InterviewNuclear deal means 'we're on cruise control to the cliff'

Bennett: Hold Iran accountable for Hezbollah aggression

In interview to the Times of Israel’s Persian edition, minister urges Israel to shift focus from Islamic Republic’s proxies to ‘head of the octopus’

Education Minister and Jewish Home party chairman Naftali Bennett, speaks during a party faction meeting at the Knesset, January 15, 2017. Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Education Minister and Jewish Home party chairman Naftali Bennett, speaks during a party faction meeting at the Knesset, January 15, 2017. Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Comparing Iran to an octopus sending out terrorist tentacles to attack Israel, Education Minister Naftali Bennett this week said Jerusalem should start holding the Islamic Republic responsible for the aggression of its proxies in Lebanon and Syria.

In an interview with The Times of Israel’s Persian edition, Bennett — an influential member of the security cabinet with an eye on the top spot — argued that for too long Israel has been focusing on fighting Hezbollah on its northern border while giving a free pass to the terrorist group’s patrons in Tehran.

The Jewish state is not interested in any military confrontation and has great respect for the Iranian people, he said. At the same time, he reiterated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declared intention to do everything necessary to prevent Tehran from establishing itself militarily in Syria.

“My approach is to gradually hold Iran itself more and more accountable for its own actions. And to view a rocket being sent from southern Lebanon to Haifa as an Iranian rocket, as opposed to a Hezbollah rocket,” Bennett said.

In this July 14, 2006 photo, Lebanese youths gather on a hilltop overlooking the city of Beirut in Lebanon at sunset to watch smoke continuing to billow from a fuel dump at Beirut International Airport, which was hit by an Israeli airstrike. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis) 

The Iranian modus operandi is to create proxy armies made up of non-Iranians, the minister said. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei “will fight Israel until the last drop of Lebanese blood,” he said, adding that the Iranians have Lebanese but also Pakistani and Afghani militias spreading terror across the Middle East.

Bennett said he commanded a search-and-destroy mission for rocket launchers during the 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

“We fought the proxy. My point is that the initiator, the instigator of all of this — the head of the octopus, if you will — is the Iranian radical regime. And gradually we’re going to shift focus and also hold them accountable.”

Bennett, the chairman of the nationalist Jewish Home party, and a declared contender for prime minister after Benjamin Netanyahu leaves the post, refused to elaborate, merely offering that if there’s a bully sending messengers to attack, “the bully cannot forever remain immune.”

“Sometimes when you look at many isolated incidents and you connect the dots, you see the broader picture. And the broader picture is that we have been fighting the tips of the octopus’s arms and shedding blood for many years, while the head of the octopus [Iran] has enjoyed a degree of immunity.”

In an April 2 opinion piece for The Times of Israel, Bennett declared that Israel would consider any rocket shot at Israel from Lebanese territory “an act of war conducted by the Lebanese government,” vowing to no longer distinguish between sovereign Lebanon and Hezbollah.

“The grand mistake in 2006 was fighting only the proxy and holding only the proxy accountable,” Bennett said. “At this point in time, the paradigm I believe in is to hold the whole chain more and more accountable. This is not an overnight change, it’s a gradual change.”

Supporters of the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah watch a video screening of a speech by the group’s head, Hassan Nasrallah, to mark the 11th anniversary of the end of the 2006 war with Israel, in the village of Khiam in southern Lebanon, August 13, 2017. (AFP/Mahmoud Zayyay)

Bennett took credit for convincing other Israeli ministers that Iran must be held accountable for the actions of its proxies. “To a great degree I succeeded in pushing through this view. But it’s not enough. There needs to be a better balance of deterrence,” he said.

Israel does not seek conflict, Bennett stressed. “Israel has absolutely no territorial claims in Lebanon, in Syria, certainly not in Iran. Any conflict that might arise would be a result of aggression sent towards us.”

Said Bennett: “We do not seek war with Iran. The natural reaction is that if someone shoots at you, you shoot back to the source of [fire]. Physically, we’re being shot at from Southern Lebanon. So the natural instinct is to go fight the rifle that shoots at you and not ask too many questions about who is giving the orders, who is funding it, who is training it, who is sending it. But we have to think broadly.”

Speaking in English to The Times of Israel Persian in his office at the Education Ministry in downtown Jerusalem, Bennett also addressed Israel’s concerns over the situation in Syria, saying President Assad’s regime “is fairly stable and it seems that they have prevailed.”

The Iranians, having originally arrived in Syria to support Assad’s weakened army in fending off the rebels, are now seeking to entrench themselves militarily in the country and “establish a direct Iranian threat on Israel,” Bennett said. Thirty years ago, the Islamic Republic succeeded in “Iranicizing” Lebanon via Hezbollah and now it is trying to do the same in Syria, the minister posited.

A poster bearing an image of Syrian President Bashar Assad (R) and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is seen in Damascus on September 7, 2017. (AFP/Louai Beshara)

“We view this as an Iranian desire to create regional hegemony, and to wrap Israel on its various flanks, and that is unacceptable from our perspective,” he declared.

Bennett declined to discuss what Israel’s red lines are in this regard and how it intends to enforce them. “Those who need to know, know. We’ll let our actions speak louder than words,” he offered. “Suffice it to say that we won’t allow Iran to establish ongoing military presence in Syria.”

In the interview — which is cross-posted on The Times of Israel Persian’s website — Bennett also criticized the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, expressing worry not only about the regime being allowed to acquire a nuclear arsenal in several years but mostly about a likely increase in Tehran’s conventional aggression.

“The deal means we’re on cruise control to the cliff. In eight or 13 years, depending on how you count — they will be able to build many nuclear bombs. Since it’s not immediate, there’s a natural inclination to take it easy. We can’t. Because seven or eight years is nothing in history,” he said.

“Curiously, the main effect would not be nuclear. It would create conventional [warfare] chutzpah of Iran,” he added. “We’d see much more tension and conflict because it would give them a sense of security. Countries that obtain nuclear capacity tend to be over-adventurous in their aggression.”

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, left, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, center, and then top nuclear negotiator (now president) Hassan Rouhani, in Tehran, March, 9, 2006. (AP Photo)

Israel is not opposed to an international agreement with Iran per se, but the current one — known as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — has several serious flaws that need to be fixed, he insisted. “We’re not suggesting necessarily to unravel the deal, but to add elements,” he said, adding that the imposition of crippling US sanctions would be enough to compel Iran to agree to renegotiate the deal.

Bennett insisted on starting the half-hour interview with an expression of his appreciation for ordinary Iranians.

“We, the Israelis, profoundly respect the Persian people. It’s no secret that we admire their intelligence, their character, their values,” he said.

Many Israelis feel there is “considerable potential” for a future alliance between themselves and the Persian people, he added. “But in the meantime we have a regime that is hell-bent on attacking Israel. It’s unfortunate, but in wider history it’s a blip that at some time will be fixed.”

Despite his admiration for the Iranian people and his disdain for their current leadership, Bennett flatly rejected the idea of Israel actively promoting regime change.

“At the end of the day, regime change should happen from within. I am not a big believer in externally forced regime change,” he said. “If at some point in time [the Iranian people will have] the will, the courage, the world will have to stand behind the Persian people. But I don’t think we should initiate that sort of thing. We’re not in the business of engineering other people’s regimes and governments.”

In this photo obtained by the Associated Press, an Iranian fire fighter extinguishes a burned motorcycle in a street in central Tehran, near Tehran's old main bazaar, during currency protests, Wednesday, October 3, 2012. (photo credit: AP)
In this photo obtained by the Associated Press, an Iranian fire fighter extinguishes a burned motorcycle in a street in central Tehran, near Tehran’s old main bazaar, during currency protests, October 3, 2012. (AP)

Sooner or later, Iranians will attempt to topple the oppressive regime, he predicted: “I don’t think that for eternity the Persian people will be willing to be subjugated by a regime that doesn’t represent their true values.”

To a large degree, “Iran was hijacked,” Bennett went on. Israelis feel sympathy for the Iranian people, which is why the government offered to send medical equipment, via the Red Cross, to Iran after last month’s devastating earthquake.

“We send out a message of peace to the people,” Bennett said. “But at the same time, we will stand very strong against a radical Islamic regime, which day in and day out says it wants to destroy me and my family. We’re not going to let that happen.”

The Times of Israel Persian is currently the only Israel-based professional non-governmental and independent news outlet which publishes in Persian daily news, analyses, and blogs on Israel, Israel-Iran related news and the Middle East.

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