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Israel Can Live With a New Iran Nuclear Deal, Defense Minister Says

But Benny Gantz also threatens military action if Tehran develops nukes.

By , a journalist covering Middle East politics.
Israel's Defense Minister Benny Gantz (left) and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett
Israel's Defense Minister Benny Gantz (left) and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at a parliament meeting in Jerusalem on July 7. GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP via Getty Images

TEL AVIV, Israel—Israel would be willing to accept a return to a U.S.-negotiated nuclear deal with Iran, Defense Minister Benny Gantz told Foreign Policy—but Israeli officials are also pressing Washington to prepare a serious “demonstration of power” in case negotiations with Tehran fail.

The remarks, made during an exclusive interview last week, appear to reflect a shift in policy for Israel, which under the leadership of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu loudly opposed the 2015 nuclear agreement and worked to undermine it.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the agreement in 2018, but the Biden administration has renewed the diplomacy—even as Iran moves closer to enriching enough uranium to make a nuclear weapon.

TEL AVIV, Israel—Israel would be willing to accept a return to a U.S.-negotiated nuclear deal with Iran, Defense Minister Benny Gantz told Foreign Policy—but Israeli officials are also pressing Washington to prepare a serious “demonstration of power” in case negotiations with Tehran fail.

The remarks, made during an exclusive interview last week, appear to reflect a shift in policy for Israel, which under the leadership of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu loudly opposed the 2015 nuclear agreement and worked to undermine it.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the agreement in 2018, but the Biden administration has renewed the diplomacy—even as Iran moves closer to enriching enough uranium to make a nuclear weapon.

Gantz, asked about efforts by the Biden administration to get back to an agreement with Iran, said: “The current U.S. approach of putting the Iran nuclear program back in a box, I’d accept that.”

He added that Israel would want to see a “viable U.S.-led plan B” that includes broad economic pressure on Iran in case the talks fail. And he gestured at Israel’s own “plan C,” which would involve military action.

Gantz estimated that Iran was two to three months away from having the materials and capabilities to produce one nuclear bomb. Iran has steadily ramped up its nuclear work since the United States withdrew from the deal, despite a so-called maximum pressure campaign advanced by Trump and Netanyahu that included sanctions and sabotage efforts.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett criticized Netanyahu on that very issue Tuesday, telling Israel’s Channel 12 News: “Israel inherited a situation in which Iran is at the most advanced point ever in its race to the bomb. … The gap between [Netanyahu’s] rhetoric and speeches and actions is very big.”

Gantz was skeptical about the chances of diplomacy successfully reversing Iran’s progress. He outlined what Israel would view as a “viable” back-up plan: political, diplomatic, and economic pressure imposed on Tehran by the United States, Europe, Russia, and—crucially—China.

“We have to connect China in this too, Asia has to play a role,” Gantz said, highlighting the key trade ties between Iran and Asian countries. “Israel has no ability to lead a real plan B, we can’t put together an international economic sanctions regime. This has to be led by the U.S.”

“Iran has to fear that the U.S. and its partners are serious,” Gantz said.

At the same time, the Israeli military was preparing its own measures to stop Iran’s nuclear progress. “If push comes to shove, we’ll get there,” Gantz said, underscoring the point by switching from Hebrew to English. “We’re not America, but we have our capabilities.”

Gantz warned about a regional nuclear arms race that would ensue if Iran did manage to cross the threshold.

“Other states won’t just sit quietly,” Gantz said. “They’ll buy it directly off the shelf from Pakistan or whoever they can.”

He said the recent U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan had the potential in the long term to embolden Iran and its proxies.

Gantz is a former army chief who earlier in his career commanded Israeli troops stationed in Lebanon, part of which Israel occupied for nearly two decades before withdrawing in 2000. Some analysts have compared the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan with the Israeli pullout from Lebanon, a parallel Gantz himself raised.

“There are no happy withdrawals,” Gantz said. The U.S. decision to leave “was perfectly understandable … otherwise you could be there forever.” But he also said Iran must not be allowed to conclude from the withdrawal that “all you have to do is stay strong and determined and the West will fold.”

During the one-hour interview at the defense ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv, just days before the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Gantz said that the “clash of civilizations” between the West and militant groups around the world was still in play.

He also addressed relations with the Palestinians, emphasizing that Israel would not be removing any settlements from the West Bank, while maintaining that in the long term “we need two political entities here.”

Gantz met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas late last month, the first high-level meeting in a decade. But Bennett, an ultranationalist and former settlement leader, emphasized that the meeting did not herald a new peace process.

Gantz didn’t disagree, but he stressed the importance of maintaining ties to Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, “a value of the highest importance.” Gantz has taken the lead on the Palestinian issue in the new government, with Israel agreeing to several economic and civil measures in recent weeks to bolster the Palestinian Authority, which rules over swaths of the West Bank.

He said there was no appetite for an agreement in the government he serves—led by Bennett—and no prospects for real negotiations as long as the Palestinians remain divided between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which the Islamist Hamas group controls. Also, Abbas had so far failed to demonstrate an ability to make historic decisions, Gantz said.

“Abbas is still dreaming of the 1967 lines [as the basis for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and an end to the conflict]—this won’t happen,” Gantz said. “He has to realize we’re staying there. … We’re not taking down settlements.”

Asked about the prospects of another war between Israel and Gaza, Gantz said he hoped that the new government’s more forceful military responses to attacks from the territory, coupled with greater economic aid, would militate against Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar’s appetite for a fight.

“Sinwar also has pressures, and 2 million [Gaza] residents on his head,” Gantz said. “He’s a bit too full of himself than what I think is warranted. If it’s not enough for him, then we’re stronger.”

Gantz became a politician just three years ago after a career in the military. But he’s already experienced the dramatic ups and downs that come with Israeli political life.

A year ago his political future seemed to be in doubt: His power-sharing agreement with Netanyahu was coming apart and many former allies mocked him for putting his trust in the then-prime minister, a cunning politician famous for outmaneuvering rivals.

But Gantz said he’s been wholly vindicated, having first blocked Netanyahu from winning successive elections outright and then helped unseat him. “It’s been a difficult journey, but a successful journey,” he said.

Asked about media speculation that his relationship with senior cabinet ministers is troubled, Gantz said he “hoped” the new government—a coalition of centrist, leftist, and right-wing factions, as well as an Islamist Arab party—would serve out its term.

“Overall the government is functioning fine—we’re making space for each other [to work] … but I’m the lead on security matters,” he said.

Whether such a disparate coalition could one day make good on the military threats that Netanyahu leveled against Iran for years over its nuclear program (and that Gantz and others now echo) remains uncertain.

“The cabinet will decide whatever is required … and I’m sure that if we demand the army act then it’ll bring us solutions,” Gantz said. “This won’t change.”

Neri Zilber is a journalist covering Middle East politics and an adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is the co-author of State with No Army, Army with No State: Evolution of the Palestinian Authority Security Forces, 1994-2018. Twitter: @NeriZilber

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