PM draws red lines in media, not on cartoon bombs

Netanyahu sends message to Syria through the 'New York Times,' that Assad will forfeit regime if he acts against Israeli strikes.

Netanyahu at cabinet meeting 370 (photo credit: Amit Shabi/Yediot Ahronot, pool)
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 York Times.
On Wednesday, 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 to Hezbollah.
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 war.
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.
Putin 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 York Times? 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.