All that stops Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold is one decision.
Israeli security agencies are closely monitoring the situation in the Islamic Republic, which openly threatens Israel with annihilation, and is also keeping abreast of the reports of the emerging deal with the West.
In public, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli defense establishment have repeatedly said that Israel will maintain the freedom to act should such an agreement be signed.
Against this backdrop, with Israel watching the shifting sands in the region and gearing up for a new reality, Israeli National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi sat down for an interview on the threats facing Israel.
Despite the rising dangers on multiple fronts, he remains optimistic.
Q: The US and Iran have been discussing a limited nuclear deal, and Israel hasn’t even publicly come out against it. It looks like we have lost any clout on the Biden administration.
A: This statement is categorically false; it ignores the facts that are known to all. The current US administration has been doing its utmost to have Israel enter the Visa Waiver Program, which currently has only 40 countries. There would have been no such effort had they not thought that Israelis deserve this. This was not an easy decision because some in the Democratic Party have a lot of criticism on this, viewing it as a prize to Israel despite it not accepting [US] demands on the Palestinian issue and the settlements. On all the most important things for the country, the [US-Israel] bond is at an all-time high.
Q: But it seems as though there is not a lot of affinity toward Netanyahu from the US president.
A: I’ve been privy to the talks between Biden and Netanyahu and I’ve seen a lot of warmth. More importantly, substantively speaking, we can trust the United States in this period, just like in the past, on matters that are critical to national security.
Q: How do you square that with an emerging deal between Iran and the West?
A: The United States doesn’t work for us; when interests clash, you would not expect the United States to automatically support us in all cases. Between real friends, it is very legitimate that two sides have disputes on important issues, with mutual respect for that disagreement. The best example is the settlements issue.
The United States has pressured us for 40 years to stop what it considers to be an obstacle to peace. I sat here, in the adjacent room, as the chief of staff to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who faced unrelenting pressure from the United States so that he could go to the international conference that would see a Palestinian state formed. Forty years have passed, and the disagreements with the United States over this have not been resolved—but the ties have only gotten closer.
Q: Netanyahu has yet to be invited by Biden to the White House, some 180 days after his new government has been sworn in. How can you call that closer ties? Doesn’t that adversely impact relations with the administration?
A: Not at all; this is meaningless. Meetings between leaders have value when there is a bone of contention or crisis that has to be resolved. None such exist between us. During the first two months of his new government, the prime minister hosted Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, the head of the CIA William J. Burns, and met Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. He has sent me and Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer to the United States to discuss sensitive issues, and conversations are held between the prime minister and Biden whenever there is a need for that. I know that people are concerned, but I am telling the truth: The bond is strong and tight.
We don’t think these understandings [between Washington and Iran] could come close to the damage inflicted by the 2015 nuclear deal. Our preparations are not for those understandings, but for a scenario in which it becomes apparent that Iran is on the verge of crossing the last threshold, from which there is no return.
Q: Enrichment to a level of more than 90%?
A: Enrichment that is greater than 60%. That will be a clear statement that its uranium enrichment is for weaponization purposes. Iran had a brief moment in which it crossed the 60% level, and they explained it to the International Atomic Energy Agency and the world as a local glitch, not as a policy. And indeed this did not allow them to accumulate the material.
Iran’s hypersonic missiles
I asked Hanegbi about the degree to which Israel is concerned over Iran’s recent boasting that it had developed hypersonic weapons. He dismissed the claim as fiction.
“They don’t have hypersonic missiles; this is a concoction. The Iranians vacillate between the showcasing of real capabilities and fake news. They have real things, they are an advanced country, but they sometimes make up stuff,” he said. “Every intelligence agency from a developed country could spot their nonsense,” he added.
Former security officials have suggested that the United States might try to link a deal with Iran to the normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Hanegbi dismissed the notion of such a linkage, saying that Israel had been surprised by normalization being front and center on the US agenda, but also tamping down expectations on the prospect of a peace deal.
“We were positively surprised by the position put forth by the administration several weeks ago, which was the realization of the vision the prime minister has been articulating for several years: expanding the sphere of peace toward the entire Arab and Muslim world,” he said.
“We were not optimistic because there had been tension brewing between Saudi Arabia and the United States over the past several years, in part because of the feeling on the part of the Saudis that the United States had let them down after Iran attacked their oil facilities.
“So because we thought a Saudi-US agreement was the precursor for any peace deal with Riyadh, we assessed that despite the vision being very appealing, it would not have a high chance of being realized. That is why we were surprised to see the United States put this as one of the key goals it has been pursuing. But this is a ways off,” he said.
The reason for this, according to various reports, is not because of any Saudi demand to see progress between Israel and the Palestinians, but rather due to Riyadh’s concern over its national security.
“The Saudis are wary of a deal with Israel because they understand that a possible consequence is a very blunt disavowal by Iran, which could exact a heavy price from them,” said Hanegbi.
“They want to be certain that in the event of a clash with Iran, the world’s superpower—ie. the United States—will stand by them. The Saudi wishlist is largely addressed to the Americans. I am not aware of any request they have sent our way, and I hope that a formula is found that would allow Israel-Saudi relations to move forward,” he continued.
Q: Former Israeli security officials have warned against a situation in which Israel tacitly accepts the agreement with Iran so that it could get a deal with Saudi Arabia. Do you see such a tradeoff?
A: Such a tradeoff doesn’t exist. The Americans don’t have Saudi Arabia they can deliver. There is a very complex process [vis-a-vis Iran] that has been going on for a long time and will require congressional approval, and at this point, it is far from clear if that is feasible during an election year in the United States. So they cannot promise to give us a bird they don’t have to begin with, in exchange for another bird.
On the Iranian issue we have been holding intimate talks with the United States, and this was at the heart of my conversations in the United States during my two recent visits. There is a very high degree of mutual transparency, and my assessment is that they don’t want to have a redux of the JCPOA from 2015. I don’t think these understandings—unlike the original deal—are a critical threat [to us].
The prime minister has put it correctly: We don’t believe understandings with Iran can have a positive side, but in any event, Israel would not be bound by any such arrangement and will act to defend itself on its own at any given moment.”
The Russia-Iran alliance
Another theater Israel has been keeping a close eye on is the Iranian-Russian one, in light of the growing cooperation between the two sides. Tehran has been providing UAVs to the Kremlin to help it prosecute the war on Ukraine. Israel, on the hand, has been providing Ukraine with early warning systems
On its northern border, Israel’s deconfliction mechanism with Russia has been crucial in securing its freedom of action as it reportedly continues to carry out strikes in Syria.
“There has been something quite striking in this regard,” noted Hanebgi: “A superpower [Russia] is dependent on a country like Iran, a pariah, in order to get its hands on a certain kind of weapon system, a UAV. This is a crucial thing they have been getting from Iran, even though they are already armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons, aircraft and tanks,” he said.
“But the Russians have realized that they can’t effectively use their powers and they need UAVs to help disturb the life of Ukrainians.”
Q: How has that collaboration affected Israel?
A: We don’t link the two theaters because we can’t tell the Russians not to buy arms when we procure and sell weapons to their biggest enemies. Only recently we signed an Arrow [interceptor] deal with Germany to defend it from the Russian threat. But our communications with Russia over Syria are very important, because we have been waging a campaign there for over a decade, in a theater where there is a major Russian presence in land, air and sea, and we want—and so far have been successful—to avoid a tragedy and avoid a Russian-Israeli clash in Syrian skies, which neither side wants.
We give the Russians notice on any aerial activity that could be germane to their presence in Syria, and so far we can say that the gods of miracles have resulted in Russian forces not being hurt—even though we have attacked in Syria hundreds of times, each time with a large bomb payload. Thus, our policy on the Russia-Ukraine war requires sensitivity.
That has not prevented the previous government and the current one from publicly supporting the Ukrainian side. Israel has been voting with the West and the United States in all the votes where Ukraine is favored over Russia.
According to various reports, there is growing friction between Israel and Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah. Meanwhile, an extensive, multi-front war simulation was recently conducted by the IDF.
Q: Israeli citizens are worried.
A: Indeed, there is an unwarranted sense of concern among the public about a war erupting in the near future. The accumulation of events on multiple fronts contributed to this: the war in Gaza; the attempted attack in Megiddo [by Hezbollah]; the threats by Iran; the attacks [by Palestinians]; and there have also been statements by security officials in response to those events. All this creates tension, and to all my friends who ask me I answer there is no significant change in our overall assessment: All our enemies on all fronts are deterred.
Q: So there is no major change, but there is change?
A: Lebanon and Hezbollah have been exhibiting less restraint than we have gotten used to since 2006. For almost 17 years we have seen total restraint, but several months ago there was the attack in Megiddo that was designed to kill many Israelis. So the question that has to be asked is how this is compatible with them being deterred.
We assess that Hezbollah initiated something that was a result of Iran’s predicament, as Tehran is very limited in how it can respond to our attacks in Syria, and also as a result of Hezbollah’s own predicament in Lebanon, which has been spiraling out of control…. As we have learned in the past, Arab leaders opt to make Israel suffer for their own predicaments.
[Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan] Nasrallah has gone on an adventure here, and that is why we chose to warn him personally, [with] very clear statements—Nasrallah is alive only because over the past 17 years he has weaned himself off his tendency to kill Israelis; if he resumes this, he should look at what happened to the heads of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad [during the recent “Operation Shield and Arrow”], and should recall what he famously said after the Second Lebanon War: “Had I known only 5% of what I would get in this war, I would have not carried out this action [abducting two Israelis, sparking the war].”
With 17 years having gone by, perhaps this memory is not as clear, but we will make it clear to whoever may have forgotten that provoking Israel is not a worthy endeavor.
Q: But still, there is something unusual going on up north. Why are you not concerned?
A: There are some childish provocations trying to create some activity. When you prepare for war you don’t brandish your weapons in front of the enemy. This is outrageous and these things will also come to an end if we feel that red lines have been crossed.
“I apologize for remaining calm”
Israel’s challenge in what could emerge as a multi-theater conflagration is a consequence of Iran’s efforts to entrench itself in the region.
“Iran has tried for several years to create a noose around us in the form of terrorist organizations. This is of course a problem and a challenge, but you cannot compare this to a military armed to [the] teeth that wants to put an end to our existence,” said Hanegbi
“We still have to address this multi-theater challenge, and Israel has been doing that for many years. During “Operation Guardian of the Walls,” there was concern that this would spill over domestically [with the Israeli Arabs] but Israel has come up with capabilities that make it possible to counter this threat if it develops. I apologize once again for being calm, but we have the ability to deal with all the theaters simultaneously and with great success.
Q: What are our capabilities should another “Operation Guardian of the Walls” happen?
A: The IDF has put Border Police to this task and has been training them for a situation in which they would have to rapidly respond to domestic events in Israel against civilians or infrastructure … learning from the lapses in the first round.
Apart from that, we are setting up a national guard that will be dedicated to this mission. We have thousands of additional trained officers that will be rapidly activated to this challenge will undo the potential harm to the country during such an emergency situation.
“We will find a way to eradicate terrorism”
The future threats notwithstanding, residents of Samaria have to currently deal with a terror wave that Israel has only been responding to rather than preventing. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said in the Knesset that the difficulty lies in the IDF being preoccupied with illegal outposts being built in the area.
By contrast, Hanegbi thinks that the lack of settlement in northern Samaria is the cause of the wave.
“Over the past 18 months, there has been a growing challenge with the area. We have seen attacks from Nablus, Jenin and the nearby villages—and in all cases, the terrorists and their handlers were eliminated.
“The threat still exists, and one of the reasons is that there is no Jewish presence in northern Samaria in terms of settlement. As soon as that exists, there are also security forces and activity,” he said.
An aggravating factor, he continued, was the weakness of the Palestinian Authority.
“We see this has become a center of chaos, in part because of this reason, and for two other reasons as well: The ability of the Palestinian Authority to act there and use its security apparatuses has weakened on the one hand; and Iran’s immense efforts through its proxies Hezbollah, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad – to carry out attacks inside Israel,” he said.
“The Iranians are very frustrated because they have not been able to act against us on the borders and think that there is fertile ground to act inside Israel. They have indeed transferred funds and arms in larger quantities than before to northern Samaria. I assess that we will find a way to eradicate this new development in a way that would restore calm to the area.”
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