At a memorial service in the Foreign Ministry this week marking the 25th anniversary of the terrorist attack on the embassy in Buenos Aires that killed 29 people, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made one remark that goes a long way toward explaining what is driving his diplomatic agenda.
“One of our security agencies estimates that over 80% of Israel’s fundamental security problems stem from Iran,” he said.
Iran, and not the Palestinians. Iran, and no other. Hezbollah, for instance, stems from Iran.
And this assessment is why the Palestinians, indeed the whole issue of the West Bank and a diplomatic process, are taking a back seat in his mind.
Following Donald Trump’s inauguration on January 20, there were all kinds of expectations on the Right – including among most Likud MKs – that Netanyahu would push hard for the new president to carry out his campaign pledge to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, and that he would work hard to get the Americans to alter their reflexively negative stance toward settlement construction.
Regarding the embassy issue, one senior Likud official said that the person who is keeping that issue somewhat alive in Washington – although much of the momentum has been lost – is Sheldon Adelson.
And, the official continued, Netanyahu is opposed to moves within his own party to support a bill that would annex Ma’aleh Adumim. The reason: It would not significantly have that much of an impact, and it would deflect attention from Iran, the major source of Israel’s security concerns.
Netanyahu has turned a deaf ear to the arguments that the annexation of Ma’aleh Adumim would significantly change the conversation regarding a final deal with the Palestinians; that it would strengthen Israel’s grip on Jerusalem; and that it would show that Israel is no longer just going to sit around and wait for the Palestinians to agree to come around and negotiate.
One of the reasons Netanyahu is opposed, the senior Likud official said, is that he doesn’t want anything to hurt his ability to get Washington to focus on Iran. Despite the premier’s opposition, however, Bayit Yehudi and Likud MKs may very well push the bill through the Knesset, just as was done with the Settlements Regulation Law, legalizing a number of outposts.
Iran, not the settlements or the Palestinians, is the diplomatic issue at the forefront of Netanyahu’s mind. He has said in private meetings in recent weeks that there is now a much less forgiving attitude in Washington toward Iran, and that this could be harnessed to moving other countries to take a much more hardline approach toward the Islamic Republic – not necessarily to cancel the Iranian nuclear deal, but at least to check Tehran’s aggressive and destabilizing behavior in the region.
Netanyahu believes there is a different approach to Iran now in Washington, and also to some degree in Britain. Even Australia – which has been keen on normalizing relations with Iran, partly in the hope that it will then take back a few thousand Iranian refugees knocking on its doors – made some murmurings in the direction of checking Iran’s regional moves during Netanyahu’s recent visit to Sydney.
The day after Trump was inaugurated in January, Netanyahu posted a video on Facebook. What was telling about the video was that it did not deal with the Palestinians or the settlements, but with Iran.
Once the Iranian nuclear deal was finally passed in the summer of 2015, Netanyahu took a much lower public profile on Iran. He fought US president Barack Obama intensely over the deal, but when it was not held up by Congress, Netanyahu’s tactic changed from trying to block it, to quietly working with the US to ensure that Iran lived by its commitments under it.
That lower profile on Iran ended the day Trump came into office. From that moment, Netanyahu pursued a policy of again trying to shine the limelight on Iran. It started with that first Facebook video, and has continued unabated for the last two months in various speech and public statements he has made.
“Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, advancing its ballistic missile program in defiance of Security Council resolutions and sowing instability in the region surrounding us. The regime in Tehran aspires to plant its flag atop the ruins of the free world. It continues to threaten to annihilate Israel,” he said at the Foreign Ministry memorial ceremony for those killed in the embassy blast in Argentina.
“We will not back down. We will continue to build up our strength. Since the attack in Argentina, Israel has become much more powerful. We have become a global leader in intelligence, counter-terrorism and cyber. We have armed ourselves with first-rate weapons systems and flight systems, the best in the world.
Israel has become a great force, and this force mobilizes others to challenge the threat posed by Iran. We will continue to decisively confront the aggression of Iran and its proxies,” he continued.
While this may sound like more of the same old, tired rhetoric against Iran, it should not be summarily dismissed, because it is a fair gauge of what is propelling Netanyahu’s diplomatic agenda.
His critics will say that he is again raising the Iranian threat to distract from his domestic political woes stemming from the various police investigations against him. But to hear the prime minister speak, the threat of Iran is very real.
The threat, however, has shifted. When he speaks of Iran now, it is no longer of a concern that the country will immediately make a dash and reach a point where it has the wherewithal to create a nuclear bomb. The nuclear deal has moved the immediacy of that threat from a few months to between 10 and 15 years. Or, as he told his Australian hosts during meetings in Sydney two weeks ago, “The nuclear deal ensures no bomb today, but a hundred a decade from now.”
Now Jerusalem’s concern has to do with Iranian designs in Syria – the reason the prime minister flew Thursday for a day to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin
Netanyahu told the cabinet this week that the efforts to formulate an agreement in Syria will be at the center of his conversation with Putin.
As the UN-led Syria peace talks are proceeding, Iran – Netanyahu said – is trying to establish itself permanently in Syria within the context of a possible overall agreement. He said it is trying to establish a military presence on the ground and at sea, and also gradually trying to open a front against Israel on the Golan Heights.
One senior diplomatic official said that Iran is looking already to “formalize agreements” with Syrian President Bashar Assad – who owes his survival in no small degree to Tehran – that will grant concessions to Iran inside Syria.
Everything that enlarges Iran’s footprint inside Syria is very troublesome to Israel, the senior diplomatic official said, because it brings Iran directly to Israel’s doorstep. And this time not as a proxy – like Hezbollah – but as Iran: its own army, its own navy.
Netanyahu traveled to Moscow on Thursday – accompanied by the head of Military Intelligence, Maj.-Gen. Herzi Halevi – to raise the alarm with Putin. For if Assad owes his survival in part to Iran, he owes an even bigger debt to Russia, which actively intervened in the war in his behalf in the fall of 2015, effectively changing the tide of the battle. In Jerusalem’s view, Russia’s voice will be critical in shaping the terms of any deal in Syria, and Netanyahu wants to ensure that Putin knows clearly that Israel is completely and unequivocally opposed to any permanent Iranian presence in Syria.
This, for Netanyahu, is now his top diplomatic priority – far outpacing the Palestinian issue. Because, as he said at the Foreign Ministry, Iran is responsible for 80% of Israel’s security problems.