Before looking for whom the message was intended, it is worth looking first at who was not likely the targeted audience: US President Joe Biden and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
The security cabinet met on Monday for the first time in two months to discuss the Iranian threat, as the US and Iran appeared headed toward reviving the 2015 nuclear deal that Israel opposed relentlessly and which president Donald Trump walked away from three years later.
No official statement was released after the security cabinet meeting – not even a laconic one as is sometimes the case. So what the public gleaned about that meeting came primarily from a source who attended it and told various media outlets, including The Jerusalem Post: The ministers were concerned that Washington wants an Iran deal at all costs, and the Iranians know it.
The meeting included security briefings from National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and Mossad Director Yossi Cohen. Yet the only morsel of information that was thrown to the media had to do with Israeli disappointment over how the US was conducting the negotiations.
“It is not a situation in which the Americans want to stand their ground,” the official was quoted as saying. “They’re giving up more than the Iranians are asking for. Their goal is racing toward an agreement at all costs.”
“The Iranians know that the deal will be signed no matter what, so they are doing the most to maximize their gains,” the official said. “The Americans hear our concerns, but the question is whether they are even listening. It’s not clear whether we’re heading toward an escalation with Iran.”
That various media outlets got the same information – almost the exact same quotes – indicates that there was a guiding hand, that a decision was made that this was what should come out of the meeting, and that Israel wanted it known that it feels the US is getting badly outplayed by Iran in the indirect talks taking place in Vienna.
When only a tiny bit of information comes out of a meeting that lasted for more than two hours, the question that needs to be asked is: “Why this?” What purpose is served by headlines reading, “Cabinet concerned Washington wants an Iran deal at all costs”? Who is the intended audience?
Before seeking out for whom this message was aimed, it is worth looking first at who was not the likely targeted audience: US President Joe Biden and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Israel has numerous channels of communication with the administration – both Cohen and Ben-Shabbat are expected to travel there in the coming weeks. So if Jerusalem has complaints about the American negotiating style, it is a safe bet that they don’t need the Israeli media to relay that displeasure through a few sentences mouthed by an anonymous source, and that these complaints have already been passed on.
So who is Israel trying to impress?
Some will argue that it is intended for the domestic audience, and that for political reasons, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is interested in putting daylight between Jerusalem and Washington on Iran to show Israelis that when it comes to Iran, he is willing and able – again – to stand up to the US administration.
Some will go further and say that Netanyahu is even looking for a public dispute with the US because that could help him politically, as Israelis have shown in the past that when it comes to picking sides between the US president and their prime minister, they will rally around their prime minister.
This came out clearly in the early days of president Barack Obama’s term, when Obama pushed hard for a settlement freeze in the mistaken assumption that the Israeli public would turn on their prime minister, rather than have him risk a fight with the US over an issue – the settlements – that was not particularly popular in Israel in any regard. The move backfired, and the public circled the wagons around Netanyahu.
But it seems a stretch to believe that Netanyahu – on top of all of his other challenges – is looking now for tension with the US, especially as US understanding will be essential if the tit-for-tat exchanges with Iran over the last few weeks escalate, and as Jerusalem is facing a showdown with the International Criminal Court and will need US backing.
So if neither the administration nor the Israeli public was the intended audience, who was?
The two likeliest candidates are the US Congress and Israel’s new friends in the Gulf, namely the UAE, Bahrain and the Saudis.
As the talks continue in Vienna, the battle lines are being drawn in Washington over the wisdom of resuscitating the 2015 deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or whether it should be altered to encompass other elements of Iran’s behavior, including its ballistic-missile program and malign behavior throughout the region.
In late March, a bipartisan group of 43 senators sent a letter to Biden calling on him to widen and strengthen the deal. On the other hand, a week ago, 27 Democratic senators sent the president a letter urging him to quickly reenter the agreement on a compliance-for-compliance basis. Similar dueling letters also emanated in recent weeks from the House of Representatives.
Statements in Israel opposed to how the negotiations are being conducted could strengthen the hands of those forces in the US opposed to and working against a quick return to the nuclear deal, as these people could lean in their arguments – at least partly – on Israeli concerns.
It has become axiomatic to say that the threat of Iran is what brought Israel and the Gulf states closer together. While some say that Netanyahu’s speech to Congress against the Iran deal in 2015 hurt Israel’s position among the Democratic Party, others maintain that that speech – and Netanyahu’s willingness to make it even though it entailed butting heads with Obama – helped bring Israel closer to the Gulf countries and paved the way for the eventual signing of the Abraham Accords.
Netanyahu himself has made this argument on numerous occasions, telling the Knesset in October when he presented the Abraham Accords for a vote, that the most significant turning point in the Arab world’s interest in getting closer to Israel “was the resistance I led to the dangerous nuclear agreement with Iran… Various leaders in the region contacted me, particularly after my speech in Congress. They secretly contacted me and said how much they welcome this policy, and they gradually expressed a willingness to strengthen the relations with us.”
If this is indeed the case, or even if it is only Netanyahu’s portrayal of reality, it explains why Israel would want to say after the security cabinet meeting that it is disappointed in the way the US is conducting the negotiations: to let the Gulf countries know that they can continue to count on Jerusalem to lead the charge against a return to the JCPOA – even at the risk of once again incurring the administration’s displeasure.