Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Israel has adopted a new strategy for dealing with Iran, according to reports of his comments. "The past year has seen a strategic change in Israeli policy on Iran," he said during the session.
This comes in the wake of several incidents in which key Iranian IRGC members have been killed and amid new Iran-Israel tensions over the Islamic Republic's nuclear program. Bennett may be sketching out a new policy, but he is just as likely trying to cement his legacy amid a coalition crisis and using the Iran issue to show off his acumen. The Iran issue dominated the last prime minister and it appears that Bennett also wants to show he can wrangle with the Iranian octopus.
Syrian regime media reported this week that Israel carried out airstrikes near Damascus. Meanwhile, Bennett and IAEA chief Rafael Grossi also met this week. The prime minister wants to turn up pressure on Iran, but Grossi appeared to downplay the meeting. On May 31, Bennett tweeted that "Iran stole classified documents from the UN's Atomic Agency and used that information to systematically evade nuclear probes. How do we know? Because we got our hands on Iran's deception plan."
Iran stole classified documents from the UN's Atomic Agency @IAEAorg and used that information to systematically evade nuclear probes.How do we know?Because we got our hands on Iran's deception plan. It's right here:https://t.co/qg1Fj7iClA pic.twitter.com/6dAhI6VmmW— Naftali Bennett בנט (@naftalibennett) May 31, 2022
Moreover, there are other Israel-Iran tensions occurring. Tehran has targeted Erbil in northern Iraq, alleging to be striking at the "Mossad" in the Kurdistan autonomous region. It has also increasingly used drones to try to target the Jewish state over the last year. The drone wars may go both ways, according to foreign media. Reports said on May 27 that an Iranian engineer was killed in a drone strike on Parchin by Israel.
Then on June 5 another, Iranian engineer mysteriously died in Iran. Radio Free Europe (RFE) reported that "when Iranian aerospace engineer Ayoob Entezari died on May 31, authorities handed his family a letter of appreciation in which they referred to him as a 'martyr,' suggesting that he had been killed." The other Iranian killed was named as Ali Esmailzadeh, "a senior officer in the Quds Force, the overseas arm of Iran's powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the elite branch of the country's armed forces."
A new era of assassinations
The RFE report says that there is a new era of assassinations taking place. "Colonel Hassan Sayad Khodaei was killed by gunmen outside his home in Tehran. Iranian authorities blamed regional foe Israel for the killing and vowed revenge." In addition "on May 26, the authorities confirmed the death of engineer Ehsan Ghad Beigi in an 'industrial accident' at the Parchin military site. The New York Times reported that Beigi was killed in a suspected Israeli drone attack." The reports coincide with claims the US "leaked" details of the Khodaei assassination.
A lot seems to be happening on the Iran front. Iran is apparently threatening Israelis in Turkey. On May 31, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Israeli National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata convened a meeting. Defense Minister Benny Gantz was also in the US in mid-May for meetings. US Central Command officials have come to Israel to see the massive drill Chariots of Fire.
If you add all this up, it's clear that there is deepening cooperation and discussions. Iran also appears to be blaming Israel more for attacks.
Meanwhile in Syria, the regime is not only blaming Israel but there are also stories that Russia may be drawing down forces and Ankara could launch a new invasion.
Bennett's claim that Israel may be shifting gears in confronting Iran could therefore coincide with all these reports. He has said that Iran won't get away with aggression any longer. And its proxies are also on notice. This ostensibly includes the ones in Iraq and Syria. In Lebanon, Hezbollah has upped rhetoric against Israel over energy disputes at sea.
Why did Bennett make new Iran strategy public?
So what is the new strategy Bennett is hinting at – and why is he making it public? "The past year has seen a strategic change in Israeli policy on Iran," he said. He has also been talking up Israel's investment in laser air defense. But his government is also always slouching toward collapse. So he wants to claim that over the last year, he has been able to take the mantle from former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as a confronter of Iran.
His open discussion of this is not new. In May 2020, when he was outgoing as defense minister, Bennett also alleged Israeli success against Iran in Syria. Although reports said that Tehran was starting to withdraw, they were likely not showing the full picture. Iran has continued to entrench in Syria, not withdraw.
He had also claimed in February 2020 that Iran was rethinking its strategy in Syria. But was it? Bennett had said back then that Israel would continue operations in Syria until Iran leaves the country. But it hasn't left yet. So the claims of pushing Iran out of Syria and seeing evidence of some sign of Iran's shift there lacks clarity.
Israel's campaign between wars
That Israel continues to carry out the campaign between the wars is clear. Jerusalem has a policy regarding this issue. It has been striking Iranian targets in Syria since the Syrian civil war began and since Iran and Hezbollah exploited the regime's vacuum of power to enter more areas of its northern neighbor. This increased after 2017, reaching a crescendo in 2018, the year Syria returned to its area of the Golan.
Iran was moving ordnance to T-4 base, including drones and the 3rd Khordad system. It also launched drones into Israeli airspace beginning in 2018. The Islamic Republic also developed the Imam Ali base and got Hezbollah killer drone teams to move closer to the Golan. That meant that Israel upped its airstrikes in 2018 and 2019. What has happened since then is unclear.
Syrian regime media has alleged more strikes. In addition, pro-Iran voices in Iraq accused Israel of airstrikes in 2019. In 2021, an Iranian drone was launched from Iraq to target the Jewish state. Iran also transferred drone technology to the Houthis in Yemen that can likely threaten Israel from that front. In addition, Iran began targeting Israel-linked commercial vessels in 2021, culminating in using drones that killed two crew members on a tanker in July 2021 in the Gulf of Oman.
This is the context of Bennett's claims that Iran will no longer have impunity and that Israel will operate against its tentacles. "We are operating everywhere and all the time – and will continue to do so," he said, according to reports. He accused Iran of crossing redlines and also enriching more uranium. He says Israel maintains its freedom to act against Iran. The US has supported that freedom to act as well, especially in regards to policy in Syria. In Iraq, the US is more concerned about Israel-Iran tensions.
Of course, Israel wants the US and UN and others to come down hard on Iran regarding its continued enrichment and installation of advanced centrifuges. This is a real danger because reports say that Tehran is increasing its chances of "breakout" where it can quickly enrich uranium to the point of constructing some kind of weapon.
Bennett: Cementing legacy or continuing Bibi's?
Has the last year been a turning point in the struggle with Iran? History will tell us later if this is the case. It could also just be more of the same with Bennett continuing the Netanyahu strategy of the campaign between the wars. This is the "mowing the grass" or "wack-a-mole" strategy. But it's not one that really rolls back Iran, which continues to threaten to destroy Israel. It is an interesting aspect of history that Bennett's comments coincide with the anniversary of the raid on the Iraqi Osirak reactor on June 7, 1981.
Whether the prime minister is playing politics of trying to cement his legacy if the government falls, or laying out a future policy, remains to be seen. This is because Bennett has done this before, making claims as he left office at the Defense Ministry to show that his time there was well spent.
There was a time when Israel walked more softly and carried a big stick, as opposed to during the last decade or so when it has walked very loudly and carried lots of sticks. Although it whacks at enemies with them, their tentacles never seem to be severed.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.