Former PM Olmert slams Netanyahu for 'strategic failure' on Iran

Olmert looks at Trump’s Syria decision and Turkey’s attacks on Kurds, and argues that they are more examples of why Israel can only rely on itself.

Incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert speak on the plenum floor at the start of the swearing-in ceremony for Netanyahu's new government at parliament in Jerusalem March 31, 2009 (photo credit: DAVID SILVERMAN / REUTERS)
Incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert speak on the plenum floor at the start of the swearing-in ceremony for Netanyahu's new government at parliament in Jerusalem March 31, 2009
Under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel focused on Iran’s nuclear threat at the expense of ignoring Iran’s penetration into Syria, former prime minister Ehud Olmert said in an interview on Saturday.
“Israel’s greatest security defense failure – the greatest in the last 50 years, since the Yom Kippur War – is that we allowed Iran to penetrate into Syria,” he said, slamming Netanyahu for playing on the politics of fear and misreading US President Donald Trump’s policies.
Olmert was attending the Rhodes Forum of the Dialogue of Civilizations over the weekend, when he spoke about Israel’s current political challenges and his own experience as prime minister.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, he discussed Israel’s current dilemmas in Syria, the Trump administration and Netanyahu’s failures. Noting that Netanyahu “laid the foundations of strategic policy” in the region, he recalled that “Netanyahu was obsessed with trying to fight Iran in Iran and destroy the atomic, or what he considered the nuclear installations.”
But Iran began to penetrate into Syria, particularly in the context of the Syrian civil war, when Iran sent its Revolutionary Guard Corps to bolster Syrian regime leader Bashar Assad’s forces.
“At some point while the Iranians were already in Syria, we started to attack them [with] our air attacks,” Olmert told the Post. Not only that, “but following every attack we made public, provocative statements that warned and threatened the Iranians with complete destruction. That we could attack them directly and speak about it publicly is living proof we could do the same while they were trying to enter into Syria, which changed entirely the perception of danger that we have to face in the north part of the country.”
This is a great strategic failure, Olmert says. He blames Netanyahu for bombastic rhetoric that obscures failed policies.
Second, Olmert says that he is not surprised by Trump’s recent moves, including in Syria, because Trump was an isolationist from the beginning.
“One can argue or have a matter of opinion, but you cannot be surprised that he is not exceptionally enthusiastic about expanding the presence of the US in the world in terms of troops and what comes with it,” Olmert said.
While the president moved America’s embassy to Jerusalem and recognized Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, Olmert says that Trump was actually more careful than the interpretation given to these moves.
“This is a declarative move: no substance,” Olmert said. “The Heights were annexed in December 1981, 38 years ago.”
Trump’s statement merely caused more controversy over Israel’s control of the Golan, focusing world attention on an area that had been largely ignored.
“There is not any contradiction to the strategy of Trump to reduce US involvement outside of America,” Olmert explained. “Why do we have to be surprised about the pullout from Syria? He already pulled out troops from Syria and Southeast Asia. We saw a pattern. Again, this is something that has to be first and foremost analyzed and debated in America. I don’t know what is good or bad for America – they must determine that.”
THE FORMER prime minister is skeptical of the bombastic rhetoric that comes from the Trump administration. While it is accompanied by threats, the US in fact appears more ready to make concessions and negotiate – even with Iran or North Korea.
“It turned out now that Trump is prepared to negotiate with Iran,” Olmert said. “The reason there are no negotiations is that Iran refuses to sit with Trump.”
Syria represents the same problem. Turkey’s attack on US allies among the Kurds, which was enabled by Trump’s decision to pull out troops, resulted in warnings to Turkey that the US could harm its economy.
“Turkey has violated the redlines Trump drew for their involvement,” Olmert said. “What will be the American reaction?”
The result for Israel is that we must depend on ourselves, says Olmert.
“I am not surprised or disappointed or devastated, because I didn’t expect anything else,” he said. “When I was prime minister, the Israeli security policy depended entirely on Israel’s ability to defend itself and not rely on Americans fighting for us.”
Here again, Olmert argues that Netanyahu’s political and strategic judgment is mistaken and “obsessed with the policy of fear.”
“The policy of fear creates an exaggerated perception of dangers that do not exist, as part of a calculated attempt to convince the constituents [the public] that only a person with very long and proven experience can be at the top in such circumstances,” Olmert told the Post. “This policy of fear ignores entirely the realistic options that we have to face, and the more balanced and responsible way in which to deal with them. Here, Netanyahu failed again.”
Netanyahu has sought to prevent Iran’s entrenchment in Syria through air strikes and other means, and Olmert gives him credit for that. However, he warns that Iran has crossed a redline – an “unwritten protocol understood by both sides” – that by being in Syria, Iran knows it will receive Israeli opposition.
“But when we didn’t prevent them and they established their presence, they knew Israel would need to react – and they are capable of absorbing those reactions, even when it means casualties among their people,” Olmert explained.
Since Iran knows that it will face Israeli opposition, including attacks, Olmert argues it is unnecessary for Israel to make provocative public statements.
IRGC Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani, he said, “will tolerate the attacks, but may not be patient with the statements.
And the need for the statements is disconnected from the situation on the ground. It reflects the political constraints that characterize Netanyahu and comes to serve only his political ambitions. This is at the direct expense of the security of the State of Israel.”