Between Biden Call and Ballot, Netanyahu Seeks Iran Consensus With Rivals

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during an event in Jerusalem, February 16, 2021. Alex Kolomoisky/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM, Feb 22 (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened cabinet rivals on Monday for their first discussion of Israeli strategy against the Iranian nuclear programme since U.S. President Joe Biden took office pledging to pursue diplomacy with Tehran.

Netanyahu’s meeting with Defence Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi followed his first phone call with the U.S. leader last week, and came a month before Israel holds another election triggered by coalition infighting.

Israeli officials said the conservative Netanyahu, bracing for discord with Biden’s Democratic administration on Iran, wanted to present a united front with the centrist Gantz and Ashkenazi.

“This is a matter that is supremely important, certainly more than politicking,” an Israeli official said. “We have to ensure everyone is on board and not tempted to speak out of turn in hope of getting more votes.”

Under Iran‘s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, it undertook to limit its disputed uranium enrichment programme in exchange for a lifting of international sanctions.

When he tussled with then-U.S. President Barack Obama over the deal, Netanyahu faced dissent from some of his own national security advisers. Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, quit the deal in 2018, asserting that it was one-sided in Iran‘s favour, and reimposed sanctions on Tehran – moves welcomed by Netanyahu.

Biden, who was Obama’s vice president, wants to rejoin the accord, a prospect Netanyahu and the current Israeli military chief have closed ranks against, as long as Iran ends violations since 2018 and returns to full compliance.

Also on the agenda of Monday’s meeting was the possible appointment of a special Israeli envoy on the Iranian issue.

Candidates include Mossad spymaster Joseph (Yossi) Cohen and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, both of whom took part in the meeting, officials said. As both answer directly to Netanyahu, Gantz had voiced worry the Defence Ministry might be excluded from future diplomacy, one official said.

Gantz and Ashkenazi were kept in the dark about secret Israeli outreach that led to last year’s establishment of relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Netanyahu said he feared media leaks. Aides to Gantz and Ashkenazi accused him of trying to undermine the ministers’ credibility.

Polls predict a trouncing for Gantz and Ashkenazi’s Blue and White party in the March 23 election, and Netanyahu’s Likud maintaining enough of a lead to try to form the next coalition.

If the veteran leader fails at that, however, he and his rivals may have to keep working together in a caretaker cabinet.

(Writing by Dan Williams Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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