As far back as 1992 when Benjamin Netanyahu was still a junior backbencher in the Knesset he was quoted stating that Iran was just three to five years from the bomb and this threat had to be “uprooted by an international front headed by the US.” The subsequent rise of Netanyahu in Israeli politics is inextricably linked to him being the most outspoken leader of his generation on the Iranian danger.
“Words, words, mere words” wrote Shakespeare, and this is all that Israel is getting from its four-term prime minister. Despite his victory in this year’s elections, Netanyahu is still in campaign mode, behaving like Lausanne can be reversed and that with enough loud speech and “convincing” we can return to a 1992 mindset where the US will lead the charge against Iran. There is surely some justification for this approach, but given where we are today it’s clear that words alone can’t match the seriousness of the situation.
Indeed, the significance of the West’s detente with Iran cannot be minimized. For the first time since the rise of the Ottoman Empire seven centuries ago, the Middle East is with - out a superpower to anchor it. With the deal signed weeks ago (and the trail leading to this point blazed years ago), Iran already has a considerable head-start over Israel in the race to fill the power vacuum left by America’s sudden departure from the region as an active, stabilizing force.
No matter how eloquently crafted and powerfully delivered they may be, speeches will no longer suffice in combating an aggressive and now energized Iran. The key to under - standing a response to Iranian regional ascendance is the question of how Israel can establish deterrence.
From this perch, Israel’s greatest angle is, ironically, its so-called isolation. Whether deliberately or not, Israel is positioned as one of the region’s few remaining unknown quantities; politicians, journalists and analysts alike are waiting and watching to see what Israel will do next.
After Lausanne, Israel’s choices have been considerably narrowed. However, it faces a fork in the road, deciding between two main paths: on the one hand, Israel can stand up, intervene, and pick up the pieces of a region ablaze with Islamic revolution and counter revolution. On the other, it can retreat behind its walls, shielded by ever-increasing anti-missile batteries.
The truth is that Israel is likely to get sucked into the burgeoning regional tumult in both scenarios. So the realistic question becomes who sets the terms of that engagement. George Kennan, in his 1946 “Long Telegram,” wrote that the innate irrationality of Stalin’s Russia made it “impervious to logic of reason” which is precisely what made the system “highly sensitive to logic of force.”
Similarly confronted with an irrational regime, for Israel this means leveraging Iran’s 10-year nuclear-threshold countdown to formulate a long-term defense resourcing and procurement plan that demonstrates the country’s ability to meet, and exceed, any challenge from Iran.
At the heart of this procurement strategy should be the acquisition and application of sea power that leverages Israel’s strategic access to two oceans. With the kind of robust naval fleet the country lacks today, Israel would be capable of undertaking large-scale disruptions of Iranian supply lines, effect blockades of Iranian coastal regions and rapidly insert and extract expeditionary forces on Iranian territory.
To be clear, none of these are desirable outcomes – but that’s precisely the point. Only the capability to take the strategic initiative in a potential conflict with Iran (as opposed to the defensive exercises in containment Israel has become expert at) can provide Israel the deterrence needed to prevent such a conflict from burgeoning into all-out war. But there’s another element, that will play just as important a role in deterring Iran, which Israel must begin to address, and that is the realm of soft power.
For Israel, which is used to sitting on the sidelines and watching events unfold, this means adapting itself to the needs of an entirely new strategic outlook. Rather than a bystander and occasional interlocutor, Israel needs to assume the role of an active player in geopolitical affairs, inserting itself wherever it sees well-considered strategic opportunities.
The first of these opportunities was revealed when, in an interview last week US Ambassador Dan Shapiro noted that though Israel and the US have diverged on the issue of Iran, “we can still begin to prepare for the day after. We will need to work together to deal with Iran.” This translates, for Israel, into a veiled invitation to begin lobbying for long-term US aid packages within Israel’s domestic military industry, and specifically the kind of naval development programs mentioned above, that can provide the economic stability needed for the expansion of Israel’s military capabilities.
Taking aim at Iran’s foreign partners, Israel should not ignore Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision this April to move ahead with the transfer to Iran the advanced S-300 anti-air defense systems. Israel needs to begin redrawing the diplomatic lines of policy to foreign powers who choose to arm Iran. In response to the S-300 transfer, for example, Israel could consider matching Putin’s meddling with commensurate arm sales of its own to Ukraine.
Most recently, it was announced that China was considering selling Iran its advanced jet fighter, the J-10, which could significantly erode Israel’s air superiority. Along these lines Israel should begin a dialogue with procurement officials from the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand on potential arms agreements of their own. The net effect for China would be a clear threat to the balance of forces within the highly contentious China Sea sphere.
By making this official policy, Israel ensures that Iran’s geopolitical patrons are forewarned: arm Iran and so too will your own adversaries be armed.
Finally, we cannot overlook the fact that to build a real deterrent strategy Israel will need more friends, not just far across the oceans but here in the Middle East. Accomplishing this will mean leapfrogging generational Arab hostility, through both official and covert means, whether diplomatic, economic or with military aid.
One area to begin this process is in assisting historic independence movements now flowering in the region, such as the Druse in Syria-Lebanon and the Kurds in Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. By building up new actors when no one else will, Israel increases its regional stature and at the same time acquire greater means to disrupt its enemies with enduring alliances.
It probably wasn’t exactly what Ambassador Shapiro had in mind when he announced that Israel should begin preparing for “the day after” Congress votes on the deal, but that makes his words no less true. Israel does need to prepare for the fast-approaching day when it won’t have a superpower to come to the rescue. Now is the time for Israel to go off-script, by speaking less and doing more. Transforming itself from an island into a lighthouse nation, here Israel stands at a defining juncture in its national life, and Benjamin Netanyahu should be seizing this moment to lead like a Churchill instead of merely talking like one.The writer is the director of the Jewish National Initiative, a grassroots advocacy forum that is bringing Zionism into the 21st century, and co-founder of a successful debate society (Whiskey Debate Society) in Tel Aviv.