Even in the wake of Iran’s rigged presidential election, won by the hardline conservative Ebrahim Raisi, negotiations to resuscitate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Agreement (JCPOA) are continuing to take place. Raisi has expressed a willingness to abide by the terms of the JCPOA if doing so would “guarantee [Iran’s] national interests,” and the United States, under President Joe Biden, is pursuing a return to the landmark nuclear deal. Despite momentum on both sides, it remains to be seen whether or not Iran and the United States will be able to return to full compliance, or even reach a new arrangement. Regardless of the outcome, however, this current round of negotiations is likely to occur relatively free of the aggressive political jockeying from Israel that took place in 2015, when then-Prime-Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to the extraordinary lengths of delivering a speech to Congress registering strong opposition to the JCPOA. As the most prominent and outspoken critic of the deal, the absence of Netanyahu’s voice as the representative of the Israeli state will be felt less in terms of its impact on negotiations than the extent to which the issue will take center stage in Republican politics.
Republicans in the United States seized on Netanyahu’s 2015 appearance, grounding their criticisms of the JCPOA in the dangers they claimed it would pose to Israel. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham called the deal a “death sentence for the state of Israel,” and in comments denounced by many Israelis themselves, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee claimed that entering the JCPOA would “take Israelis and march them to the door of the oven.” In an unprecedented challenge to the executive branch’s authority over diplomacy, Senator Tom Cotton led 46 other Republican senators in warning Iran in a letter to its Supreme Leader of the possibility that a future President could unilaterally withdraw from any agreement.
Netanyahu’s speech did more than cement Republican opposition to the JCPOA — it helped to establish his own role as a statesman who aspired to global influence. In his last remarks before departing the premiership, Netanyahu boasted of his having “influenced the previous American administration to leave the dangerous nuclear deal,” underscoring the relationship he had cultivated with then-President Donald Trump. He went on to blast his successor, Naftali Bennett, as lacking the “international standing” and “the credibility” to prevent the resumption of full JCPOA implementation. These latter criticisms, admittedly, have some bearing in fact. As current talks progress, it appears highly unlikely that Netanyahu’s successor will be able or willing to incite the same level of fury on the part of American conservatives that characterized their engagement in 2015.
Following their own last round of elections in March, few Israelis could have predicted that Bennett, a right-wing nationalist who once served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff, was going to emerge as the country’s next leader. Bennett’s Yamina (which literally translates to “rightwards”) holds only seven seats as the Knesset’s fourth-largest party, and his politics reflect Netanyahu’s more than they do than the motley assortment of parties within the coalition he now heads. Originally, it seemed far more likely that Bennett would join a right-wing government under Netanyahu than affiliate with the left and center in a bid to bring Netanyahu down. But after months of political maneuvering by Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party finished second to Netanyahu’s (giving him the right to try and form a government when Netanyahu failed to do so), “King Bibi” was finally ousted from the position that it sometimes appeared he would never lose. Under the current terms of the coalition agreement, Bennett will serve as Prime Minister until 2023, at which point Lapid will step into the role.
The parties that came together to finally displace Netanyahu run the gamut of the Israeli political spectrum. They include right wingers like Bennett’s Yamina, Israel’s leftist party Meretz, and even an Islamist party, Ra’am, whose support made them the first Arab party to sit in the Israeli government. The one principle behind which they’ve united is their shared distaste for the political machinations of Netanyahu. In a bid to keep their fledgling government in power, the parties have committed to addressing domestic concerns, such as efforts to provide more funding for the state’s Arab population and passing a long-overdue state budget. While foreign policy concerns are unavoidable for the Israeli state, particularly as tensions continue to flare between Israel and Hamas, it appears likely that Bennett will deprioritize contentious foreign policy issues in an effort to to create comity among his group of ideological misfits.
To be clear, Bennett is an outspoken opponent of the JCPOA, having referred to it as an “unmitigated disaster” in a 2015 speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. In his final speech to the Knesset before taking on the premiership, Bennett called a prospective American resumption of the deal a “mistake” and vowed to maintain Israel’s “freedom of action” with regards to Iran. However, while Netanyahu was emboldened to exert pressure on the United States thanks to his longstanding relationships with American politicians and (formerly) iron grip over the Israeli government, Bennett boasts neither. Not only does he lack Netanyahu’s decades of experience on the world stage, but he is also leading a government both less stable and less hawkish on Iran than the one helmed by Netanyahu in 2015.
Lapid, currently serving as Foreign Minister, has previously signaled his own opposition to the JCPOA, calling its passage a “bad day for the Jewish people and the Jewish State”. However, he later expressed dismay when the United States pulled out of the deal in 2018, decrying Trump’s unilateral decision to leave immediately as opposed to pursuing a more nuanced exit plan. As the head of the coalition’s largest party (and the nominal next Prime Minister), Lapid has significantly more power than the average Cabinet member, allowing him to exert influence to a degree uncharacteristic of the role. His mere tepid disapproval of the JCPOA seems to portend an Israeli approach that, while still not supportive, would at least be more subtle in its opposition than the theatrics and fiery rhetoric of 2015.
Another reason for what will likely prove to be Israeli reticence to aggressively engage over the JCPOA is that doing so would strain an already-fragile relationship between Israel and the U.S. Democratic Party. Obama declined to meet with Netanyahu following the latter’s Congressional address, and the episode served as a harbinger of Netanyahu’s hard-right turn towards Trump in the years to come.
In contrast, among the foreign policy matters the new government looks to address, repairing Israel’s relationship with Democrats is high on the list. While Netanyahu explicitly courted Republicans at the expense of Israel’s relationship with liberals, the current government has indicated that they intend to adopt a different approach. In his first major speech since taking office, Lapid called Netanyahu’s embrace of the GOP a “terrible gamble, reckless and dangerous.” As Biden and his national security team pursue a renewal of the JCPOA, burning bridges with the Democrats by torching the deal would seem to be at odds with Lapid’s express desire for more harmonious relations.
All of this likely has little impact on the prospects for renewed implementation of the JCPOA. The GOP’s minds about the JCPOA appear to be made up, while Democrats are willing to move forward with or without Israeli support. With that said, the controversy that surrounded the deal in 2015 was in no small part exacerbated by Netanyahu’s attempts to intervene. The remarkable sight of a foreign head of state excoriating United States foreign policy from the floor of the U.S. Capitol inspired a wave of frenzied Republican condemnation of the JCPOA, placing the issue front and center in American politics for a brief period. With Netanyahu now gone, and a far more tenuous Israeli government in place, the deal has receded to the political periphery.
Since leaving office, Netanyahu has continued his attempts to intervene in American politics. Deprived of the megaphone that accompanies the premiership, however, it appears his efforts are having a limited impact. Senator Cotton recently released another letter, this time warning American corporations of resuming business with Iran in the event that sanctions are lifted. This time, he could muster up a mere 14 co-signers. Any prospects for ongoing negotiations remaining slightly less contentious (or at least, garnering fewer headlines) will presumably be aided by a muted response on the part of Bennett and Lapid alike.