by Neville Teller
Israel’s coalition government lasted just one year and a few days – from June 2, 2021 to 6 June 2022. It collapsed under the weight of domestic political challenges, and its record at home is patchy. In the field of foreign policy, however, it can boast significant achievements. There is no doubt that Israel’s diplomatic relations with many of its neighbors were far better in June 2022 than in June 2021, and that the geostrategic map of the Middle East had started to shift in a positive direction.
Early on, the coalition government focused on deepening the Abraham Accords and enhancing its anti-Iran policy. Then-Prime Minister Naftali Bennett indicated a strengthening of approach toward Iran in July 2021, just before a visit to Washington. This re-invigorated policy, according to media reports, became known within the security services as the “Octopus doctrine”. Comparing Iran’s leadership to the head of an octopus, its tentacles are the various Iranian proxy groups spread across the Middle East. The coalition approved a change in tactics from striking only at the tentacles to going straight for the head. An Israeli security official is reported to have told the London Daily Telegraph: “[Ex-] prime minister Bennett’s Octopus doctrine has proven to be effective. It has caused shockwaves throughout the leadership of Iran.”
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Although never acknowledged publicly, there is a widespread belief that the coalition authorized a program of covert action aimed at disrupting or delaying Iran’s progress toward acquiring a nuclear arsenal, including cyber attacks, explosions at key installations and the assassination of top Iranian nuclear scientists.
The coalition government certainly authorized Israel’s security forces to neutralize Iranian attempts to hit Western targets abroad. In April 2022, Mossad operatives in Iran were reported to have captured and interrogated Mansour Rasouli, who was leading a plot to kill an Israeli diplomat, a US general stationed in Germany and a Jewish journalist in France. In late May, the deputy commander of a unit of Iran’s IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), Col. Hassan Sayyad Khodae, responsible for plans to murder Israelis in Turkey, was killed in Iran.
The coalition’s proactive anti-Iran policy included hitting an array of targets inside Iran using drones. In February an airbase near Kermanshah, in Western Iran, was subject to an attack that reportedly destroyed hundreds of drones. Since then, several advanced quadcopter drones carrying powerful explosives damaged a secret and classified military installation in Iran’s Parchin military technology complex.
In the dying days of the coalition, just ahead of a visit to Turkey by then-foreign minister Yair Lapid, Mossad and its local counterpart in Turkey managed to thwart three Iranian attacks targeting Israeli civilians, including a former ambassador. Turkish media reported that 10 people had been arrested as part of an Iranian plot.
Suspicions began spreading within the top echelons of the Iranian regime that its top-level security had been breached. In April 2022 several dozen employees of the Iranian Defense Ministry were detained on suspicion of leaking classified information to Israel. At the end of May Israel published a series of intercepted Iranian documents online, including details about its nuclear program.
The top leadership became convinced that the rot had infiltrated even to the regime’s powerful IRGC. On June 23 its fearsome intelligence chief Hossein Taeb was sacked, while on June 20 news emerged that senior Iranian commander Brig. Gen. Ali Nasiri had been secretly arrested on allegations of spying for Israel.
The coalition government’s anti-Iran policy was balanced by a proactive approach to strengthening Israel’s relations across the region and beyond, headed by Lapid as foreign minister.
“The Middle East is changing and it’s changing for the better” said Bennett in March 2022 at the so-called “Negev forum” meeting of Israeli and Arab foreign ministers in Sde Boker. “We’re cultivating old ties and building new bridges.”
These principles are reflected in Israeli policies towards Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf States over the past year. One of the coalition government’s first foreign policy priorities was mending diplomatic relations with Jordan, which had suffered during the Netanyahu years. Over the past year King Abdullah II has hosted Israel’s President, prime minister, foreign minister and defense minister. New trade agreements were signed, raising the ceiling for Jordanian exports to the West Bank from $160m annually to $700m, and Israel approving the sale of an additional 50 million cubic meters of water to the Kingdom.
The two sides also signed an energy cooperation agreement. Helped by finance from the UAE, the November 2021 agreement envisioned the construction of a major photovoltaic (solar) plant in Jordan with the capacity to generate 600 MW to export green power to Israel, while a desalination plant will be established in the Israel to send up to 200 million cubic meters of water to Jordan.
Israel’s relations with Egypt, which were in any case strong and stable under the previous government, also saw an uplift. In September 2021 Bennett received a warm welcome from President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi in the first summit between Israeli and Egyptian leaders in more than a decade. In March, following the inauguration of a new flight route between Ben Gurion airport and Sharm el-Sheikh, Bennett took part in a trilateral meeting with Sisi and UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.
During the coalition government’s year of office top-level relations with the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco were confirmed and strengthened by a succession of official visits and new political and commercial agreements. Relations with the UK were enhanced by Lapid’s highly successful visit to Britain in January. The agreement with the EU to export liquified natural gas from Israel’s reserves was another major foreign policy triumph.
Whatever the shortcomings of the coalition government at home during its short tenure of power, it can point to a succession of major achievements abroad. With its former foreign minister now leading the government until the election in November, Israel can expect successful foreign policy initiatives to continue at least till then.