Netanyahu at cabinet meeting 370.
(photo credit: Amit Shabi/Yediot Ahronot, pool)
You have to hand it to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu: The man knows how to
creatively draw red lines.
In September, when he wanted to draw a red
line on the Iranian nuclear program – when he wanted to tell both the Iranians
and the world where Iran must stop before facing military action – he went to
the United Nations with a thick red marking pen, a Looney Tune picture of a bomb
with a fuse, and drew a clear red line toward the top of the bomb. With that
visual aid, he also explained that the red line was the Iranian accumulation of
some 250 kg. of uranium enriched to 20 percent.
Netanyahu was mocked in
the press – both in the Israeli and the international media – and was the butt
of jokes on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. But, as The Washington Post pointed
out last month, the Iranians are not laughing, and have stopped short of
crossing that red line.
Fast-forward eight months, and Netanyahu is again
drawing red lines.
Now, however, it has to do with Syria, not Iran, and
this time he did not use a Looney Toon cartoon as a prop but, rather, The New
, the Times
quoted a senior Israeli official as
saying that Israel “is determined to continue to prevent the transfer of
advanced weapons to Hezbollah. The transfer of such weapons to Hezbollah will
destabilize and endanger the entire region.”
“If Syrian President Assad
reacts by attacking Israel, or tries to strike Israel through terrorist proxies,
he will risk forfeiting his regime, for Israel will retaliate,” the official was
quoted as saying, initiating contact with the paper.
While the Prime
Minister’s Office would not comment on the story, neither confirming nor denying
it, one can assume that the Times
did not make these quotes up out of full
cloth, and that the newspaper was indeed contacted by a senior Israeli official
who wanted to get a strong message across.
And what was the message? It
was more complicated than what first met the eye and was widely reported: that
Israel was threatening to overthrow Assad. No, with Netanyahu fresh back from a
three-hour meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a key Assad backer,
Israel’s message to the international community was that it would not act to
overthrow Assad, and that it would act in Syria only – as it has made clear in
the past – to prevent the transfer of game-changing weapons or chemical weapons
If Assad does not react when Israel targets weapons going
to Hezbollah, Israel stays out of the Syrian mess. The strong message was that
Israel – which allegedly attacked weapon convoys and depots in Syria two weeks
ago – was not targeting Assad and would stay out of the Syrian civil
But, the message continued, if Assad responded to Israel’s steps to
prevent the arming of Hezbollah, he will not be immune.
Coming just after
the Netanyahu- Putin meeting, one can assume that this message was relayed to
the Russian president, and that it is a message he could live with.
may have an interest in the current Syrian regime – with or without Assad as its
head – retaining control of Syria so Moscow does not lose its last Middle East
toehold, but he has no interest in a Hezbollah armed with state-of-the-art
Russian weaponry that could threaten Israel.
Beyond the message itself,
the channel used to convey it is also worthy of note.
Why use The New
? Why not just deliver the message through a third party – like the
Russians – to Assad himself? The choice of the medium shows that Israel did not
want this to be a private message – although it is safe to assume similar
private messages have been sent.
No, Israel wanted as public a channel as
possible, to let not only Assad, but also other members of the international
community, know what Israel’s red lines are in Syria, and under which
circumstances it will – and will not – intervene.