The Israeli foreign minister said “we have no problem with a deal,” but perhaps because he thinks the prospects of an agreement are remote.
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David E. Sanger and
Israel’s foreign minister, Yair Lapid, said Wednesday that Israel would have no problem if the United States entered a strong nuclear deal with Iran that would permanently limit its ability to assemble a nuclear weapon, and that reaching a resolution with the Palestinians was now a lower priority for his government, behind the pandemic and the economy.
Mr. Lapid’s comments on the Iran deal in a video conversation from his office came just hours after he met with Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser. Mr. Sullivan had traveled to Israel in an effort to create what he called a “common strategy” with the government of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, which has been sabotaging Iran’s nuclear facilities while the U.S. has tried to restore the 2015 treaty with Tehran.
Mr. Lapid is scheduled to become prime minister in 2023 if the fragile coalition deal that created the current government holds. His willingness to sanction a U.S. deal with a country Israel deeply distrusts may reflect in part the conclusion that the Biden administration’s hopes for a nuclear agreement with Iran now seem all but shattered.
The yearlong effort to restore the 2015 accord that President Donald J. Trump abandoned — with Israel’s support — has failed so far, and Iran has rejected any effort to make the agreement “longer and stronger,” the goal outlined by Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken.
“We have no problem with a deal,” Mr. Lapid said in the interview. “A good deal is a good thing.”
He said the “second best would be no deal but tightening the sanctions and making sure Iran cannot go forward. And the third and worst is a bad deal.”
When he was in Israel, Mr. Sullivan suggested that the window for continued diplomacy has come down to a matter of “weeks.”
“We’re not circling a date on the calendar in public,” he told reporters, “but I can tell you that behind closed doors we are talking about time frames, and they are not long.”
His conversations in Israel, part of a quarterly review of diplomatic and military planning, and covert operations to slow Iran’s nuclear program, came amid a disagreement between American and Israeli officials over whether Israel’s sabotage program is counterproductive. There is considerable evidence that each time Iran’s nuclear facilities have been destroyed, Tehran has gotten them back into operation quickly, installing newer, more efficient centrifuges that enrich uranium at a faster pace.
In a wide-ranging conversation, Mr. Lapid also ruled out imminently establishing diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia or Indonesia, two of the world’s most influential Muslim-majority countries. But he said Israel was in talks with several countries that had previously sought to boycott it until the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but that were now considering normalizing ties.
Mr. Lapid also said his government — a diverse coalition of right-wingers, leftists and centrists like himself — was much more focused on internal issues like protecting Israeli democratic institutions and safeguarding the Israeli economy than on finding a solution to the Palestinian question.
He underscored Israel’s opposition to American efforts to reopen a U.S. consulate to the Palestinians in Jerusalem, which was closed under the Trump administration. Mr. Lapid said reopening the consulate would constitute a challenge to Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, which Israel sees as its indivisible capital; Palestinians hope it will one day be divided, with the eastern part forming the capital of a Palestinian state.
Israelis have vigorously debated whether to support the negotiations with Iran, which resumed in Vienna earlier this month, or to urge the United States and Europe to abandon the effort. When he was still prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu opposed the Obama administration as it forged the nuclear pact — taking the remarkable step of lobbying against it in Congress — and in 2018 pushed Mr. Trump to abandon it.
Iran had largely complied with the agreement while it was in place, keeping its enrichment of nuclear fuel within the required levels, and under the inspection of the International Atomic Energy Agency. In recent times, as Iran’s enrichment levels have reached new heights and inspectors have been banned, a number of former Israeli military and intelligence officials have said they now think they were better off with the treaty in place.
Mr. Lapid appeared to be trying to close the gap with the United States.
“The majority of Israelis, including the opposition, felt that the J.C.P.O.A. was not a good enough deal,” he said, referring to the nuclear pact by its formal name, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. That was in part because of its “sunset provisions” on enrichment activities, he said, which would allow Iran to produce as much nuclear material as it wanted beginning in 2030.
Mr. Lapid declined to comment on the Israeli sabotage efforts, but said that whatever is happening to Iran’s nuclear facilities has nothing to do with the negotiations. “The only thing I can say to you is that Israel has said many times: We have the right to protect ourselves from the biggest existential threats.”
Shared fears over Iran have helped redefine the diplomatic map in the Middle East, allowing Israel to begin to normalize diplomatic relations with four Arab countries that had previously shunned the country because of the lack of resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israel established formal ties with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in 2020, in a process known as the Abraham Accords, and later began a similar process with Morocco and Sudan.
No country has joined the process since late last year, but Mr. Lapid said discussions were taking place with “a few countries.” He ruled out an imminent détente with Saudi Arabia, the most powerful country in the Persian Gulf, and Indonesia, the most populous Muslim-majority country in the world, two countries he described as “the holy grail.”
Saudi Arabia has hinted it is interested in a diplomatic thaw. The Saudi and Israeli governments are both wary of Iran, and when he was prime minister in 2020, Mr. Netanyahu secretly met with the Saudi leadership, the Israeli news media have reported.
But Saudi officials denied the meeting took place and have ruled out a formal deal until the creation of a Palestinian state; Mr. Lapid said it was “too early” to speak about a full rapprochement.
In the meantime, he said, “what we’re determined to do is to make the Abraham Accords into a success story. We want people of the world, of the Middle East, to understand that this is working.”
Mr. Lapid was more cautious about relations with the Palestinians, which he said were not a major focus for the current Israeli government. Mr. Lapid and his colleagues disagree hugely on the Palestinian question, and have agreed instead to channel their energies toward matters less likely to split their unwieldy eight-party coalition.
Mr. Lapid is scheduled to take over the premiership from Mr. Bennett in 2023, under a power-sharing agreement sealed last June. But even under his leadership, Mr. Lapid expects little progress toward a two-state solution to the conflict and does not believe the Palestinians — whose leadership is equally divided — are ready either.
“There will be a day,” he said, when “we will be able to move forward towards the two-state solution, which I believe in,” he said. “This is something I want to do. But right now, this is not where we are.”
He pledged to continue various confidence-building measures with the Palestinians, like recent high-level meetings between Israeli and Palestinian officials and the provision of financial support for the Palestinian Authority, the autonomous institution that manages parts of the occupied West Bank.
Mr. Lapid acknowledged that his government was in the process of expanding several West Bank settlements, a move that critics say makes it ever harder to establish Palestinian sovereignty there. But he said the government had paused longstanding plans for two huge new settlements in East Jerusalem that campaigners say would be likely to prevent East Jerusalem from becoming the capital of a future Palestinian state.
Mr. Lapid, however, appeared to rule out ceding part of Jerusalem to the Palestinians under his vision of a two-state solution and said Israel would continue to oppose the reopening of the American consulate to the Palestinians in Jerusalem.
Its reinstatement is seen by Palestinian leaders as essential to re-establishing momentum toward a negotiated settlement. But Mr. Lapid suggested that the consulate should instead be reopened in Ramallah, a major Palestinian administrative hub.
“Jerusalem is the capital of Israel,” he said. “And therefore, we think that there could be only an embassy and a consulate for Israel in Jerusalem.”
David E. Sanger reported from Washington and Patrick Kingsley from Jerusalem.
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