With Netanyahu Gone, Will Israel Soften Its Stance on Iran?

On 13 June, before the new coalition government won a vote of confidence in Israel, the outgoing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, made an incendiary speech in the Knesset.

‘Iran is celebrating’ the new coalition, he said. He claimed the government, led by religious-nationalist Naftali Bennett, would be dominated by the left-wing and therefore weak. 

‘From the moment the US returns to the nuclear deal with Iran, the incoming government won’t approve significant operations in Iran,’ he said. ‘A government that is not able to forcefully oppose the international community on the pressing issues for our fate is not worthy of leading Israel’.

These final salvoes failed, however, and Netanyahu was duly voted out of office by the legislature.

Throughout his life and as prime minister, Netanyahu had cultivated an image as a tough guy, a leader unwilling to compromise Israel’s security. It is an image his opponents have had difficulty entirely undermining.

Where once the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and Hamas dominated Israel’s concerns, Netanyahu then found similar impetus in opposing Lebanon’s Hezbollah, an Iran-backed political and militant group, and Iran’s movement towards nuclear power.

As prime minister, Netanyahu drew focus to and strength from an insistence on ‘Iran, Iran, Iran‘.

When the United States under former president Barack Obama struck a landmark nuclear deal with Iran in 2015 as a centrepiece of America’s foreign policy, Netanyahu spoke in opposition to it at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and to a joint session of the US Congress.

He even told Obama his policy put Israel in unacceptable danger during a joint press session in the White House.

After the deal was adopted as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015, Netanyahu continued to bang the drum.

He held a press conference in 2018 to present the results of Israeli spying on the Iranian nuclear programme, with the stand-out conclusion, emblazoned on a PowerPoint slide, that ‘Iran lied’ about the extent of its development of ballistic missiles capable of launching nuclear warheads at Israel.

And throughout the last six years, Israel has carried out a campaign of attacks and assassinations designed to sabotage Iranian nuclear research.

‘The fact is that Netanyahu talked tough on Iran the entire time he was in power, during which time the Iranian nuclear program expanded and progressed more than it had over the previous three decades,’ David Patrikarakos, the author of Nuclear Iran: The Birth of an Atomic State, told The New Arab.

‘Alongside that, Iranian regional power and influence and capability grew’.

But the idea that Netanyahu’s position would be rejected by his successors is implausible, according to the author and journalist.

‘Now it does not matter who is in power in Israel – no leader is going to allow Iran to develop a nuclear bomb, and – much more importantly – no US leader. The idea that any Israeli leader will be delinquent on Iran is delusional, and belongs only in the realm of political mudslinging,’ Patrikarakos said.

There are a number of reasons why the current course is likely to be maintained.

‘These are security decisions that come from within the security establishment. A nuclear-armed Iran is a severe threat to Israel – I don’t think I’ve ever heard an Israeli politician – of whatever stripe – deny that. Let alone a hardliner like Bennett. The actions against the programme bring Israel worldwide acclaim and even awe – and the [Israeli] population loves them,’ Patrikarakos said. 

The focus on Israeli public opinion is largely echoed by others. The Israeli electorate fears an Iranian bomb and believes current policy is keeping one at bay.

‘It is doubtful that Netanyahu’s successor would adopt a fundamentally different approach towards Iran. On the Iranian issue, there are no tangible differences between politicians in mainstream Israeli politics,’ Raz Zimmt, a research fellow of the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies, told The New Arab.

‘Both Israel’s military campaign against Iran’s entrenchment’s efforts in Syria and its covert activities against Iran’s nuclear program are supported by most Israeli politicians across the political spectrum,’ he added.

As the Biden administration inches towards a new nuclear deal with Iran, the rhetorical skirmishing of the previous deal has re-emerged. Bennett criticised the previous nuclear deal, and publicly, the right-wing and centrist candidates in Israel’s recent election said they would not acquiesce to a new deal on similar terms to the old.

‘There is I think scope for tensions in that the Biden administration appears committed to essentially a return to the JCPOA, while Israel is opposed. In my view, however, the current Iranian proxy aggression against the US presence in Iraq may serve to harden Biden’s stance against Iran on the broader issue of the Iranian regional stance,’ said Jonathan Spyer, director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis (MECRA).

But unlike Netanyahu, who aired his disagreements with the Americans in public, it is likely that Bennett and Lapid will criticise any pro-Iranian tilt in the Biden administration privately and seek to turn any agreement as much to Israel’s defence as is possible, Zimmt said.

This might be a means for Netanyahu, now leader of the opposition, to campaign.

‘Netanyahu is likely to point to the diplomatic inexperience of the new leadership, and to claim that they are being weak toward Biden, are incapable of effectively standing up to the US Administration, incapable of carving out a diplomatic space to enable Israeli covert actions, etc.,’ Spyer said.

One of Netanyahu’s own policies, which defined his term in office, was his approach to the decade-long Syrian civil war. It was carried out across the Golan Heights and beyond, and although Israel was not a direct participant, it has mounted operations in Syria under several distinct phases.

One phase, dubbed Operation Good Neighbour, provided humanitarian support to rebel-held regions bordering Israel. When the Syrian regime, with assistance from Hezbollah, Russia and Iran, conquered those areas in 2018, the operation was ended.

Israel has also maintained a steady drumbeat of strikes against Iranian-backed militias fighting alongside the regime and suspected Iranian missile and weapons production centres.

Some have criticised the Israeli strikes by claiming they are strategically ineffective. But this is not a common view either in Israel or among most analysts. Indeed, many domestic critics of Netanyahu do not oppose any drift from his Syrian policy.

‘Israel is not concerned so much with the Assad regime or with the militias. Israel’s main concerns are Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria and its continued efforts to deliver precise weapons to Hezbollah. While Israeli military efforts have not been 100% successful with regard to those concerns, they have certainly significantly delayed them,’ Zimmt said.

The strikes will likely continue in the same pattern. Here, there is little likelihood of change by the new government.

In Iran, the country has just undergone a presidential election, won by Ebrahim Raisi. Raisi has been chief justice since 2019 and is variously termed a ‘hardliner’. 

Under the previous administration, led by Hassan Rouhani and coordinated by Rouhani’s foreign minister Javad Zarif, Iran expanded its international militia network, engaged in numerous regional conflicts, and provided significant support for Houthi rebels who fought Saudi Arabia to a standstill in Yemen.

Its militia forces, meanwhile, operated across Iraq and Syria.

In international commerce, Iran has been accused of attacking oil shipping, and in matters of diplomacy, it continues to detain journalists and dual citizens. There is little more Iran could do to implement a harder line.

Zarif himself, who negotiated the nuclear deal with the Obama administration and five European powers, was recorded criticising the hardliners within Iran, and international media coverage largely took Zarif’s side and took him at his word.

But there are many who place too strong an emphasis on ‘hardliners’ and assume there is an internal dichotomy within Iranian politics on the question of continued military expansion and the country’s nuclear program.

In effect, the Israeli security establishment does not attach a great deal of meaning to the ascension of Raisi. Zimmt writes in his own analysis of the Iranian election that much remains the same and won’t change the ‘strategic picture’ for Israel.

It seems unlikely then that Israel’s own policy, formulated by the generals and security establishment as much as by Netanyahu in his time in power, will change – for good or ill – no matter the former prime minister’s claims to be the only man to protect Israel’s national security.

This essay was originally published in The New Arab.

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