Iran is now a ‘legitimate target’ for Israeli missile strikes, senior minister says

Nir Barkat, the Israeli Minister of Economy and Industry
Nir Barkat, the Israeli minister of economy and industry - JULIAN SIMMONDS
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Iran is now a “legitimate target” for Israeli missile strikes, one of the country’s most senior ministers has told the Telegraph, raising the prospect of an all-out war with Tehran.

In a wide-ranging interview, Nir Barkat, Israel’s economy minister, also said Palestinians from the West Bank would never be allowed to work in the country again and would be replaced by more than a quarter of a million imported foreign workers.

He also complained that the war in Gaza had not been fought aggressively enough.

Mr Barkat, who is favourite to succeed Benjamin Netanyahu as leader of the ruling Likud party, said Israel could afford to keep fighting and open up a new front with Lebanon, despite the billion shekel (£200 million) a day cost of the conflict.

He said that as “big as the crisis is, it is also a really big opportunity”, with governments around the world needing Israel’s technical expertise to combat global jihadism.

‘The head of the snake is Tehran’

The risk of the war spreading to Lebanon and as far as Iran will alarm Western leaders, with Mr Barkat becoming increasingly influential in the ruling party.

Polls suggest the economy minister would win five more seats than Mr Netanyahu if he replaced him as Likud’s leader.

Mr Barkat, 64, said: “Iran is a legitimate target for Israel. They will not get away with it. The head of the snake is Tehran. My recommendation is to adopt the strategy that President Kennedy used in the Cuban missile crisis. What he basically said then was a missile from Cuba will be answered with a missile to Moscow.

“And we should very very clearly make sure the Iranians understand that they will not get away with using proxies against Israel and sleep good at night if we don’t sleep good at night.”

An Israeli artillery unit fires across the border towards Lebanon
Israel is edging towards a full-blown war with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon - AMIR LEVY/GETTY IMAGES EUROPE

He said Israel had “an open bill” with Iran, drawing on a reference from his successful business career to warn the Islamic regime, which funds Hamas and Hezbollah, that it had a debt that needed repaying.

“Iran will not get away with it,” said Mr Barkat: “We believe them when they say they want to destroy Israel. If anything, what we have learned from October 7 is believe our enemies and the wickedness in their evil, their goals, thoughts and actions and we are not going to allow another Holocaust.

‘Hezbollah must be eliminated’

“Jihadists want to kill all non-Muslims. We may be first in line but we are all in the same line. They call Israel Little Satan and Big Satan is the US and everyone else is in the middle.”

Israel is edging towards a full-blown war with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, having evacuated the north of the country. Mr Barkat said a second war was affordable while “the threat of Hezbollah must be eliminated”.

“Whatever it takes,” he said, pointing out that Israel had shown “really good numbers” prior to the October 7 attack on the country by Hamas fighters.

The economy is expected to grow by two per cent this year, down from five per cent forecast prior to the war.

He said Israelis evacuated from the south should now be returned home “swiftly” but that those displaced from the north needed to be able to live there “securely” before adding: “Even so, it should be faster.”

As the country lurches to the Right in the aftermath of October 7 and with Mr Netanyahu’s personal ratings plummeting, Mr Barkat appears to be making a play to replace the prime minister as party leader.

Benjamin Netanyahu
Mr Barkat appears to be making a play to replace prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu as party leader - OHAD ZWIGENBERG/AP POOL

A hugely successful high-tech entrepreneur – his fortune has been estimated at half a billion shekels or £100m – he has taken a token one shekel salary for the past 20 years working in both local and national politics.

The economy minister is a former paratrooper who was wounded in combat in Lebanon and was also the Mayor of Jerusalem for a decade.

‘They teach their children to kill Jews’

Mr Barkat rejected any suggestion that Palestinian labourers, who previously came into Israel daily to work in the construction and other industries, would be allowed to return. Daily crossings for labourers into Israel from the West Bank have been on hold since October 7.

He likened the Palestinian Authority running the West Bank to the Hamas leadership in Gaza.

“You know what the difference is? Nothing,” said Mr Barkat. “Hamas had an opportunity and took it and the Palestinian Authority would use the opportunity if they had it.

“They teach their children to kill Jews in school and kindergarten. They have the same textbooks as Hamas and they pay for anybody to kill a Jew.

“They get a million dollars for killing Jews,” he added in reference to a Palestinian Authority Martyrs Fund that pays out to families of Palestinians killed or injured whilst carrying out attacks against Israel.

The fund has been called “Pay for Slay” by its critics.

Israel has long been reliant on workers coming into the country from Gaza and the West Bank, but Mr Barkat, whose ministry is responsible for the construction industry, said: “We are done with Palestinian employees. The rationale behind it is very simple: we only want foreign employees from peaceful countries. We don’t want employees from enemies.

“Unfortunately for Palestinians, 80 per cent of them support October 7. How the hell do you expect us to give jobs to somebody who supports October 7 and gets a million dollars if they kill Jews? We will only bring foreign labour from peaceful, loving companies. I am aggressively pursuing that.”

Israeli soldiers operate in the Gaza Strip
'The reality is at certain points in time I prefer a much more aggressive approach,' Mr Barkat said - ISRAEL DEFENCE FORCES/REUTERS

He said Israel was currently home to 130,000 foreign workers, most of them with five-year work and residency permits, but he was looking to increase that to 300,000 “as soon as possible”.

‘Naiveness has gone’

India is the likeliest target for a recruitment drive with the promise of wages seven to ten times higher than at home. “Everybody wins,” said Mr Barkat.

“If you don’t do what I proposed, it’s as if we didn’t learn the lessons of October 7.”

He added: “There is a huge shift to the right in Israel in public opinion. Naiveness has gone.”

On the conduct of the war in Gaza and in the face of international condemnation of Israel’s tactics, Mr Barkat said: “Israel is being very cautious. If you compare what we have done in Gaza to the way the armies of the west took down Nazi Germany it is fundamentally different.

“We warn citizens to move out before we move in. No other place in the world has such ethical standards. But once we move in we have to make sure our soldiers are secure. The reality is at certain points in time I prefer a much more aggressive approach.”

He has called for greater air support to protect soldiers on the ground. On the day he was interviewed by the Telegraph, he had already attended the funerals of two reservists, who were among 21 soldiers killed in Gaza when a rocket-propelled grenade detonated at an explosives-rigged building.

When Mr Barkat arrived at the funeral of one of the men, he realised he was friends of one of the grieving fathers.

“It is difficult for Israel,” he said, “But we remember what happened to the six million Jews killed by Nazis and we won’t let that happen again… This is a religious war.”