PM said to tell MKs he expects escalation with Lebanon or Gaza

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett reportedly told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday that Israel could soon face a military confrontation with Lebanon or Gaza.

Bennett told lawmakers that Israel’s economic growth was enabling it to prepare for such scenarios in parallel with the focus on the strategic shift vis-à-vis Iran, according to the Ynet news site, which reported comments made during the part of the discussion that was closed to the media.

The premier reportedly said Israel was waging a multifaceted war against Iran and its proxy terror groups in the region — including Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Gaza’s Hamas — adding that while Tehran is regarded as a regional power, it has many weaknesses, including having to invest its resources in controlling its own population and in transferring money to its proxies.

Israel last fought Hamas in May in a deadly 11-day escalation, and has had several cross-border incidents with Hezbollah, with which it last fought a full-blown war in 2006.

According to the report, Bennett also addressed Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s recent meetings with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Bennett was said to clarify that he isn’t planning to advance peace talks with the Palestinians at this time, adding that Israel’s interest is to maintain stability in the West Bank and the Gaza strip.

He also reportedly said his government wants to prevent Hamas from arming and seeks to return two civilians and two bodies of IDF soldiers that Israel believes are being held by the terror group in Gaza.

During the open-to-media portion of Monday’s meeting, Bennett told the committee that the country’s military and other security services were undergoing their largest rearming in years.

Bennett’s comments came as the IDF was working intensively to prepare for a potential military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, amid growing concerns that talks between the world powers and Tehran in Vienna about curbing the latter’s nuclear program may result in an agreement that Israel deems unacceptable, or in no agreement whatsoever.

“We are investing in security rearmament of the IDF and the entire defense establishment. I would say this was rearmament that we haven’t seen for years. This rearmament is important to our survival, and I am very glad about it and am determined to see it through quickly,” Bennett said.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks during a press conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on January 2, 2022. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Bennett’s government increased the 2022 defense budget to nearly NIS 60 billion ($19.2 billion), a large chunk of which was to be earmarked for planning on military engagement with Iran, including billions to upgrade or procure vehicles, ordnance and more.

In a criticism of his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu, Bennett claimed the military had been in a “tailspin” for years, which “severely damaged Israeli national security, in every dimension.” Bennett was defense minister under Netanyahu in 2019 and 2020.

Bennett reiterated that Israel will not be party to a nuclear deal with Iran and will do whatever it deems necessary to ensure the country’s security.

“In terms of the Vienna talks, the nuclear talks — we are indeed concerned. It is important for me to say and to clarify here in a way that can’t be misunderstood: Israel is not part of the agreements, Israel is not bound by what is written in the agreements if they are signed, and Israel will continue to ensure its full freedom of operation in any place and at any time, with no limitations,” Bennett said.

It was Bennett’s first appearance as prime minister before the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, a parliamentary body meant to oversee the military, foreign policy and related issues.

Israel has been engaged in a long-simmering shadow war with Iran for years, mostly through regular airstrikes on Iranian-linked targets in Syria and en route to Syria, as well as occasional attacks — both physical ones and cyber attacks — on Iranian nuclear facilities, according to foreign reports.

Israel has opposed a return to the 2015 deal, instead pushing for negotiators to revamp the accord with stricter restraints on Iran and to address malign activity in the region beyond the nuclear portfolio. Officials have threatened that Israel could take military action to keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, even without the support of other nations.

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