This week, Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Yair Lapid held a series of important meetings with senior US officials in Washington. Throughout his three-day visit, Lapid met with Vice President Kamala Harris, President Biden’s national security advisor Jake Sullivan, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan to discuss pressing issues such as Iran, the Palestinians, the Abraham Accords and even China. This was perhaps Lapid’s most important diplomatic visit to date placing particular focus on swaying US officials to adopt a more aggressive policy toward preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Regarding Iran, it appears that the Biden Administration is becoming increasingly frustrated with the Islamic Republic and therefore inching closer to Israel’s position on taking more forceful measures to halt its nuclear advancement. As time passes and the nuclear negotiations that the US has been pushing for remain in a stalemate, it is becoming ever clearer to Washington that it is no longer 2015 and that Iran is unlikely to comply with similar restrictions on its program.
Illustrating this frustration, Secretary Blinken stated, “Time is running short. We are prepared to turn to other options if Iran doesn’t change course, and these consultations with our allies and partners are part of it. We will look at every option to deal with the challenge posed by Iran. And we continue to believe that diplomacy is the most effective way to do that. But, it takes two to engage in diplomacy, and we have not seen from Iran a willingness to do that at this point.”
Publicly declaring that other options are now on the table and that consulting allies and partners is part of it in the presence of Israeli officials sends a significant signal to Tehran that Blinken is not referring to other diplomatic paths, but to military measures. However, the US is still set to act with heavy caution as it is weary of causing a backlash from Iran if drastic measures are taken too quickly. Especially following the debacle surrounding the evacuation from Afghanistan, the US does not want to be responsible for stirring up unnecessary violence in the region.
Nevertheless, for Jerusalem, Blinken’s remarks show increasing movement in the right direction. Israeli officials have been warning that it is too late to return to a similar nuclear agreement like the one that was signed six years ago and that Tehran reaching nuclear capabilities is imminent. Israel continues pushing for the use of tactics such as sabotaging key nuclear facilities inside Iran and cyberattacks. It is likely that Washington’s fatigue surrounding the frozen status of negotiations with Iran will grant Israel more room for maneuvering against the Islamic Republic.
Although Iran was the main topic discussed in the meetings, there is increasing optimism that the Abraham Accords will be extended and will include another Arab country in the near future. A trademark of the Trump-Netanyahu era, the Biden Administration is now also embracing the opportunities that the accords entail. This is one way that the US can put itself in a position to play a positive role in the Middle East.
There have been hints that the next country to normalize its relations with the Jewish State will be Sudan. Even before Naftali Bennett became Prime Minister, efforts were made to formulate a peace deal between Khartoum and Jerusalem. At the time, it was infeasible due to political instability in the country, but now, it appears that the conditions are more ripe for bringing an agreement to fruition.
As has become a theme in US-Israel relations since the inception of Israel’s ‘government of change,’ the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was all but a footnote. Both in Israel and Washington it is understood that the current political situation in Israel and in the Palestinian Authority will not allow for a return to the negotiating table in the immediate future. Instead, Bennett has been leading a policy of ‘shrinking the conflict’ by promoting small measures intended to increase economic prosperity and the quality of life for Palestinians in the West Bank.
The only subject that was reported as being discussed in the meetings held in Washington surrounded the reopening of the US consulate for Palestinians in Jerusalem. Blinken stated that they are still pursuing its reopening as planned as it will deepen diplomatic ties between the US and the Palestinians. This may arouse some worry in Israel’s government as it is a sensitive subject likely to shake up the coalition.
Finally, US concerns regarding China came up in Blinken’s meeting with Lapid. Blinken held what he referred to as a “candid” talk with Lapid about Israel’s warming economic relations with Beijing. He warned against increasing Chinese investment in the Israeli economy as Washington sees China as a rival nation that is seeking to upend international order.
Blinken’s message comes just a month-and-a-half after Israel inaugurated a Chinese-run terminal at the Port of Haifa. The terminal is worth approximately $1.7 billion and is operated by a state-owned Shanghai firm called the Shanghai International Port Group (SIPG) which is set to handle large vessels. Chinese firms are also playing a significant role in building Tel Aviv’s large railway project.
Chinese interest in investing in Israeli innovation, construction and the ports has been growing in recent years and along with it, US pressure to slow it down. It is clear that the US wants to keep its allies as distanced from China as possible. Washington is weary of Beijing’s access to Israel which could allow it close proximity to US security interests.
However, Israel does not necessarily share that same concern. Like it has done in the past, Israel must balance itself between the great powers. It needs to be sensitive to US interests in the region because of the support, both militarily and politically, that it receives from Washington, but at the same time cannot completely limit its own interests. Israel is capable of allowing some investment in key sectors that are urgent for the Jewish state, such as the ports, while still protecting security interests.
After spending three days in Washington, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid can return home with the feeling that the mission was accomplished. The US is moving in Israel’s direction regarding Iran and as a result, Israel will have much more support to carry out the measures that it deems appropriate for preventing Tehran from reaching a nuclear weapon.