Israel is juggling COVID-19, annexation and Iran - analysis

“My position remains clear,” Netanyahu said for the umpteenth time before the meeting with Hook. “We will do whatever is necessary to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at the Knesset, February 2020. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at the Knesset, February 2020.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed Brian Hook, the US special representative on Iran, to his office this week saying that they had weighty issues to discuss, “so serious they can’t even wait for COVID-19.”
There is something to Netanyahu’s comment, even if it seemed designed as a dig at Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz, who earlier this week, in the context of speculation whether Israel would extend its sovereignty to parts of Judea and Samaria on July 1, said, “anything that is not related to the coronavirus will wait.”
But not everything can wait until after corona, especially since no one knows when that will be. And Iran, with its continuing efforts to try to entrench itself in Syria, and moving forward on its nuclear program, is one of those things.
“My position remains clear,” Netanyahu said for the umpteenth time before the meeting with Hook. “We will do whatever is necessary to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.”
Though generally this is boilerplate rhetoric, it took on added significance this week in light of three mysterious incidents inside Iran: a huge explosion at the site of a major missile facility at Khojir, a fire at a medical center in Tehran and an unexplained “incident” Thursday at the Natanz enrichment facility.
Israel obviously denies any involvement, but then words like those spoken on Wednesday by Netanyahu come and fuel the fire for those looking to blame Israel. Something is happening in Iran, and because it is unclear if this week’s incidents were accidental or sabotage, ears naturally perk up when Netanyahu says Israel will do whatever is necessary to stymie Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Iran’s nuclear drive was not the only thing Netanyahu raised in his meeting with Hook. He also devoted time to Iran’s efforts to entrench itself inside Syria.
Israel, he made clear before the meeting, is “absolutely resolved to prevent Iran from entrenching itself militarily in our immediate vicinity. We take repeated and forceful military action against Iran and its proxies in Syria and elsewhere if necessary. And I say to the ayatollahs in Tehran, Israel will continue to take these actions necessary to prevent you from creating another terror and military front against Israel in Syria. And I say to Bashar Assad, you’re risking the future of your country and your regime. Israel will not allow Iran to establish a military presence in Syria.”
Does he mean it?
Over the last month there were three significant attacks against suspected Iranian assets in Syria. Israel, as is the norm when it is not an election season, did not comment on the attacks, but foreign reports have attributed them to Jerusalem.
Some have voiced concern in recent weeks that Netanyahu – in focusing on COVID-19 and the annexation issue – has taken his eye off the Iranian ball, and is not leading as forcefully a campaign as he has in the past against Tehran. His public comments before his meeting with Hook seemed to send a rhetorical signal that this was not the case. And unattributed explosions over the last few weeks in both Syria and Iran may be physical proof that this is not the case.
If there were Israeli involvement in any of these cases – and we will never know for sure – then it was intended to send a message to both the Iranians and Syrians: don’t be deluded, Israel can deal with multiple issues at the same – it can struggle with COVID-19, endlessly debate annexation and still look after its primary security imperative: keeping Iran at bay.


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