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Will Bennett Ditch Netanyahu’s Approach to the Iran Deal?

The Israeli prime minister seems to be charting a new course aimed at reducing tensions with the Biden administration in advance of a White House visit.

By , an assistant professor of international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid chat.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (left) and Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid chat ahead of a photo of the new coalition government in Jerusalem on June 14. EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP via Getty Images

A stream of recent incidents in Iran point to a possible intensification of Israel’s covert operations campaign aimed at deterring the Iranian leadership from advancing its nuclear program. In early July, two separate cyberattacks against the Iranian transport ministry and railway system took place; the hackers reportedly posted the phone number of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, as the number to call for further information. A few days earlier, in late June, a drone targeted an Iranian centrifuge production site near Tehran.

These incidents have precedents, but they seem more frequent when compared to the timeline of events of the past 12 months. These include two explosions at Iran’s uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, in July 2020 and April this year, and the assassination of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in November 2020. Israel’s former Mossad chief, Yosef “Yossi” Cohen, publicly hinted at Israel’s involvement in all three events in an interview. (Cohen divulged so much sensitive information that former security officials are now weighing legal steps against him.)

Israel’s new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, who was sworn in days before the drone attack, is currently reconsidering Israel’s Iran policy, holding an extended seminar on all aspects of the issue and asking interlocutors from every branch of Israel’s security and intelligence apparatus to “think outside the box” and “not hold back.” Bennett’s aim is to arrive to his first meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden, expected in early August, with a cohesive, well-laid out Iran policy. These recent operations may be Israel’s way of signaling to Iran that, in the meantime, it should halt its nuclear advancement given how vulnerable its assets are.

A stream of recent incidents in Iran point to a possible intensification of Israel’s covert operations campaign aimed at deterring the Iranian leadership from advancing its nuclear program. In early July, two separate cyberattacks against the Iranian transport ministry and railway system took place; the hackers reportedly posted the phone number of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, as the number to call for further information. A few days earlier, in late June, a drone targeted an Iranian centrifuge production site near Tehran.

These incidents have precedents, but they seem more frequent when compared to the timeline of events of the past 12 months. These include two explosions at Iran’s uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, in July 2020 and April this year, and the assassination of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in November 2020. Israel’s former Mossad chief, Yosef “Yossi” Cohen, publicly hinted at Israel’s involvement in all three events in an interview. (Cohen divulged so much sensitive information that former security officials are now weighing legal steps against him.)

Israel’s new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, who was sworn in days before the drone attack, is currently reconsidering Israel’s Iran policy, holding an extended seminar on all aspects of the issue and asking interlocutors from every branch of Israel’s security and intelligence apparatus to “think outside the box” and “not hold back.” Bennett’s aim is to arrive to his first meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden, expected in early August, with a cohesive, well-laid out Iran policy. These recent operations may be Israel’s way of signaling to Iran that, in the meantime, it should halt its nuclear advancement given how vulnerable its assets are.

Bennett’s aim is to arrive to his first meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden, expected in early August, with a cohesive, well-laid out Iran policy.

In Washington, Bennett will find himself dealing with the fallout of the scorched-earth policy adopted by former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his predecessor. Bennett’s main challenge will be reconstructing the bridges Netanyahu burnt between Israel and the Democrats during his four years of close association with then-U.S. President Donald Trump and the Republican Party and previously with the Obama administration. This bad blood was evident in Biden’s decision to wait four weeks before calling Netanyahu after his inauguration.

During this visit, Bennett will try to win back at least some of Israel’s former status as a bipartisan issue. On the Israeli-Palestinian front, he will have to convince the Biden team his government will refrain from any dramatic one-sided moves in the West Bank and Gaza. But the Iran file is expected to rule the agenda.


Netanyahu, who now heads the opposition, vehemently opposed the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, waging a public campaign against then-U.S. President Barack Obama and his support for the deal. In 2018, Netanyahu convinced Trump to withdraw the United States from the Iran deal, and following the withdrawal, Trump declared a policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran, placing it under severe sanctions.

But although the sanctions worked, causing extensive damage to the Iranian economy, they did not bring about Trump’s declared objective: a change in Iran’s nuclear policy. Tehran did not agree to discuss a “bigger and better” deal. Instead, it made significant progress toward being able to construct a nuclear bomb, using facilities that are varied, dispersed, and well protected.

Before he became prime minister, Bennett, a right-wing politician with hawkish views on Iran, supported Netanyahu’s tough stance. He had not openly advocated for a strike against Iranian nuclear targets, but his past rhetoric suggested he would not have ruled it out. From 2018 to 2020, he repeatedly likened the regime in Tehran to an octopus spreading its tentacles across the region, calling to “strike the octopus on its head.” (Whether this blow included nuclear targets was left unanswered.) On June 13, in his inaugural speech in the Knesset as prime minister, he stated “returning to the Iran deal is a mistake.”

But the five weeks spent in the prime minister’s office have caused him to reconsider this endorsement of Netanyahu’s policy. This was evident in statements Bennett made as the Iran debate descended into a mudslinging competition that unfolded between the two politicians at the Knesset and in the press last week. On July 12, in response to Netanyahu’s accusations that he was soft on Tehran, Bennett angrily responded, “there has never been anyone in Israel’s history who spoke so much and did so little about Iran.”

Five weeks spent in the prime minister’s office have caused him to reconsider this endorsement of Netanyahu’s policy.

Unnamed sources close to Bennett have been more expansive in their criticism of Netanyahu, contending he made no contingency plan in case the withdrawal gambit failed. This left Israel unprepared to handle the consequences of a rapidly progressing Iranian nuclear program and without a credible military option to strike it as plans were not updated since 2013. One source described the situation to journalist Ben Caspit as one of “wilderness, neglect, and zero preparedness.”

Another told journalist Amit Segal that Netanyahu’s negligence was self-serving: “His speeches were directed mainly at the Israeli public as campaign propaganda. They served only to make enemies and push away supporters.” Against this backdrop, it is clearer why, according to former Foreign Policy editor Susan B. Glasser’s report in the New Yorker, Netanyahu had urged the lame duck Trump to attack Iran after his November 2020 defeat; there was simply no other alternative. Journalist Amos Harel added that at the time, Netanyahu was speaking in quasi-messianic terms about his hopes that Trump would launch a strike against Iran.

Significantly, Netanyahu’s view that the deal should be undermined no matter the cost to bilateral relations was not a consensus opinion within the Israeli strategic community. Critics of this policy include Maj. Gen. (Res.) Amos Gilad, who thought that U.S. withdrawal “would mainly help Iran,” and former Mossad head Tamir Pardo, who warned against Israel trying to “go it alone” without U.S. backing.

Together with Matan Vilnai, a former deputy defense minister, Pardo called for Israel to support a U.S. return to the deal in a Foreign Policy article. Another former Mossad official who supported the deal was Eyal Hulata, Bennett’s recent pick to head Israel’s National Security Council. News reports detail how, in 2015, he saw the agreement as the “lesser evil” and thought Israel should learn to live with it.


As Bennett is likely learning in his Iran seminar, Israel is not new to efforts aimed at disrupting hostile missile and nuclear programs. In the early 1960s, Mossad agents targeted German missile scientists working on Egypt’s ballistic missile program. In the late 1970s, Israel targeted assets and scientists associated with the nuclear programs of both Pakistan and Iraq; in the Iraqi case, this culminated in a strike against the Iraqi Osirak reactor 40 years ago.

Israel has learned that although such disruption efforts are capable of delaying certain elements of a given program, they have a limited life span. Facilities can be rebuilt, programs may be clandestinely revived, and infrastructure can be replaced or even upgraded.

At times, these efforts are sufficient, and at times, they are not. Some in Israel, such as Col. (Res.) Udi Evental, warn against relying on tactical sabotage operations as a silver bullet, which would halt Iran’s nuclear program indefinitely. These efforts, Evental argued, although successful in the short term, may end up being counterproductive, leading Iran to intensify its technological efforts, eschew the diplomatic route, or both. Maj. Gen. Tal Kalman, the head of the Israel Defense Forces’ Iran Directorate, stated last March in a similar vein that sabotage operations against Iran “are only one part of the strategy, but there needs to be a diplomatic component that is [currently] missing.”

Israeli counterproliferation efforts require close coordination with the United States.

Another lesson is Israeli counterproliferation efforts require close coordination with the United States. Israel’s 1981 raid on Iraq caught the Reagan administration by surprise, creating a diplomatic crisis that saw the United States support a United Nations Security Council resolution calling Israel to urgently “place its nuclear facilities under [International Atomic Energy Agency] safeguards.”

Learning the lesson, close cooperation with Washington was evident when Israel attacked the Syrian reactor in 2007. The record of these two operations also shows that although Washington may be partial (or even simply against) such actions before they happen or immediately after, in the longer term, successful operations are often embraced.

One clear change that separates the Bennett era from Netanyahu’s is the tone. Earlier this year, when the newly minted Biden administration renewed its efforts to bring the U.S. government back to the deal in talks held in Vienna, Netanyahu instructed Israeli representatives to refrain from any discussion of the deal’s details with U.S. officials, blocking any chance for Israel to share specific concerns with the Americans and influence the talks. In stark opposition, Bennett’s stated policy is to voice Israel’s concerns discreetly while avoiding a public clash with the Biden administration.

From an Israeli perspective, it is important to acknowledge that attempts to revive the deal may fail. It is currently not clear whether the Iranian leadership has taken a strategic decision to renege on the deal—Iran did not officially withdraw from it but is not in compliance with it either—or whether the Iranians intend to return to it.

Israel needs to plan ahead for both contingencies. As former Mossad official Sima Shine noted, Israel should work with its allies in Europe and the United States on a coordinated policy that would reestablish the diplomatic deadlines and technological redlines for Iran’s program, using a credible threat of multilateral sanctions and a diplomatic campaign at the International Atomic Energy Agency and other forums.

It is important that the U.S. government reinforce its deterrence posture toward Iran regionally: in Syria and Iraq. If the deal is revived, Israel should clearly convey to U.S. officials what its concerns are and maintain an open dialogue with Washington on a possible technology-military compensation package. At the end of the day, deterring and containing Iran should be an objective shared by the two close allies.

Or Rabinowitz is an assistant professor of international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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