands fully what it means when he says, “We shall miss him dearly.”

While Netanyahu’s praise of the controversial firebrand drew some domestic criticism, too, people who know Netanyahu well are convinced he was making a statement beyond the obligatory consolations. In fact, he was telling Democrats that while they had gotten rid of former President Donald Trump, they are stuck with him and he has no intention of giving up or turning the page. I am here to stay, I am a Republican. Thus spoke Netanyahu.

In a way, Netanyahu’s expression of sympathy for Limbaugh’s family and the controversy as a result were merely a gimmick. He has a perfect right to mourn a person whom many in Israel regard as a devoted supporter. The more troubling matter is the last-minute postponement by the prime minister’s office of a Feb. 18 policy discussion of Israeli strategy and policy ahead of renewed negotiations between the United States and Iran and the start of the Israeli-American dialogue on the issue. Participants were to include Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and the heads of Israel’s intelligence and security agencies.

Netanyahu’s recent appointment of national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat as his envoy on the Iran nuclear issue, as previously reported here, continues to generate controversy. Gantz, along with many senior defense officials and probably Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, as well, refuse to accept the appointment. Everything will be carried out in cooperation with the defense agencies, Gantz said Jan. 22. “I intend to make sure that no one even thinks to interfere with us maintaining Israel’s security with all sorts of tricks and bypassing measures that endanger us,” he added.

Gantz is demanding the appointment of a more suitable envoy than Ben-Shabbat or of an additional envoy on his own behalf with the required experience and skills to conduct a sincere, in-depth dialogue with the Biden administration. Someone like Mossad Director Yossi Cohen or former Military Intelligence head retired Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin.

The dispute over the identity of the special envoy conceals a far broader policy clash. “What’s important is not the identity of the envoy, but what policy he brings with him to talks with the Americans in Washington,” a former senior Israeli security official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “There are two main approaches to the issue and two schools of thought. One is the confrontational approach championed by Prime Minister Netanyahu and the other is the one espoused by the ministers of defense and foreign affairs and many senior security experts.”

Netanyahu, according to sources close to him, is nearing a decision on adopting his 2015 policy line that rejected any agreement with Iran, arguing that it would only enable the Iranians to eventually achieve nuclear capability and that Israel must do absolutely everything to prevent such an outcome. The only acceptable option he sees is a continuation of Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy on Iran.

The new administration, however, is unlikely to agree to such an option and just as he was defeated in 2015, Netanyahu will be vanquished in 2021. His envoys will conduct several weeks of fruitless talks with the administration, after which the Americans will return to negotiations with Tehran in the hopes of getting the best deal they can.

The opposite approach espoused by Gantz and company argues that Israel must not repeat the mistakes of 2015 and that it must ascertain a seat at the table so that it can influence the agreement with Iran from within. This requires putting into play all of Israel’s persuasive abilities and intelligence in order to focus the Americans on three truly key parameters.

The first parameter is the so-called sunset clause extending the agreement’s expiration date by at least 25 years, a total ban on nuclear research and development, and ironclad supervision at all times and sites. Convincing the United States and the other world powers involved in the deal to accept two of these three conditions would also mean a significant strategic shift for Israel.

The second parameter is maintaining the “maximum pressure” achievements of the Trump administration on Iran. “Despite the ABT [Anything-but-Trump] policy, the Biden administration must be persuaded that the Trump administration created powerful levers vis-a-vis the Iranian regime, which can be used ahead of new negotiations,” a former senior military official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “This is not out of the realm of possibility.”

The third and most intriguing parameter is forging a parallel Israel-US agreement at the same time, perhaps even between Israel and its Middle Eastern allies and Washington. The idea raised recently by French President Emmanuel Macron of including Israel and Saudi Arabia in negotiations with Iran is not feasible. Israel would never sign an agreement with Iran on nuclear issues. What might be possible is an Israeli-American agreement setting out the parameters of international supervision of Iran, rejecting out of hand a nuclear Iran under any circumstances and “freeing” Israel to take action should Iran violate the deal or achieve breakout capability ahead of the sunset clause.

“It’s important that we have a green light under such circumstances,” a senior Israeli diplomatic source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “At least to the extent we had in attacking the Syrian reactor in 2007.”

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