War Stories

Biden Has a Bibi Problem

The president needs to stop the Israeli prime minister from sabotaging talks to resume the Iran nuclear deal.

US Vice President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu give joint statements to press in the prime minister's office in Jerusalem on March 9, 2016. Biden implicitly criticised Palestinian leaders for not condemning attacks against Israelis, as an upsurge in violence marred his visit.

 / AFP / POOL AND AFP / DEBBIE HILL        (Photo credit should read DEBBIE HILL/AFP via Getty Images)
US Vice President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu give joint statements to press in the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem on March 9, 2016. Pool/Getty Images

President Biden needs to tell the Israeli government to start acting more like a much-aided ally and less like a sneaky saboteur.

The spark to what should be a stern diplomatic conversation occurred this past weekend, when a bomb planted by Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad, blew up the main and back-up electrical-power lines to Iran’s nuclear-fuel center at Natanz. The act occurred just as talks were underway to resume the long-dormant Iran nuclear deal, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long opposed. It also occurred on the eve of a visit to Israel by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, thus making the U.S. seem complicit in the act.

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White House press secretary Jen Psaki has denied U.S. involvement in the attack. But since the United States and Israel jointly crafted Stuxnet, the 2010 covert program that sabotaged uranium enrichment at Natanz through highly sophisticated cyber attacks (a program that U.S. officials still don’t discuss openly a decade later), it’s not deeply paranoid for Iranian officials to assume that Washington was in on the plot.

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This isn’t the first time that Netanyahu’s government has defied an American president’s wishes, or done so while embarrassing a senior U.S. official. In 2010, just hours after a visit to Israel by then-Vice President Biden, who pledged unyielding support for the country’s security, Israeli’s interior ministry announced 1,600 new housing units for Jews in East Jerusalem—breaking promises of a moratorium on new housing in the occupied territories. (Netanyahu claimed the interior minister acted on his own, but he did not reverse or in any way alter the policy.)*

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Five year later, as Obama and the leaders of five other nations were about to finish negotiating the Iran nuclear deal, Netanyahu fiercely spoke against the deal before a joint session of the U.S. Congress—an unprecedented breach of protocol, abetted by a Republican-controlled legislature. After Donald Trump was elected presdient, Netanyahu played a major role in persuading him to withdraw from the deal—against the unanimous advice of Trump’s senior advisers at the time, and against the advice that Netanyahu had received from senior Israeli military and intelligence officers.

Now that Netanyahu has lost his charmed access to the White House, he is seeking to sabotage the deal’s revival by undermining Iran’s confidence that it is worth reviving—that the Americans, even post-Trump, are serious about settling the issue through diplomacy rather than force.

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Netanyahu is all but open about his motives. During Stuxnet, the Israeli government stayed mum about its role in the cyberattack; but just hours after this weekend’s explosion, U.S. and Israeli newspapers were attributing the attack to Mossad—a leak that, as a columnist in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz wrote on Tuesday, could only have come from (or at least been authorized by) Netanyahu himself.

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With Israel identified as the source of the attack, Iran has to respond somehow, which will allow anti-Iranian politicians—in Israel, the United States, and the Sunni-led governments of the Middle East—to paint Tehran as an aggressive power that should not be relieved of sanctions. As a result, Netanyahu hopes, talks to revive the deal, which have been going on Vienna, might collapse.

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Netanyahu has personal reasons to sabotage the talks as well. He has been unable to create a governing coalition since last month elections. He is under criminal investigation for corruption. Sowing a climate of fear and crisis is his best hope for holding on to power.

Biden shouldn’t let him. When reporters in Jerusalem asked Austin about the Natanz attack, he said nothing. The White House should send him instructions to dissociate himself from the sabotage in no uncertain terms. The president himself—not just his press secretary—should make a similar statement, to keep Netanyahu from destroying prospects for peace and security.

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Biden is well positioned to put the squeeze on Netanyahu. Biden’s own commitment to Israel is long established. The same can be said of his secretary of state, Antony Blinken, who has spoken passionately of his stepfather’s escape from a Nazi concentration camp and of his devotion to Israel. It is as good a time as any for an American president to make clear that U.S. interests cannot be subordinated to the domestic political strategies of a prime minister, not even an Israeli prime minister.

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This is a pivotal moment for the nuclear deal in several ways. The essence of the deal was that Iran would dismantle its nuclear program, while the U.S. and the other signatories would lift economic sanctions, which had been levied against in Iran as punishment for its nuclear program. When Trump pulled out of the deal, he re-imposed sanctions—not just against Iran but also against any other country that did business with Iran. Many months later, Iran responded by resuming its nuclear program. The gas centrifuges at Natanz are very close to enriching uranium at a level of 20 percent. Once this level is achieved, it takes only a slight technical effort, and not much time, to boost enrichment to 90 percent—enough to build an atom bomb.

Time is running out on the talks politically as well. Iran holds presidential elections in June. Unless the deal is restored and sanctions are lifted by then, the most hardline factions are likely to win—making the deal even harder to revive.

Correction, April 13: This piece originally stated, inaccurately, that Netanyahu’s office had announced the original settlement expansion in 2010.

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