The Israeli government is preparing for a new phase in its relationship with America under the new US administration headed by Joe Biden. It will not be without disagreements and contradictions, unlike the past four years of Donald Trump’s term in office, as he did everything he could to satisfy Israel’s extreme right wing led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
One area for disagreement with the new administration is not related to any US position against Israel, but is mainly about the concept of Israel’s interests. US administrations are generally keen to ensure that Israel’s political, economic and security interests are taken care of, and that the occupation state’s hegemony in the region is maintained, not least because it acts as a tool for the benefit of US interests given the strong alliance between the two countries.
The differences between the US and Israel are apparent in the positions of the Biden administration and the Netanyahu government on two main issues. The first relates to the two-state solution and Biden’s apparent opposition to Israel’s imposition of facts on the ground unilaterally in the occupied Palestinian territories, especially settlement construction and any legal change in the status of these territories which is a threat to “two states”. This position is also accepted by the majority of American Jews, as they believe it is in the best interest of Israel and preserves its status with a solid Jewish majority and a democratic system. This is an important requirement for continued Western support and alliances.
The second issue is the nuclear agreement with Iran, which Israel believes is looking to develop nuclear warheads for its precision missile systems that threaten Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region. At the moment, Israel is the only state in the region with weapons of mass destruction and the long-range missile to deliver them, and it wants to keep it that way.
The disagreement with the US on this issue is not related to the goal, but rather on how to reach it, as Israel thinks that the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement gives Iran what it wants by lifting sanctions and providing it with funds that guarantee the continuation of its weapons programmes, including the development of its missile systems. Moreover, from Israel’s point of view, the JCPOA expires after fifteen years, when Iran will have a free rein for its military nuclear programme, which in any case the Israelis claim has never stopped, but is ongoing away from international eyes and supervision. Although Trump took the US out of the JCPOA in 2018, the new administration believes that it is the only way to prevent Iran from developing a military nuclear programme. It does not see Iranian missiles as a pressing problem, although it wants to discuss the issue with Tehran and limit its capabilities.
Israel, meanwhile, wants to put an end to the Iranian nuclear programme by tightening economic sanctions against Tehran, which should prevent it from investing in the manufacture and development of missiles. The use of force is also a possibility, with Israel destroying Iran’s nuclear facilities. Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement was done under Israeli pressure, as was the subsequent re-imposition of sanctions. The Israelis went one step further, and have not only been sabotaging Iran’s nuclear facilities, but are also believed to have been behind the assassination of a number of Iranian nuclear experts, the most recent of whom was the father of the nuclear programme, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.
With Biden feeling inclined to return the US to the nuclear deal, Israel feels that its hands are tied. It may turn to its new best friends in the Arab world for help in putting pressure on Washington regarding this issue, given that normalisation with the Arab countries aims, among other things, to build a front against Iran. The Gulf States consider Iran to be a major threat to their security and stability, which is where their interests converge with Israel’s.
However, there is a problem in trying to get Arab pressure on the US for many reasons, including the fact that some Arab countries linked their interests to the Trump administration, which overshadowed some problems with them, especially their appalling human rights record. With Joe Biden in the White House, these countries are in a weaker position and will need to improve their relationship with his administration before being in any kind of position to bring pressure to bear.
There are also some differences between the Arab countries themselves about the relationship with Iran. For example, not all of the Gulf States adopt the same approach in this respect, with Oman and Qatar having close relations with Tehran. Even the UAE has some kind of economic and security cooperation with Iran. Since the reconciliation between the blockading states — Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt — and the target of their blockade, Qatar, the latter has suggested starting a dialogue with Iran to improve relations. There appears to be some degree of interest in doing this, in which case Israel could find itself isolated in any confrontation with Iran, even if it gets support from some Arab countries against Iranian projects in the region.
In light of such differences with Biden over the Iranian nuclear programme, and Israel’s continued attempts to influence the US position, what are the occupation state’s options if the US rejoins the JCPOA, which seems likely? Although Israel will not be able to carry out a large-scale attack against Iran to destroy its nuclear facilities and missile sites, I believe that it will continue to sabotage Tehran’s nuclear development programme in one way or another.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Ayyam on 27 January 2021
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.