Analysis |

As Cyberwar Rages, Bennett Insists He Led a New Iran Strategy

And why Hamas' Israeli prisoner stunt didn't succeed

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett delivers a statement at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem, on Wednesday.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett delivers a statement at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem, on Wednesday.Credit: Tsafrir Abayov /AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The downgrading this week of the advisory for Israelis traveling to Istanbul reflects, at most, a temporary easing in the protracted tension with Iran. After the Turkish security services arrested several squads who had intended to kidnap or kill Israelis, the alert level could be reduced somewhat. But the hammer blows between the sides continued this week as well, particularly in the cyber realm.

In contrast to the failure of the series of planned attacks, and the anger of the Turks, which embarrassed Tehran and apparently forced it to take a step back, there is no letup in the cyberwars even for a minute. From the outset, the Iranian space for denial is greater there. It’s always possible to claim that it’s just another Israeli lie and that Tehran isn’t responsible for offensive initiatives of groups of independent hackers, who are really upset at the continued occupation in the territories.

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In practice, the scale of the Iranian cyberattacks has surged and has apparently recorded successes lately. This is emerging as the reason for the increase in the attacks on the digital infrastructure in Iran, a development which the international police attributes to Israel.

This week a complex of large steel factories was forced to halt operations following a cyberattack. Steel production is one of Iran’s major economic branches; rehabilitation will likely take several weeks.

Steel workers walk at the Iran National Steel Industrial Group facility in Ahvaz in southwestern Iran in 2020.Credit: REZA SOLEYMANI ROUZBEHANI - AFP

Outgoing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Defense Minister Benny Gantz referred indirectly to the events in speeches they delivered in a cyber conference at Tel Aviv University. Bennett drew an unusual comparison between cyber deterrence and nuclear deterrence. “If someone attacks us in cyber, we will attack back,” he said – words that could almost be read as taking responsibility.

Gantz stated, “We know who the keyboard terrorists are, we are hitting them and their henchmen, and today too they are in our gunsights – and not only in the cybernetic dimension.”

An Iranian flag is seen on a screen as Israel's Naftali Bennett speaks at a cyber conference in Tel Aviv, last year.Credit: Moti Milrod

The sharp tone of these remarks shows that it’s not just a case of threats being floated on the eve of the renewed election campaign. The impression is that Israel has sustained blows recently, and perhaps reacted in kind. The many incidents, of various kinds, have slightly shaken the self-confidence of the Tehran regime.

The New York Times reported on Wednesday that the Iranian leadership has the feeling that Israel has penetrated its intelligence organizations and is operating in the country without interference. That, together with the failure in Turkey, is apparently the background to the series of dismissals and replacements in the upper ranks of the Revolutionary Guards.

According to the Times, a general was recently arrested on suspicion of spying for Israel. Senior Israeli officials told Haaretz that the internal crisis is severe, especially in the leadership of the Revolutionary Guards.

On the eve of handing over the premiership to Yair Lapid, Bennett made the rounds of Shin Bet security service and Mossad headquarters to bid farewell. Bennett takes issue with the claim, which was put forward in these pages, too, that his security policy is not very different from that of his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, and that what difference there is between them boils down largely to Bennett’s restrained, statesman-like comportment.

Bennett’s view is that he laid the foundations for a new strategy, both with Iran and the Palestinians. Toward Iran he spearheaded a more militant line which, according to the reports from abroad, also included the use of weaponry against targets on Iranian soil that are not connected to the nuclear project: the destruction of a base and facility for the manufacture of drones last February, and the assassination of a senior figure in the Revolutionary Guards in May. In addition, it was reported, there were multiple cyberattacks. The goal is apparently to consolidate a rapid-response capability, so that Iran will pay an immediate price for every attack.

Bennett found in the small intelligence organizations a greater degree of conceptual flexibility and readiness for speedy change, as compared with the Israel Defense Forces. The army is a heavier ship and more ponderous to navigate. Besides which, the chief of staff, Aviv Kochavi, is today starting the last half-year of his term.

Economics and a prisoner exchange

The ploy that Hamas tried to pull off this week has so far not been a success. On Tuesday the Gaza-based organization released a video showing Hisham al-Sayed, an Israeli citizen who has been held by Hamas against his will in the Gaza Strip since 2015.

It was the first sign of life from al-Sayed in seven years. In the video he’s seen lying in bed, an oxygen mask on his face. His father, Sha’aban, said in media interviews that he did not detect a salient health problem in the clip.

Bennett and Gantz accused Hamas of being manipulative at the expense of the mentally disabled (both al-Sayed and the other Israeli being held in Gaza, Avera Mengistu, suffer from similar problems). They did not display readiness for compromise in a prisoner exchange deal. Possibly Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’ leader in the Gaza Strip, is misreading the situation in Israel, despite his excellent Hebrew and the 22 years he spent in Israeli incarceration.

Unlike the case of the kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, there is no popular movement in Israel that is demanding major concessions from the government in return for the release of the two and the return of the bodies of two soldiers, Capt. Hadar Goldin and Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul. It’s unlikely that the start of the election campaign will improve Hamas’ chances to extort a more generous deal from the caretaker government.

There are large disparities between the sides, mainly because Hamas is insisting that the hundreds of prisoners to be freed by Israel include lifers who were convicted of murder. Hamas needs a deal because of the important status of the security prisoners in the eyes of the Palestinian public, and because of a pledge that hasn’t been fulfilled: When Sinwar was released from prison in 2011, in the Shalit deal, he promised his associates who remained behind that he would help get them freed.

At the same time, it’s interesting that Hamas is resorting to a ploy of this kind and is not heating up the military arena. Similarly, during the recent escalation in terrorist attacks in the West Bank and inside the Green Line, which began in March and faded partially in June, Hamas encouraged terrorism vigorously but refrained from escalating the situation along the border of the Gaza Strip.

The principal reason for this lies in the positive economic shift brought about by Israel’s easing of restrictions in Gaza. The entry into Israel of 14,000 Gazan workers – a number slated to grow to 20,000 soon – generated a needed relative improvement in the welfare of Gaza’s inhabitants.

Each worker earns an average of 8,000 shekels (about $2,320) a month, and those who manage to hold down two jobs and to lodge in Israel earn up to 12,000 shekels – immense amounts in Gaza Strip terms. Hamas is apparently afraid to put the success of the Israeli move at risk, and is also trying to take credit for it among the Palestinian public.

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