The Coming Clash Between Israel and Iran
Netanyahu’s decade-old warnings about Iran might come in handy now that it seems the voters are turning their back on him.
When President Donald Trump refused to recertify the Iran deal last month, there was one person in particular who couldn’t be happier — Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. When Netanyahu came back to power in 2009, his biggest mission was to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Early on, Netanyahu was in favor of a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, at a time when US had its hands full in Iraq and Afghanistan, and when the Israeli establishment didn’t quite see the dangers Netanyahu envisioned.
Israel had successfully bombed Iraq’s nuclear facilities in 1981 and Syria’s Al Kibar reactor in 2007. The bombing in Iraq was immediately reported around the world and condemned by the UN, but Iraq didn’t retaliate. Saddam Hussein did, however, launch Scud missiles at Israel 10 years later, in 1991. Israel’s attack on Syria’s Al Kibar reactor in 2007 was more clandestine. Both Israel and Syria didn’t intend to reveal what had happened for different reasons. Israel believed that striking the reactor was necessary for its national security but knew that it would have to be done quietly, as not to provoke or humiliate Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The strategy worked, which was why Assad didn’t publicly condemn the attack, nor did he retaliate.
Netanyahu believed that striking Iran could be done in the same clinical way, without provoking an international outcry. An attack on Iran would, however, be much more complex, with potentially catastrophic consequences. Israel’s intelligence establishment at the time argued that a preemptive strike on Iran could damage the relationship with the US, isolate Israel further internationally and potentially be met with an Iranian retaliation in the form of missile attacks, risking thousands of Israeli lives. Netanyahu warned that inaction could be much more catastrophic, allowing Iran to go nuclear.
Netanyahu was in disagreement with Israel’s military establishment, but, according to Meir Dagan, Mossad’s chief at the time, he succeeded in convincing Netanyahu to reconsider the attack. It did not, however, hinder the prime minister from publicly undermining President Barack Obama’s diplomatic approach to ending Iran’s nuclear ambitions, which was more dovish than what Netanyahu hoped for. Although Obama stated that ‘‘all options are on the table” in 2012, hinting at a possible military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, his strategy from the beginning was to use diplomatic pressure against Iran, whereas Netanyahu wanted to strike Iran already in 2010. Instead of finding common ground with Obama, Netanyahu famously went behind the president’s back and tried to persuade US Congress to change America’s position on Iran.
A Different Kind of Threat
After years of warning about the Iranian regime and its intentions, the international community started focusing on Iran, but not the way Netanyahu wanted. Years of sanctions brought Iran to its knees economically and resulted in a nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 countries — US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany. Netanyahu was quick to declare it a “historic mistake” that had given Iran valuable time to develop its facilities, and at the same time strengthened its legitimacy as a regional power. Netanyahu was right about this: Today, Iran has expanded its influence significantly throughout the region, most notably in Syria and Iraq, and its economy is slowly recovering with the help of Russian, Chinese and European investments.
The current situation in Syria, where Assad has managed to consolidate his power, has also solidified Iran’s position, while its proxy, Hezbollah, is slowly tightening its grip on Lebanon. These developments have made Netanyahu’s warnings about Iran relevant again, so that most of the military and intelligence establishment in Israel today agree that Iran and Hezbollah are the main threats to Israel’s security — a role they have taken over from Palestine’s Hamas.
Hezbollah’s entanglement in the war in Syria has caused the paramilitary organization thousand of casualties, but its contribution to Assad’s military successes has also strengthened its confidence as well as its fighting experience. Additionally, it’s widely agreed in Israeli intelligence circles that the group has increased its number of rockets dramatically since the last conflict with Israel in 2006. It is estimated that Hezbollah has more than 100,000 advanced rockets that can reach as far as Tel Aviv, as well as advanced weapons and drones.
While reports of Iran-backed militias expressing their intention of “liberating the Golan heights,” it’s safe to say Iran would like to station its proxies as close to the Israeli border as possible. So far, Russia hasn’t allowed that to happen, being careful to balance between Israeli and Iranian interests. Israel, however, has taken unilateral action several times since the ceasefire agreement in Syria came into effect. The latest military strike by Israel in Syria was met with a military response in form of anti-aircraft missiles fired at IDF fighter jets, bringing tensions to a new level. Throughout the Syrian conflict, Israel has retaliated when shots were fired from Syrian territory, but the latest bombings are far more serious. Israel simply will not allow Iran to establish itself near the Israeli border, which is why it has bombed military facilities in Syria believed to be built by Iran.
Iran’s grip on Lebanon became even tighter when its prime minister, Saad Hariri, unexpectedly resigned from his post on November 4. The resignation is widely believed among experts to have been influenced by Saudi Arabia. Hariri’s relationship with Hezbollah has been tense throughout his term, but he managed to work side by side with its representatives in a national unity cabinet and even accepted that Hezbollah and the Lebanese army cooperate on fighting ISIS. Since Saudi Arabia has openly supported Hariri, the kingdom naturally wanted him to curtail Hezbollah and Iran’s influence in Lebanon. Apparently, it was too much for Saudi Arabia that Ayatollah Khamenei’s adviser, Ali Akbar Velayati, met with Hariri and made references to victories made by Hezbollah. Hariri’s resignation once again exposes how fragile Lebanon is politically, and how Saudi Arabia and Iran are both pulling the strings behind the curtain of Middle East’s political theater.
The latest public opinion polls in Israel reveal a heavy setback for Netanyahu and his center-right Likud party, with the center left gaining votes. The latest polls could be a direct result of the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, and the prospects of a unified Palestine ready to negotiate for peace. Up until now, most Israelis didn’t believe they had a serious peace partner in Hamas, which kept firing rockets on civilians. Since Hamas took over in Gaza, the right wing in Israel has won every election, which is no coincidence. The change in the Israeli mindset started to change around the time of the Second Intifada in 2000. The Islamic extremism that many Israelis see Hamas as being the symbol of has spread fear and pushed the Israeli government to crack down on Hamas in three military operations since 2008.
The deterrent effect that the last Gaza conflict has had on Hamas, as well as the looming humanitarian crisis in Gaza, could be what finally unified Hamas and Fatah. That would explain why the polls reveal an improvement for the center left that has a reputation of being more open to negotiating with the Palestinians. It’s more likely that the result of the polls is a sign of the Israelis finally having had enough of Netanyahu.
The prime minister has been under immense pressure since the first corruption scandals of him allegedly accepting gifts worth hundreds of thousands of shekels from wealthy businessmen. Then, voice recordings of conversations with Arnon Mozes, an influential publisher, were leaked, in which Netanyahu allegedly negotiates favorable coverage for himself in Mozes’ newspaper in exchange for help with sponsoring a bill that would prevent Mozes’ rival, Israel Hayom, from being able to distribute its newspapers free of charge. The latest corruption case revolves around a conflict of interests, where Netanyahu allegedly knew that his lawyer was also serving as a counsel for a German submarine company in play to deliver submarines for the state of Israel.
The media has of course been attacking Netanyahu as a result of these allegations, which is why it should come as no surprise that he is re-launching his critical rhetoric toward Iran and its power play in the region. Netanyahu’s decade-old warning about Iran might come in handy now that it seems the voters are turning their back on him. In the last election, when the polls didn’t look promising for Likud, Netanyahu was desperate to mobilize support, promising there wouldn’t be a Palestinian state under his leadership. Whether that was the turning point for the voters or not, he surprised most pundits who had predicted his defeat. The polls on election day showed a dead heat between the Zionist Union lead by Isaac Herzog and Netanyahu’s Likud. The latter ended up with 30 seats in the Knesset, six more than Zionist Union.
This may be the incumbent’s strategy for the next election due in early 2019, this time promising to eliminate any threat coming from Iran. In 2009, during a pre-election interview Netanyahu stated that thwarting the Iranian nuclear threat would be his first mission if elected. The difference between now and 2009 is that, at least for now, the thwarting had been achieved. The threat emanating from Iran today might not be as extreme as when Netanyahu predicted a nuclear holocaust, but, instead Iran is consolidating its power on Israel’s border. Luckily for Netanyahu, the threat today has diminished the old schism between him and the military establishment that now shares his opinion.
If Iran continues on its current course of arming Hezbollah and building rocket-manufacturing facilities in Syria and Lebanon, Netanyahu will have an excuse to get support for a military operation against Iranian militias and Hezbollah. If there is anything that can help him deliver the next election, it’s a successful military operation against Israel’s biggest enemies. And equally important is the fact that Netanyahu will have to deal with Trump and not Obama: It will most likely not be as hard to convince Trump to take action against a hostile Iranian regime. Netanyahu might even get support from a Sunni coalition led by Saudi Arabia, which would be an asset in future peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
The already hostile environment in the Golan Heights could very well turn out to be the battlefield where Iran and Israel finally go head to head to settle the score if Iran and Hezbollah continue to provoke an Israeli government preparing for the next election.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.