Israel will continue to maintain its freedom to act against Iran even if the US returns to the 2015 Iran deal, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Tuesday, in a speech on how Israel plans to “retool” its strategy against the Iranian threat.
“Israel against Iran is really the whole world’s battle against a radical Islamist regime that seeks a Shi’ite hegemony under a nuclear umbrella,” Bennett said at Reichman University’s Institute for Policy and Strategy. “We hope the world won’t blink, but even if they do, we don’t plan to blink.”
Bennett said the current time is “complex,” because Israel has disagreements with its greatest allies.
The US and Iran are set to return to indirect negotiations in Vienna next week on rejoining the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which would have Washington lift sanctions while imposing limitations on Tehran’s ability to enrich uranium.
“Even if there is a return to an agreement [with Iran], Israel is not a party to it – is not obligated by it,” said Bennett.
The JCPOA, said Bennett, was like “a sleeping pill” for Israel’s defense establishment after 2015, reducing its readiness to take action.
“We won’t repeat the mistakes of last time when the agreement put us to sleep,” he said. “We will maintain the freedom to act.”
Bennett also referred to the Iranian proxies surrounding Israel, from Shia militias in Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon to Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza.
“Along with the advancements in its nuclear program, Iran also consistently surrounded Israel, arming militias and placing rockets on every side,” he said. “Iran can be seen from every window in Israel.”
He said that Iran “irritates us from abroad, uses our energy, chases us; causes us harm without even leaving the house,” and that Israel’s biggest strategic mistake was “attacking the messenger” instead of Iran.
“Chasing after the terrorist of the day who is sent by the Quds Force is no longer logical,” he said. “We have to get to the one who is sending them.”
Israel must “take advantage of its relative strength – a strong economy, being a leader in cyber, international legitimacy – against Iran’s weaknesses more effectively than in the past,” said Bennett, and that Iran is “corroding” and is weaker than many Israelis may think, pointing to protests in regions where there is not enough water.
“Our challenges turned [Israel] into what we are; we are ready for this challenge, too,” he asserted. “Israel must maintain freedom of action and the ability to act, in any situation and any political circumstance.”
Former Mossad director Tamir Pardo said at the same conference that Bennett does not have an Iran strategy.
“The question is whether Israel has a strategy regarding Iran,” said Pardo. “I think Israel still does not have a strategy. But it seems to me that the trend is for Israel to return to what was before,” referring to thematic similarities between the prior government and Bennett’s speech.
Pardo was a firm critic of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policy, which advocated an open criticism of the US-sponsored 2015 nuclear deal, and of the Biden administration’s plan to return to that deal.
In contrast, the former Mossad chief has said that with all of its holes the deal also has advantages, and that Jerusalem must not fight with the US in public over Iran-related policy differences.
He has said that Israel should work quietly behind the scenes to convince Washington to improve the deal.
“Can we threaten war all day?” Pardo said. “To do a single targeted strike, there is no better force than Israel.”
However, in contrast to Israel’s successful single-target strikes against Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981 and Syria’s in 2007, Iran is a much harder target.
Iran “is not the same opera,” referring to the codename for the strike on Iraq’s nuclear reactor, and that “only the US knows how” to attack Iran’s numerous nuclear facilities.
“There would be dozens of targets as opposed to the story in Iraq and Syria,” which would likely be beyond Israel’s capabilities. Stopping the Islamic Republic is also harder because much of its nuclear program is self-built and could be rebuilt without foreign assistance.
With Iraq and Syria, the major nuclear facilities targeted were all foreign constructions, and those two countries had close to zero capability to rebuild them on their own.
Despite Pardo’s criticism, others on the panel took a different view.
Former IDF military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin said that the JCPOA had been fruitful in its initial years, but would have become problematic as it got closer to expiring in 2030. A US withdrawal from the deal and the threat of a “maximum pressure” campaign would have made sense around 2028.
Former national security council chief Yaakov Amidror fully defended Netanyahu, and praised the Trump administration for abandoning the deal.
Amidror’s criticism of the Trump administration was over its lack of will to use the threat of military force to get Iran to make nuclear concessions.
White House Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk spoke at the conference via video link.
McGurk said UAVs are a major issue the US has been discussing with Israel and other allies in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia.
He pushed back against the idea that sanctions are essential to keep Iran at bay.
“Sanctions are effective at some level, but are not effective at solving this problem,” he said. “What is effective is strengthening our allies... working on improving state capacity and defense capacity.”