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Israel can live with a new nuclear deal with Iran, Defense Minister says

TEL AVIV, Israel – Israel would be ready to accept a return to a US-negotiated nuclear deal with Iran, Defense Minister Benny Gantz told foreign policy – but Israeli officials are also urging Washington to prepare a serious "show of force" if negotiations with Tehran fail.

Statements made in an exclusive interview last week seem to reflect a policy shift for Israel, which, under the leadership of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, vociferously opposed and worked to undermine the 2015 nuclear deal.

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

TEL AVIV, Israel – Israel would be ready to accept a return to a US-negotiated nuclear deal with Iran, Defense Minister Benny Gantz told foreign policy – but Israeli officials are also urging Washington to prepare a serious "show of force" if negotiations with Tehran fail.

Statements made in an exclusive interview last week seem to reflect a policy shift for Israel, which, under the leadership of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, vociferously opposed and worked to undermine the 2015 nuclear deal.

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

Asked about the Biden government's efforts to revert to an agreement with Iran, Gantz said, "I would accept the current US approach to pigeonhole the Iranian nuclear program."

He added that Israel wants to see a "viable US-led Plan B" that provides for widespread economic pressure on Iran if talks fail. And he pointed to 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 skills to make an atomic bomb. Iran has steadily stepped up its nuclear work since the United States withdrew from the deal, despite a so-called maximum pressure campaign promoted by Trump and Netanyahu that included sanctions and sabotage efforts.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett criticized Netanyahu on Tuesday on this very issue, telling Israeli Channel 12 News: "Israel has inherited a situation in which Iran is furthest advanced in its bomb race. … The gap between (Netanyahu's) rhetoric and speeches and actions is very large. "

Gantz was skeptical of diplomacy's chances of successfully reversing Iran's progress. He outlined what Israel would see as a "portable" backup plan: political, diplomatic and economic pressures placed on Tehran by the United States, Europe, Russia and – most importantly – China.

"We also have to network China, Asia has to play a role," said Gantz, highlighting the most important trade relations between Iran and the Asian countries. “Israel is unable to have a real Plan B, we cannot put in place an international regime for economic sanctions. This has to be led by the USA. "

"Iran must fear that the US and its partners are serious," said Gantz.

At the same time, the Israeli military was preparing its own measures to stop Iran's nuclear progress. "If the going gets tough, we'll make it," said Gantz, underscoring this by switching from Hebrew to English. "We are not America, but we have our capabilities."

Gantz warned of a regional nuclear arms race that would follow should Iran cross the threshold.

"Other states will not just sit still," said Gantz. "They buy it off the shelf from Pakistan or whoever they can."

He said the US's recent withdrawal from Afghanistan has the potential to strengthen Iran and its proxies in the long term.

Gantz is a former army chief who early in his career commanded Israeli forces stationed in Lebanon, which Israel occupied for nearly two decades before withdrawing in 2000. Some analysts have compared the US withdrawal from Afghanistan to the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, a parallel Gantz himself grew up with.

"There are no happy withdrawals," said Gantz. The US decision to leave the country "was perfectly understandable … otherwise you could stay there forever". But he also said Iran must not conclude from the retreat that "all you have to do is stay strong and determined and the West will fold".

During the hour-long interview at 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 at stake .

He also addressed relations with the Palestinians, stressing that Israel will not remove settlements from the West Bank, while claiming 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. However, Bennett, an ultra-nationalist and former settlement leader, insisted that the meeting did not usher in a new peace process.

Gantz did not argue, but he did stress the importance of maintaining ties with Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, "a value of paramount importance." Gantz has taken the lead on the Palestinian issue in the new administration, with Israel having agreed to several economic and civil measures in recent weeks to strengthen the Palestinian Authority, which rules parts of the West Bank.

He said there is no appetite for an agreement in his administration – led by Bennett – and no prospect of real negotiations as long as the Palestinians remain divided between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which the Islamist Hamas group controls. In addition, Abbas has so far not demonstrated any ability to make historical decisions, Gantz said.

"Abbas still dreams of the 1967 lines (as the basis for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and an end to the conflict) – that will not happen," Gantz said. “He has to realize that we are staying there. … We are not dismantling any settlements. "

When asked about the prospect of another war between Israel and Gaza, Gantz said he hoped the new administration's more forceful military responses to attacks from the area, combined with greater economic aid, would weaken Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar's will to fight.

"Sinwar is also under pressure and 2 million people (Gaza) on its head," said Gantz. “He's a little too confident than I think it's warranted. If it is not enough for him, we are stronger. "

Gantz only became a politician three years ago after a military career. But he has already seen the dramatic ups and downs that Israeli political life brings with it.

A year ago, his political future seemed in doubt: his power-sharing agreement with Netanyahu fell apart and many former allies made fun of him for trusting the then Prime Minister, a cunning politician known for out-maneuvering rivals.

But Gantz said he was fully sustained after first preventing Netanyahu from directly winning consecutive elections and then helping to oust him. "It was a difficult path, but a successful path," he said.

When asked about speculation in the media that his relationship with senior cabinet ministers was strained, Gantz said he "hoped" the new government – a coalition of centrist, left and right factions and an Islamist Arab party – would fulfill its term in office.

"Overall, the government works well – we're making room for each other (to work) … but I'm a leader on security," he said.

Whether such a diverse coalition could one day carry out the military threats Netanyahu made against Iran for years over its nuclear program (and which Gantz and others are now repeating) remains uncertain.

"The cabinet will decide what is required … and I am sure if we ask for the military law it will bring us solutions," said Gantz. "That won't change."

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