Neutralizing Iran Comes Before Normalization With Riyadh


By Meir Ben Shabbat

Headshot of Meyer Ben Shabbat

In a rather unusual speech, whose content was also disseminated by the Public Diplomacy Directorate of the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, the head of the Mossad on Sept. 10 threatened that Israel would exact a price “deep in Iran, in the very heart of Tehran,” for any damage to an Israeli citizen or Jewish individual or for the infiltration into Israel of Iranian weapon systems.

David Barnea explained that this price would be exacted from all the relevant echelons involved in such activity, whether carried out by Iran’s own units or the various proxies operating on its behalf.

When referring to the threat posed by Iran’s military nuclear capability, Barnea reiterated his former declaration: “We simply cannot allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon, ever,” and added: “We are not just sitting idly by.”

Despite the fact that the value of silence has been somewhat undermined in Israel recently, we need not suspect that the head of the Mossad was speaking off the top of his head. His words were prepared and his speech was then widely disseminated.

Fewer words and more actions

Although in his speech he did evoke emotions of national honor and pride, which are in need of an urgent boost at this juncture, we should not necessarily assume that Barnea’s words were aimed specifically at the ears of the Israeli public. Israelis tend to prefer actions, as they speak louder than words, and have reservations about the use of bombastic threats as more characteristic of the style of our enemies in Tehran, Beirut, or Gaza.

Even if this speech entailed an implicit response to criticism of the policy of containment in relation to Hezbollah’s actions and those of additional adversaries, the Israeli public would still prefer deeds to words.

Neither were Barnea’s threats necessarily directed at Iran. Tehran is well and truly aware of its “misdeeds” and their inherent risks, and will clearly understand the link between them and any Israeli response. Should there be any doubt about that, there are numerous ways of issuing hints after such action is taken to underscore the connection. As far as Israel is concerned, Barnea’s primary audience should be Washington.

The U.S. administration under President Joe Biden, which has sought to lower the profile of the Iranian problem and to make a military confrontation with it as unlikely as possible, is now seeing the tangible results of its policy: a growing sense of confidence in Iran, leading to defiant activity on its nuclear program, providing aid to Russia in the form of drones for use in Ukraine, compounded by a significant increase in its efforts to promote acts of terrorism around the globe.

An accusatory finger
The American concern over becoming bogged down in a military quagmire in the Middle East, which constitutes a significant mainstay of the Biden administration’s policy of restraint towards Iran, might actually eventually lead to the opposite outcome: a regional conflagration as the outcome of the dynamics of action and reaction, in which the United States will not be able to remain on the sidelines.

The Mossad chief’s speech, only a few days prior to the arrival of the prime minister in the United States for a meeting with Biden and attendance at the U.N. General Assembly, constitutes a good preparation for these two key events. For understandable reasons, Barnea did not point an accusatory finger at our good friends in Washington, but as the popular idiom has it, he “shouted at the tree so that the camel might hear.”

Although tough Israeli talk on the Iranian issue might not go down too well with those U.S. administration officials who are currently working hard to establish normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, they do accurately reflect the situation that has developed under their policy and will serve to clarify Israel’s current priority: neutralizing the existential threat posed by Iran takes precedence even over normalization with Saudi Arabia.

Meir Ben Shabbat is head of the Misgav Institute for Zionist Strategy & National Security, in Jerusalem. He served as Israel’s national security advisor and head of the National Security Council between 2017 and 2021. Prior to that, for 25 years he held senior positions in the Israel Security Agency (Shabak).

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