Is the Ron Arad announcement tied to Iran's hitman in Cyprus? - analysis

Naftali Bennett’s reveal of Mossad op to find Ron Arad may be related to Iran's attempted assassination of an Israeli businessman.

ron arad also new 248 88 (photo credit: Channel 10)
ron arad also new 248 88
(photo credit: Channel 10)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s vague and mysterious announcement in the Knesset on Monday that the Mossad had embarked on an operation to find more information on the fate of captive Israel Air Force navigator Ron Arad, missing since 1986, raised many questions.

Why did Bennett announce this now? Mossad operations are almost never officially made public; their preferred way of shedding light is to leak to foreign press outlets. And when the government does reveal what the Mossad does, it’s usually long after the fact, not a few weeks later.

Why did Bennett share so little information? Presumably, there are constantly Mossad operations going on that we know nothing about. What was the point of telling the public about this operation if he couldn’t tell us anything about it, other than it was “a complex, wide-ranging and daring operation?”

The hot take was that he was making political use of the Mossad. After all, he made his announcement in a contentious and raucous Knesset meeting, marking the opening of the legislature’s winter session, with a large media presence. Perhaps Bennett was trying to wrest the media narrative away from opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who, as expected, used his speech to sharply criticize the government.

That is still a compelling explanation. But another answer may be found in another announcement made by the Prime Minister’s Office about four hours earlier.

rime Minister Naftali Bennett meets today (Tuesday) with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Cyprus, Nikos Christodolids, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, July 27, 2021 (credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)rime Minister Naftali Bennett meets today (Tuesday) with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Cyprus, Nikos Christodolids, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, July 27, 2021 (credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)

The attempt on Israeli billionaire Teddy Sagi’s life in Cyprus was an Iranian terrorist attack and not a crime committed by business rivals, as some had reported, Bennett’s spokesman Matan Sidi emphatically said in the name of security sources.

In fact, the attack was not specifically targeting Sagi, Sidi said; rather, the Iranian-hired hit man arrested in Cyprus was trying to attack Israeli businessmen, generally.

When Sidi sent out his message, it seemed unusual, but it was easily chalked up to the shadow war between Israel and Iran, as well as the importance in highlighting to the world that Iran is a bad actor seeking to annihilate Israel.

Various outlets reported that the attempted murder of Sagi and others was an Iranian revenge mission; some tied it to the Mossad killing Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the leader of Iran’s nuclear program, late last year.

But new details emerging about the Arad-related operation could mean that the two matters are related.

Bennett and his office have been reticent to reveal more about the operation to garner details about Arad, other than to insist it was not a failure, though defense sources say no information was actually found.

But London-based Arabic newspaper Rai al-Youm reported the following day that the Mossad kidnapped an Iranian general based in Syria, took him to an African state and interrogated him, before letting him go. Iran reportedly found out that the Mossad was responsible for the capture.

The Iranian operation in Cyprus was retaliation for the kidnapping of the general, Rai al-Youm speculated, although Iran has never needed a reason to attack Israelis.

As such, Bennett may have been broadcasting a message not only to the general public but to Iran.

The subtext of Bennett’s remarks in the Knesset may have been that the general’s kidnapping is not part of a general escalation or a new strategy in the shadow war with Iran, so there is no need to target Israelis abroad as a deterrence.

The mysterious announcement also could have been a way to get ahead of the news cycle of details of the Mossad operation that could have been revealed by local or foreign press following the trail of the attempt to kill Sagi.

Netanyahu is not the only one from whom Bennett may have been trying to wrest a narrative; the prime minister may have wanted to make sure Iran was not the first to tell the story of the general’s capture, presenting it as an act of aggression.

But with Bennett and the Prime Minister’s Office still hiding more than they are revealing, Iran may end up filling in the blanks in this story.