Israel is testing Biden
Who's in charge of American diplomacy?
The Biden administration and Iran have made some halting steps toward patching up the nuclear deal that Donald Trump tore up. Talks are proceeding in Vienna, and while there is a great deal of mistrust (entirely justified on the Iranian side, thanks to how Trump betrayed America's promises), slow progress is reportedly being made.
That is almost certainly why Israel launched an attack on an Iranian nuclear facility this week. The Natanz uranium enrichment plant was hit by an explosion on Sunday, which intelligence officials told The New York Times was carried out by Israeli forces. The intent was plainly to dynamite the Vienna talks, and sure enough, Iran announced in retaliation that it would increase its current target of uranium enrichment from 20 percent to 60 percent.
The Israeli government, still headed for the moment by Benjamin Netanyahu, thinks it can push President Biden around — and it might be right.
Sticking a thumb in America's eye right as it is starting up delicate, sensitive negotiations is entirely typical of Netanyahu's arrogance in general and his hyper-belligerent approach to Iran in particular. This is a guy who personally meddles in American elections (in favor of Republicans, including Donald Trump), thinks that "In the Middle East, there is no threat that is more serious, more dangerous, more pressing than that posed by the fanatical regime in Iran," and who went behind President Obama's back to directly persuade Congress to halt the Iran nuclear deal — a grave breach of diplomatic protocol that thankfully did not work. No other foreign leader would even dream about attempting that kind of stunt.
Netanyahu is a guy who falsely asserted before Congress in 2002 that "there is no question whatsoever" that Saddam Hussein was working on nuclear weapons, and has falsely predicted over and over and over for almost 30 years that Iran was very close to building a nuke — part of a blatant years-long effort to bait or trick the U.S. into invading Iran for him. (Meanwhile, Israel is the only country in the Middle East that actually does possess a nuclear arsenal.)
The Israeli government clearly thinks it can interfere with America's pursuit of its strategic interests without risking a diplomatic breach or Israel's enormous subsidies from the American state. And it's easy to see why — it has done so repeatedly for years, and gotten away with it every time. Even while Netanyahu treated President Obama with flippant contempt and constantly threw sand in the gears of diplomacy with Iran, Israel continued to receive billions in American cash and (with rare exceptions) free use of the American veto on the U.N. Security Council.
A full accounting of why Israel enjoys such latitude is beyond the scope of this article. But it certainly has something to do with the large caucus of die-hard Israel supporters in both political parties. On the Democratic side, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and Biden himself have long been indulgent partisans of Israel, viewing it as the region's only democracy and a key ally. There are even more zealous views among Republicans, many of whom are evangelical Christians who believe that Israel validates a wild prophecy in the Book of Revelation. (How to reconcile Israeli "democracy" with the de facto and increasingly de jure apartheid system that leaves 4.8 million Palestinians with no representation in the government that rules them through merciless violence somehow goes unaddressed in this thinking.)
If I had to guess, I would expect that Biden will also let Israel get away with striking Iran once again. That would fit with his history, and reining in Israel (by threatening to cut off Israel's aid or use of the Security Council veto, for instance) would cause a lot of political headaches at home.
On the other hand, Israel meddling with these negotiations is probably intensely irritating to U.S. diplomats. The Biden administration reportedly would very much like to tie up the Iran situation so that it can turn its attention elsewhere. Time is also short — new elections are coming up soon in Iran, in which the moderate pro-diplomacy faction might lose to conservatives. (It's a reasonable supposition that Israel would like that to happen.)
And the fact is Israel depends utterly on U.S. protection. It is deeply unpopular across the world, and without America's Security Council veto might well have been subject to economic sanctions by now over the occupation of the Palestinian territories and ongoing land theft there. It's just barely possible that Netanyahu has gone too far this time. If Biden does decide he's not going to tolerate these antics, Netanyahu will have no one to blame but himself.
Editor's note: This article was previously illustrated by a collage that mixed the Israeli flag with a photo of Biden in a way that was insensitive and offensive. The website often creates illustrations that combine flags with important political figures, but we should have been much more attuned to the symbolism in this case. The image has been replaced and we apologize unreservedly.