Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to power in March 2009 radically changed Israel’s foreign policy strategy. Since the establishment of the state in 1948, the country focused on the conflict with its Arab neighbors. From the early 1990s onwards, including during Netanyahu’s first term in office (1996–1999), it centered on the conflict with the Palestinians. But in the course of the last decade, the aim of solving the conflict with the Palestinians has been replaced with a concentrated effort to thwart Iran’s nuclear project, which Netanyahu defined as an existential threat to the Jewish state.
Netanyahu’s predecessors were familiar with the Iranian nuclear threat. Yitzhak Rabin’s decision to engage in the Oslo process in the early 1990s was motivated in part by the need to end the conflict with the Palestinians before Iran becomes nuclear. Under Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert (2001–2009) Israel conducted, in cooperation with the United States and other states, an intense secret war against the project, which involved, among other things, the assassination of senior Iranian nuclear scientists in Teheran and the use of Stuxnet, a malicious computer worm that damaged Iran’s nuclear facilities and delayed the project. Simultaneously, Israel conducted a secret campaign to impose international sanctions on Iran. In this context, Sharon and Olmert were ready to make concessions in the Palestinian issue in order to gain support for Israel’s efforts on the Iranian front.
Under Sharon and Olmert Israel kept its anti-Iran struggle in a low-profile. Netanyahu turned Israel’s role in the diplomatic campaign into a public one, warning against the Iranian threat in every international forum. Furthermore, three times in 2010–2012 he pushed for a massive military assault on Iran’s nuclear facilities but failed to overcome the opposition of the chiefs of the security establishment. They argued that the military option was not ripe yet; that the secret warfare was sufficiently effective; that there was no need yet for a strike that was likely to lead to a general war; and that an uncoordinated military initiative would yield a major crisis with the Obama administration.