Despite political turmoil, Israel’s ability to confront Iranian threat remains intact

Biden’s upcoming Middle East visit should focus on three issues, says former IDF deputy chief of staff: “Iran, Iran and Iran.”

By Charles Bybelezer, JNS.org

Just hours ahead of announcing on Monday evening that he would advance a bill to dissolve his governing coalition, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett conspicuously carved out time to emphasize that the nation remains locked in an ongoing battle to curb Tehran’s nuclear progress.

“The world is waking up to Iran’s true face,” said Bennett, adding that Israel’s primary goal during President Joe Biden’s upcoming visit in July would be “to finalize a clear joint plan of action” with the United States regarding Iran’s nuclear program.

The Iranians “are cheating their way to the bomb, and Israel takes this very seriously,” Maj. Gen. (ret.) Uzi Dayan, a former Israel Defense Forces deputy chief of staff, told JNS.

“It is an intolerable threat to Israel, but it is not only our problem. If Iran goes nuclear all the issues in the Middle East will intensify, and there will be a new mega-threat–an Iranian nuclear umbrella that will be used to spread terror,” said Dayan.

Dayan, who also headed the Israeli National Security Council, believes that Iran could try to take advantage of the political instability in Israel to make a dash for the bomb.

“This is why I think it’s better for Israel to have a new government without going to elections,” he said, noting that the vote would likely be on October 25 and that thereafter it could be weeks, if not months, until a new coalition is formed–if at all.

“It would be better if my Likud Party could form a coalition before [Yesh Atid leader] Yair Lapid becomes prime minister” under the rotation agreement he signed with Bennett, he said.

“Lapid made a big mistake,” Dayan contended, “when he said publicly that Israel would assume a ‘no surprises’ approach with Washington when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program. It was ambiguous.” By comparison, he said, “When I told [then-secretary of state in the Bush administration] Condolezza Rice in 2001 that if Iran was about to go nuclear there would be no surprises, I was clear that this meant Israel would act militarily.”

Iran targeting Israelis in Turkey

Tensions between Israel and Iran increased sharply in recent days, with Iranian terror cells attempting to kill or kidnap Israeli nationals in Turkey in response to a series of mysterious deaths of Iranian officers and scientists, for which Tehran blames Israel.

Adding to Israel’s concerns–exemplified by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s recent condemnation of Iran—are warning bells that the Islamic Republic has effectively crossed the nuclear threshold by mastering the nuclear fuel cycle to the degree that it can now produce a weapon at will.

In response, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Monday told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Israel was in the process of strengthening a U.S.-sponsored regional military umbrella dubbed the “Middle East Air Defense Alliance.” Gantz noted that the network had “already enabled the successful interception of Iranian attempts to attack Israel and other countries.”

Israel also recently boosted the deployment of its local air-defense systems in the event Tehran seeks to strike the Israeli home front through terrorist proxies in Lebanon, Syria and the Gaza Strip–and possibly even beyond, from places like Iraq and Yemen.

Currently, though, much of the focus is on Iranian plots targeting Israelis in Turkey.

“In recent days, in a joint Israeli-Turkish effort, we thwarted a number of attacks and a number of terrorists were arrested on Turkish soil,” said Bennett on Monday, ahead of his major political announcement.

Indeed, Israeli security forces in Istanbul reportedly recently whisked to safety numerous citizens, after calling them to warn them not to return to their hotel, where an Iranian cell was apparently lying in wait. Another report said that Israel and the Turkish MIT intelligence agency had arrested numerous agents working on behalf of Iran, who were planning shooting and kidnapping attacks.

The Islamic Republic has vowed to avenge the killing of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Col. Hassan Sayyad Khodaei, who was gunned down in central Tehran on May 22.

He is believed to have been a member of the IRGC’s Quds Force, which oversees Iranian operations overseas, and was allegedly involved in several attempts to target Israelis in places ranging from Kenya to Colombia to Cyprus, as well as in Turkey.

Despite Israeli officials having repeatedly advised against traveling to Istanbul, in particular, and having called on Israelis throughout Turkey to leave immediately, local reports estimate that some 2,000-plus tourists have not heeded the directives–which even include not posting to social media.

Topping Biden’s agenda

According to IDF Maj. Gen. (ret.) Giora Eiland, who served in many high-ranking positions in the IDF before heading the Israeli National Security Council, the latest political developments in Israel will not negatively impact the Jewish state’s operational capabilities.

“There will be no change in Israeli policy vis-à-vis Iran, and there are a few reasons,” he told JNS.

“First, the kind of conflict that Israel has managed quite successfully over the last decade began under [former defense minister Moshe] Ya’alon and [continued] even after he retired, and despite his animosity towards then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, nothing was altered,” he said.

“Under this government, which is always saying ‘Anyone but Netanyahu’—there has been continuity on the Iranian issue even though there have been disagreements on other issues such as the Palestinians, for example,” he added.

“The second reason is because contrary to the image politicians craft, even if they appear to be making decisions, the strategies they are based on are almost always formed from the bottom up–by the various agencies in the security establishment. So, it does not necessarily matter who is at the top at any given time,” he said.

“Lastly,” Eiland elaborated, “Israel’s policy on Iran is widely supported by almost everyone here, including those in the defense apparatus as well as analysts such as former generals like myself. There is no pressure being applied on the political echelon to make any modifications.”

It was possible that the Iranians could change their tactics, said Eiland, “But not because of the political situation. We had four election campaigns [over two years beginning in 2019] and irrespective of the instability Israel has maintained effectiveness.”

Accordingly, perhaps a major inflection point will be Biden’s visit, which U.S. officials have confirmed will take place as scheduled from July 13-14.

Dayan emphasized to JNS that the Iranian file will top the agenda.

“Biden’s visit to the Middle East should include three issues: Iran, Iran and Iran,” he said.

“The American president has to come with very concrete steps, including saying loudly and clearly that the United States will prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons even if that necessitates using force. He must also upgrade economic sanctions against Iran, similar to how Washington has used this lever against the Russians [due to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine].”

Such an approach can work, said Dayan, “But if it doesn’t Israel will have few options, because we are the Iranians’ main target and they need to be stopped.”