The newly elected Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is likely to part ways with his predecessor's harsh Iran policy and align his administration with Washington's less confrontational approach.
For Israel's outgoing prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the option of war against Israel always seemed to be at hand since he deployed his war rhetoric against the country's archrival so many times.
In the last few years, Netanyahu had become a fierce critic of Tehran’s nuclear deal with Washington and Western powers. But after gambling so hard through three inconclusive elections, he lost power on the weekend as a new anti-Netanyahu government was approved by the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.
Unlike Netanyahu, who even accused Washington of his political downfall, comparing the Biden administration to Iran and Hamas and “depicting all three as threats to Israel”, the new Israeli government under Naftali Bennett has shown willingness to align his coalition government with the Biden administration, even though Washington has been advocating for the revitalisation of the nuclear deal ever since Donald Trump lost the US presidential election.
Does it mean Israel is softening its stance on Iran?
“I expect that the Bennett-led government will discreetly oppose the revival of the Iran nuclear deal with U.S. participation, which almost certainly will be accompanied by phased removal of sanctions and an abandonment of the Trump approach based on 'maximal pressure,'” says Richard Falk, a prominent American international law professor.
“I would not expect Bennett to waste his political capital on challenging the Iran Nuclear Agreement if it appears to be a high priority goal of the Biden presidency, which is presently the case,” Falk tells TRT World.
If that is the case, then, Israel at least needs to soften its harsh rhetoric toward Iran.
Israel’s softening toward Iran
Yoram Schweitzer, a former member of the Israeli intelligence community, who now heads Program on Terrorism and Low Intensity Conflict at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), thinks that Israel’s tough rhetoric toward Iran will be softened under the new government.
In particular, the centrist Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and in general the Bennett government will be “less vocal” on Iran with toned down “public declarations” that would most likely be in line with Biden’s policy of restoring the nuclear deal with Iran, Schweitzer tells TRT World.
The former Israeli spy expects that on the question of Iran the Bennett government should make “extensive efforts for a quiet, covert and less disharmonious coordination with the Biden Administration”.
But Israel’s softening approach toward Tehran will probably amount to just “talking less but doing the same thing”, according to the Israeli analyst. “Biden will decide on the US policy and Israel can contribute to the consolidation of the conditions (to some extent). But there is no guarantee that such agreement will be achieved soon.”
Falk has similar expectations from Bennett, who has a far-right background. “Israel’s independent policy toward Iran is likely to remain hostile and somewhat confrontational, but less bellicose in rhetoric and style than in the Netanyahu era."
As a result, experts don’t expect much of a profound change in Israel’s Iran policy under the Bennett government, which includes diverse voices from Mansour Abbas, the leader of the United Arab List, a Palestinian politician with the Israeli citizenship, to left-wing groups.
“Probably there will not be a profound change in principles and practice of Israel's policy towards Iran,” Schweitzer says.
“In principle Israel's basic concerns [regarding Iran] will not be changed,” Schweitzer adds, referring to several serious issues between Tel Aviv and Tehran across the Middle East from Iran’s support to Palestinian groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to the Shia majority country’s backing of Lebanon’s powerful group, Hezbollah, Israel’s nemesis.
Israel’s number one issue
In the Knesset, amid fierce exchanges between Israeli’s outgoing prime minister and the head of the incoming government on the weekend, one thing was crystal clear: Iran is the number one issue for Tel Aviv’s security concerns.
“I’ve heard what Bennett said [about standing firm against Iran], and I’m concerned, because Bennett does the opposite of what he promises,” Netanyahu said, accusing the new prime minister, who is his former protege, of dishonesty and inconsistency. Netanyahu has been recently charged with fraud and breach of trust concerning his corruption cases.
"It is only natural to think that the first foreign policy test for Bennett will be Iran not Palestine,” says Falk. Since the 1979 Revolution, Iran’s involvement in the Palestinian conflict has made Tehran a target of Israel.
Yair Lapid, Israel’s new foreign minister, is a centrist politician, who is well aware of the connections between Iran and the Palestinian conflict.
“Can we separate the Iranian problem from the Palestinian problem?” Lapid asked, during a high-level conference last year. He also questioned Netanyahu’s tough-headed approach toward the Palestinian aspirations, believing that disregarding their rights and a warmonger approach toward Iran could potentially make things worse.
“I believe that a breakthrough on the Iranian issue depends on the Palestinian issue. We need to work to advance a diplomatic agreement with the Palestinians, only as part of a regional discussion,” Lapid said, signalling his willingness to find a common ground with Tehran.
Lapid is widely seen as the architect of the anti-Netanyahu alliance, whose government was approved by the Knesset last week. He is acting as a bridge between far-right groups like Bennett’s and leftist groups alongside Mansour’s Joint List.
Netanyahu has other ideas
But Likud leader Netanyahu, who is now the main opposition head, accuses the new government of being compromised on Israeli security by following Biden’s advice on Iran and other regional issues.
“The prime minister of Israel needs to be able to say no to the president of the United States on issues that threaten our existence,” Netanyahu said on Sunday, referring to the nuclear deal.
In 2015, when the nuclear deal was signed between Iran and the US-led international coalition, Netanyahu made a fiery speech at the US Congress, using the opportunity to condemn the agreement. Netanyahu’s speech created much resentment across the then-Obama administration, which might still linger across the Biden government.
“This government does not want and is not capable of opposing the United States,” Netanyahu added. But Netanyahu’s strong connections with the former Trump administration has created a growing distance between him and the US Democratic Party, projecting him a political obstacle to Biden to de-escalate tensions across the Middle East, according to experts.
Matthew Bryza, a former US top diplomat, emphasised in a previous TRT World interview that Washington wants a “less confrontational” Israeli government to enable “the US to move forward” with other foreign “agenda items” like revitalising the Iran nuclear deal.
“Many prominent Democrats in the US have expressed disdain or contempt for Netanyahu and will be happy when he's gone from office,” Antony Loewenstein, an independent journalist and author, who was based in East Jerusalem from 2016 to 2020, told TRT World in a previous interview.
A new US-Israel alignment over Iran?
Like Netanyahu, Bennett has also been against the deal. "Resuming a nuclear deal with Iran is a mistake that will legitimize one of the world's most violent regimes," Bennett said on Sunday.
But two hours after his swearing-in, he spoke with Biden, agreeing to consult closely with the US “on all matters related to regional security, including Iran.” It could mean that a new kind of policy alignment is developing between the two allies.
“If Bennett does not make Biden's life miserable by raising the stakes by public attack in the face of a disagreement about Iran, Israel will receive reassurances in the form of an American commitment to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and to renew the pledge to maintain Israel's qualitative edge in weaponry with respect to the Arab world and region (including Iran, Turkey),” Falk observed.
“I doubt that Bennett will push its objections to Biden's Iran policy to the point of an open break with Washington, at least not early in his term as leader,” Falk added.
Tehran does not expect any real normalisation with Israel anytime soon.
Schweitzer, the Israeli political analyst, thinks that because there will be no real change in Israeli politics toward Iran, Tehran’s “animosity” against Tel Aviv will stay the same as it is. “It won’t change their strategy,” he says.
"Iran's enemies are gone and powerful Iran is still here. I don't think Israel's policies will change with the new government," said Saeed Khatibzadeh, Iran's foreign ministry spokesman.
According to Netanyahu, Tehran is in a celebratory mood as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister is leaving power “because they understand that from today there will be a weak government in Israel that will align with the dictates of the international community.”