Will Netanyahu’s re-election alter Israel's Iran policy?

With Benjamin Netanyahu back in power, Israel seeks to intensify efforts to undermine the Iran nuclear deal
Benjamin Netanyahu, who is tipped to regain the Israeli premiership, celebrates election results in Jerusalem | Photo: Alamy

By Hugh Lovatt

Hugh Lovatt is a senior policy fellow with the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations

24 Nov 2022

Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-election at the head of a far-right government in Israel heralds an intensification of Israeli actions against Iran and its nuclear programme. The Israeli prime minister has never wavered from his belief that Iran represents “the greatest danger” to Israel and world peace.

He publicly clashed with then President of the United States Barack Obama over the US-supported 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear agreement with Iran, before convincing the Trump administration to withdraw in favour of a campaign of “maximum pressure”.

But he didn’t stop there. The Israeli prime minister ramped up clandestine actions to subvert Iran’s nuclear programme in conjunction with Israeli airstrikes against Iranian-linked targets in Syria. He also sought to consolidate an anti-Iran regional front between Israel and Arab Gulf states that eventually morphed into the Donald Trump-brokered Abraham Accords in 2020.

As Israel’s longest serving prime minister, Netanyahu’s views have permeated the country’s political and security establishments. Despite ousting him from power in 2021, the coalition led by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid continued his policies – expanding the air campaign in Syria while ramping up sabotage and assassination efforts inside Iran. It touted increasing defence ties with Arab nations such as the United Arab Emirates as the beginning of a new Middle Eastern air defence alliance against Iran. Although keen to cultivate better relations with the White House (and Europe), the Bennett-Lapid government also maintained Israeli opposition to the JCPOA.

Netanyahu’s return to power thus points to continuation rather than change. Nevertheless, based on his track record, he will be a far more active disruptor of any regional or inter-national move towards détente with Iran. With the Iranian regime struggling to quell mass protests against its rule, and deep Western anger over its military support for Russia, the Israeli leader may try to enlist Washington and European capitals in a new campaign of maximum pressure that could ultimately block renewed efforts to revive the JCPOA.

Yet more of the same is unlikely to prove any more successful than in the past. Israeli operations to curb Iranian activities across the Middle East have not reversed Tehran’s regional influence nor significantly degraded its proxies. And just like Bennett and Lapid, Netanyahu has proven unable to articulate an alternative and viable plan for containing Iran’s nuclear programme.

Netanyahu has proven unable to articulate an alternative and viable plan for containing Iran’s nuclear programme

While Netanyahu has vowed to strike Iran unilaterally if needed, many security experts doubt such action could permanently destroy the Iranian nuclear programme. Israel could also face serious opposition from its Gulf partners who fear a regional conflagration that would first and foremost hurt their own economic and security interests.

Perhaps for these reasons, he has previously shied away from seriously pursuing such a scenario. Indeed, members of Israel’s security establishment criticised him for not building up the air force’s capacity while in office to enable this kind of complex long-range operation.

It is not yet clear whether Netanyahu will prioritise the military preparations initiated by the outgoing government. But his far-right allies will no doubt want to steer the defence ministry’s focus towards another of Netanyahu’s long-standing ambitions, namely deepening Israel’s settlement of the West Bank (which is under Israeli military administration).

However, any move to formally annex occupied Palestinian territory against international law would risk a deep crisis with the US and Europe and undermine tightening relations with Arab states. In doing so, the settler movement could inadvertently challenge Netanyahu’s long-standing ambitions to unite the world against Iran.