Likud MK: Iran deal makes Israeli strike more likely

If temporary agreement turns permanent, Jerusalem might be forced to act, says Netanyahu confidant Tzachi Hanegbi

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

An Israel Air Force F-15i. (Photo credit: Tsahi Ben-Ami / Flash 90)
An Israel Air Force F-15i. (Photo credit: Tsahi Ben-Ami / Flash 90)

The interim deal struck last weekend between six world powers and Iran actually increases the likelihood of an Israeli strike against the Islamic Republic’s nuclear facilities, a lawmaker close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday, contradicting the common wisdom that the Geneva agreement would prevent Jerusalem from attacking in the coming six months.

“The [military] option needs to exist. If you ask me whether there is the possibility that we will actually get to a situation in which we will be forced to realize that option, the chances actually increased,” said MK Tzachi Hanegbi (Likud). “Because if we see this current agreement today, and fear this would turn into the final agreement, the chances that we will be forced to act, when the day comes — and hopefully it won’t come — but if and when it comes we will thank all previous prime ministers, including Ehud Olmert, for preparing for that option.”

Hanegbi, a former minister for nuclear affairs and current member of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, made the remarks Sunday evening during a panel discussion at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. During the event, Olmert, who was prime minister from 2006 until 2009, launched a bitter attack against Netanyahu, saying he had “declared war on the American government” through his vocal opposition of the Geneva nuclear deal with Iran.

Olmert also didn’t spare criticism for Hanegbi, who defended the prime minister’s stance to speak out publicly and lobby Congress against US President Barack Obama’s Iran policy. “I am very worried, because Tzachi Hanegbi is perhaps the best and most credible person to talk about what the prime minister thinks. And therefore I am worried that he again talks about a military operation,” Olmert said.

The former prime minister, who is rumored to be considering a political comeback in time for the next elections, then added that he is not really concerned about the current government launching a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, because it “doesn’t have the ability to take such a decision.” Olmert added that he was actually happy about that. “It’s also not good to talk about it [a military strike]. It doesn’t lead anywhere. It didn’t help until today,” he said, adding that Netanyahu’s constant saber-rattling did not achieve anything, and had eventually led to the less-than-satisfying interim deal with Iran.

Supporters of Netanyahu’s position argue that his constant vocal warnings of the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran helped establish the sanctions regime that brought the Iranians to the negotiating table, and that his criticism ahead of the Geneva agreement improved the terms of the deal, from Israel’s perspective.

In the immediate aftermath of November 24’s “Joint Plan of Action” between Tehran and the US, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany, many analysts agreed that an Israeli preemptive strike has become exceedingly unlikely as Jerusalem would not dare attack Iran after the international community decided to test the regime’s willingness to solve the nuclear standoff diplomatically.

Officials in Jerusalem, however, have argued that the military option remains on the table. “As to the [Iranian] actual threat, we will act against it in time if need be,” Netanyahu said Sunday night during a visit to Rome’s Great Synagogue.

“The most dangerous regime in the world must not be allowed to have the most dangerous weapon in the world. As we have warned, and I say this with regret, the sanctions regime has started to weaken and very quickly. If tangible steps are not taken soon, it is liable to collapse and the efforts of years will vanish without anything in exchange. But at the same time,” Netanyahu concluded, “we will not allow Iran to receive a military nuclear capability.”

Hanegbi, who is rumored to be set to replace Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman as the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee’s chairman this week, is known to be among the prime minister’s closest confidants. “I know Netanyahu. And nothing will prevent Netanyahu from doing what he believes is right,” he told The Times of Israel last month.

“I believe that if he had thought that military action was crucial at the time [about a year ago, when he was reportedly considering a preemptive strike], he would have acted. He most likely decided not to because there are great advantages to waiting until Israel comes as close as possible to the limits of its tolerance. Because when that point is reached, we can use all of the previous restraint as a very powerful tool for strengthening the legitimacy of our actions.”

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