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'What do you expect us to do? Pray?'

Frank Suyak
February 3, 2021

In a DW interview, Israeli cabinet minister Tzachi Hanegbi said Israel is in favor of a long-term nuclear deal, but would act unilaterally against Iran’s nuclear program if necessary.

Iranian women security officials (foreground) and media at the opening of a nuclear plant in Bushehr, Iran in 2010
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Taherkenareh

'A violent confrontation is the last resort'

Speaking on DW’s Conflict Zone on Monday, Israeli cabinet minister Tzachi Hanegbi hinted at a unilateral Israeli military strike against Iran if the administration of US President Joe Biden joined a new nuclear deal that failed to meet Israeli concerns. "What do you think we are going to do? Pray? No, we are going to defend ourselves in any way that will be effective," Hanegbi said from his home near Jerusalem.

Hanegbi's comments came a day before it was revealed that Iran had further breached the previously agreed nuclear deal.

Trump left Iran deal despite Tehran's compliance

Hanegbi, who currently holds the post of minister of community affairs, pointed out that Israel had attacked suspected nuclear research sites in Iraq and Syria in the past "when nobody cared" or its partners in the US "were reluctant" to take action at Israel’s urging.

"We hope that it's not going to be the same phenomenon here," the veteran politician told Conflict Zone host Tim Sebastian.

Israeli Cabinet Minister Tzachi Hanegbi in 2018
Tzachi Hanegbi told DW that the nuclear deal was in Iran's interest, and that Tehran had complied with itImage: imago images//Pacific Press Agency/L. Radin

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was finalized by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany with Iran in 2015. Most of its provisions expire after 15 years. In return for a lifting of some sanctions, Iran agreed to limit some of its nuclear activities and be subject to international inspections.

Under former President Donald Trump, Washington quit the deal in 2018 and tightened US sanctions, saying Iran’s support of extremist groups in the Middle East and ballistic missile research should also be addressed.  The Trump administration did not dispute that Tehran had been in compliance with the JCPOA, something Hanegbi reiterated.

Iran nuclear deal 'very good if it never expires'

Hanegbi said the issue now was Iran’s behavior and its support of extremists. However, he agreed that Iran had mostly lived up to the agreement until the Trump administration withdrew from the nuclear deal. "The agreement was definitely not violated by Iran for a long time. They were working according to the agreement, because it's their interest," he told Sebastian. Hanegbi argued that the main problem with the deal is that it does not last long enough.

"The agreement is very good if it never expires," he said. "Once it's expired, they have the legitimacy to enrich uranium and to reach a nuclear weapon. We want an agreement that will be the same agreement but for 50 years, 100 years," Hanegbi said, laying out Israeli concerns about a potential Iranian nuclear weapons program in future.

Sebastian pointed out that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had repeatedly warned of an imminent Iranian bomb.

The Israeli minister said it had been delayed through international sanctions. "President Biden just warned several days ago that they are going to prevent Iran from having a nuclear program," he said.

"Of course a violent confrontation is the last resort," the Likud official said, adding that he hoped the new administration in Washington would maintain the policy of "maximum pressure" on Iran. 

Asked specifically if there could be a circumstance in which Israel would go ahead with a strike on Iran without consulting the US, Hanegbi replied: "I do not predict and I cannot predict what’s going to happen."

In January, Iran's Revolutionary Guard test-fired anti-warship missiles against "hypothetical" enemy targets in the Indian Ocean.

Israel Supreme Court: West Bank is in 'belligerent occupation'

Sebastian confronted the minister regarding the treatment of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, pointing to the fact that thousands of people had been made homeless after the Israeli military destroyed their homes. Hanegbi denied the Supreme Court’s finding that Israel held the West Bank in "belligerent occupation" and said he knew nothing of calls from the new administration in Washington to halt construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. 

Hanegbi also hit back at widespread recent criticism that Israel’s massive vaccination drive had not been extended to Palestinians. He insisted that the Palestinian Authority had its own plans and budgets to vaccinate Palestinians against COVID-19, but that Israel stood ready to contribute 5,000 total doses of vaccine.

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