PM convenes high-level meeting on Iranian nuclear deal

Defense minister: Israel will act whenever, wherever needed against Iran

In TV interview, Gantz also warns war could again break out in Gaza Strip, as terror groups continue to launch arson balloons into Israel; offers to help Lebanon

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (center) and IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi (left) inaugurate a memorial to fallen South Lebanon Army soldiers, on July 4, 2021, in Metulla. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz (center) and IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi (left) inaugurate a memorial to fallen South Lebanon Army soldiers, on July 4, 2021, in Metulla. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Sunday said Israel would act wherever and whenever necessary to prevent Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, days after Iran reportedly struck a cargo ship once owned by an Israeli company, in an apparent act of retaliation for an attack on an Iranian nuclear facility last month.

“We are in a conflict with Iran. We have to defend ourselves. We are determined to prevent Iran from going nuclear and we are determined to prevent Iran’s active, negative behavior in our region. They know we know how to act,” Gantz said, speaking in an interview with Channel 13.

Earlier on Sunday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett reportedly convened a high-level meeting of defense and diplomatic officials regarding Iran, its nuclear program and the ongoing talks between Tehran and Washington toward a mutual return to the 2015 nuclear deal, a move that Israel staunchly opposes. In 2018, then-US president Donald Trump abrogated the agreement, imposing a crushing sanctions regime on Iran, and a year later, Tehran followed suit, enriching far more uranium and to far greater degrees of purity than was permitted under the deal.

According to the Walla news site, those in attendance — including Bennett, Gantz, and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, along with the heads of the National Security Council, military, Israel Defense Forces and Mossad, as well as other senior officials — mostly attempted to bring one another up to speed on where the negotiations between the US and Iran stood.

Though both sides have said that progress has been made in the talks, a number of issues have so far prevented a return to the deal by the two countries.

Later in the evening, the defense minister again affirmed Israel’s willingness to act against Iran, during a speech at a ceremony marking the opening of a monument honoring fallen members of the South Lebanon Army, which fought alongside the IDF during its occupation of southern Lebanon from 1982 to 2000.

“Israel will continue to act with everything at its disposal in order to prevent Iran from obtaining a unclear weapon and to prevent its efforts to rearm, to entrench itself or to harm Israel — from the air, from land, from the cyber domain or from the sea. We will do so at the time and place that is right for us, and we will preserve our military superiority for the stability of the region and the security of the region,” Gantz said.

On Saturday, a cargo ship bound for the United Arab Emirates was apparently attacked as it made its way through the Indian Ocean, causing a fire on board. The ship was previously owned by an Israeli businessman, but had since been sold to a British firm. Israeli officials believe that Iran was behind the attack.

The attack appeared to be revenge for a recent drone strike on an Iranian centrifuge manufacturing facility outside Tehran last month.

In his speech at the SLA monument, Gantz made a rare offer of assistance to Lebanon, which is in the midst of an unprecedented economic crisis, with basic necessities like fuel becoming unobtainable to many Lebanese.

“Israel has offered to help Lebanon in the past, and we are prepared today as well to work to help it grow and get out of this crisis,” Gantz said.

Turning to the Gaza Strip, the defense minister warned that fighting could break out in the Palestinian enclave at any time, despite what he described as a successful campaign in May against the Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror groups there.

Firefighters try to extinguish a blaze in southern Israel that was sparked by a balloon-borne incendiary device launched by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, June 15, 2021. (Flash90)

“Gaza is a very sensitive place. We know that a tactical event can quickly deteriorate,” he said in the Channel 13 interview.

“We are, of course, ready to act. We are identifying dozens of targets, we’ve already identified hundreds. I really don’t recommend that Hamas test the capabilities of the IDF,” he said.

Recent weeks have seen a return of balloon-based arson attacks from the Gaza Strip, which have burned large swaths of private and public land in southern Israel, but have so far caused no Israeli injuries.

Gantz said that despite these incendiary attacks, he still believes Israel’s Operation Guardian of the Walls campaign was a success, having dealt a significant blow to Hamas’s and Islamic Jihad’s capabilities.

“Guardian of the Walls achieved its goal,” Gantz said, adding that Israel has been striking “high quality targets,” in response to the balloon attacks.

The defense minister also discussed a recent deal that he approved between the government and a group of settlers who established an illegal outpost in the northern West Bank, known as Evyatar, in early May, during that month’s Gaza conflict. Under the agreement, in exchange for the settlers peacefully leaving the outpost on Friday, the government agreed to not raze the structures and to determine if the illegal settlement was built on privately owned Palestinian property or state land. If it was the latter, the outpost could be retroactively approved.

Israeli settlers march with flags at the illegal West Bank outpost of Evyatar on June 21, 2021. (Ahmad Gharabli/ AFP)

Gantz said the settlers who established Evyatar without approval “cynically took advantage of the situation” that the country was in during the Gaza conflict, a period that also saw large riots within Israeli cities.

“This was an illegal place, and they knew that they would either leave or be evicted. I’m glad they decided to leave,” the defense minister said.

The deal has garnered harsh criticism from left-wing politicians and from defense officials, who accuse Gantz of caving to right-wing pressure and say the arrangement will only encourage settlers to set up additional illegal outposts in this way, threatening to violently oppose an eviction in order to get their unauthorized West Bank construction approved retroactively.

The agreement has also received some right-wing criticism, due to the fact that the process of determining the status of the land will likely take several years.

Gantz defended the deal and his general centrist political approach.

“I’m the middle of this government. There are people on the right who aren’t pleased. I get it. There are people on the left who aren’t pleased. I get it. I’m doing what’s right,” he told Channel 13.

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