The message Israel’s interim prime minister sent to Iran

Gil Cohen-Magen/Pool Photo via AP
Israel’s caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid heads a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on July 31, 2022. Lapid took a gamble with his pre-emptive strike against Islamic Jihad militants in Gaza, less than three months before he competes in general elections to retain his job.

Earlier this month, Israel successfully neutralized the leadership of the Iranian-sponsored terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in Operation Breaking Dawn, a three-day war. During the war, PIJ sent hundreds of missiles targeting Israeli civilians from Palestinian civilian areas, a double war crime ignored by the United Nations. Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system stopped 97 percent of the incoming projectiles, and the fighting ended quickly. Unfortunately, this may be just a pause before the next round of hostilities.

Turns out, this military operation has a lot to do with the Iranian nuclear program. That’s because the message sent to Iran by Prime Minister Yair Lapid is that Israel’s interim government can take the initiative and successfully launch a preemptive strike if its security interests are threatened. 

Despite the seeming chaos of their political system, the Israelis were unified behind the Gaza operation. A poll after the war showed that 68 percent of Israelis, including 70 percent of Israel’s right, which is not Lapid’s base, were satisfied with his handling of the hostilities. 

And based on recent polling, Lapid is likely to remain in office after the next election because there will not be a clear winner. Benjamin Netanyahu, who is seeking to unseat him, stayed on as prime minister for two years without a governing coalition. This November’s Israeli election may be a 50-50 proposition for someone to form a coalition government of at least 61 Knesset members. If no government is formed, the interim prime minister remains. That means a decision regarding whether to strike against Iran could happen on Lapid’s watch.  

Iran’s possible renewal of the nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, will not determine Israel’s decision on whether to preemptively strike Iranian nuclear facilities. Lapid may be more liberal regarding domestic policy than his rival, but on national security, both he and Netanyahu consider Iran to be an existential threat.

Israel will act — agreement or not, interim prime minister or not — based on its security needs, not politics. After the recent war, we know that Lapid will act if he believes it is in Israel’s security interest, even if he is only in an interim position.

According to Richard Goldberg of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, writing in The Dispatch, the “U.S. is offering Iran the deal of the millennium. Tehran would face no changes in the old deal’s sunset clauses or expiration dates on key restrictions … and under a new deal (Iran would) keep its newly deployed arsenal of advanced uranium centrifuges … guaranteeing the regime the ability to cross the nuclear threshold at any time of its choosing.” 

If that is true, this increases the chance that Israel will act preemptively, sooner or later, although proponents of a return to the Iran nuclear deal say it could delay the timeline by a few years. In my discussions with security and intelligence experts in Israel this summer, quite a few believe Iran already has crossed the threshold as a nuclear-capable nation and that Israel should act now. The Iranian leaders know this — and they now know that Lapid is no paper tiger.

Adding fuel to the fire is an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report citing Iran’s failure to explain undeclared nuclear material, in violation of the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty, which is unrelated to the JCPOA. The Arms Control Association reported that the IAEA said, “Tehran has stockpiled enough material enriched to 60 percent uranium-235 that could, if enriched to weapons-grade material, give it enough uranium for one bomb (25 kg) in under 10 days. … The timeframe is dangerously close to the point where Iran could break out between regular IAEA inspections.” In response, it passed a resolution criticizing Iran for not explaining the uranium in undeclared atomic sites.  

Another way that Israel’s recent clash with the PIJ is related to the covert Iranian nuclear project is that Iran’s long-term strategy appears to be to encircle Israel with hundreds of thousands of missiles from its proxies. The goal is to make Israel think twice before preemptively striking Iranian nuclear facilities. PIJ is the smallest link in this strategy. Like Hezbollah and Hamas, which have more than 200,000 missiles and UAVs between them, all are under the control of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to varying degrees.

Lapid may not be done challenging Iranian threats. Last month he visited Israel’s northern command, in charge of Israel’s borders with Lebanon (Hezbollah), Syria and Iraq. Lapid said Israel will “act against all Iranian terror branches in the region [because it] is the largest exporter of terrorism in the world. We will act on our own … to prevent Iran from undermining regional stability. … Hezbollah’s aggression is unacceptable and could lead the entire region to an unnecessary escalation.”

In election season, Israeli politicians often viciously attack their rivals, claiming that they undermine the country’s security. Yet even opposition leader Netanyahu recently visited with Lapid to discuss security, an indication that Israelis stand together when it comes to security threats.

Brinkmanship is often based on the perception of your adversaries’ strength and willingness to fight. Iran now knows that Israel’s interim prime minister — or any prime minister — will not back down from security challenges, election season or not.

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of Congress and their foreign policy aides. He is the senior security editor for the Jerusalem Report. Follow him on Twitter @MepinOrg.

Tags Benjamin Netanyahu Iran nuclear program Iran–Israel proxy conflict Israel Yair Lapid

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