This article is in defense of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. No, I am not talking about his possible indictment on corruption charges – for that Israel has established legal procedures up to an appeal to Israel’s Supreme Court. Nor is this a general endorsement of Netanyahu. I am in the complicated position of supporting the outgoing coalition without being particularly enamored of its leader. Netanyahu has served long enough, and when he promised to rule the country for several more years it made me fear that the term “King Bibi” had gone to his head. Nevertheless, Netanyahu deserves commendation and not condemnation for his masterful policy towards Iran.
Before the election began in earnest, the main topic on the agenda was containing Iran. Netanyahu chose to drop the mask and announced that Israel was attacking Iranian targets in Syria rather than persist in the charade that the air strikes were being performed by extra-terrestrials or by contract units à la Blackwater or Wagner. This decision exposed him to attacks from all directions. The hoary ambiguity policy had served Israel well, chirped the critics, and there was no reason to abandon it now. Israel’s former defense minister Avigdor Liberman charged that by acknowledging Israeli authorship for the attacks Netanyahu was inviting retaliation. This is the Middle East, he reminded us, where face-saving is everything, and the Iranians would perforce have to avenge the insult to their reputation at a time of their convenience.
Deniability, however, could not be put back together again after the former chief of staff Gadi Eizenkot had conceded that Israel had conducted the attacks on Iranian targets in Syria. The policy was in any case untenable. It is possible to deny a one-off strike such as the demolition of the Syrian reactor during Ehud Olmert’s term as prime minister. When the air attacks are carried out on a sustained and successive basis to interdict arms shipments to Hezbollah or to prevent Iran from establishing bases and staging zones on Israel’s border and Syrian antiaircraft batteries open fire on Israeli planes in response, the ambiguity policy is DOA.
The policy has to be up front to show that Israel means business. When Israel constantly threatened action against the Iranian nuclear program but refrained from attacking Iran, Israel’s credibility was placed in question. According to reports, Netanyahu did contemplate an attack on Iran but was blocked by the Israeli security establishment in collaboration with Israel’s then president the late Shimon Peres. The opponents of a strike including then chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi (currently a quadrumvir in the Blue and White Party) claimed it would be costly and unsuccessful, and it was preferable to allow a bigger and better equipped beast like the United States to carry the load. The response was what became known as the Iran Deal, which, in addition to its fatal flaws in preventing an Iranian bomb, also gave the mullah regime a security blanket against Israeli attacks.
What the Syrian Civil War has taught us is that the results will be dictated by those who have military skin in the game. This has worked to the advantage of Russia, Iran and Turkey. Those who announced their appetite for a quick withdrawal were dismissed as kibitzers. If Israel wants to be at the table rather than on the table, it has to display military force and not conserve it. Israel signals by military actions that its interests will not be disregarded and it is prepared to make itself a nuisance, if other players think otherwise. By being upfront with the policy, Netanyahu has already secured Putin’s acquiescence to Israeli strikes on Iranian targets, provided that Russian servicemen are not harmed by these strikes as collateral damage. Russia’s tacit policy is a pointed signal to the Iranians and is possibly another spanner in the unnatural alliance between Iran and Russia that is already teetering thanks to the alliance between Russia and the Saudis over controlling oil prices in OPEC that Iran opposes.
We are longer in the days of the First Gulf War where to keep the anti-Saddam coalition afloat Israel was expected to lie low and absorb the Scud missiles sent our way. Then the late George H.W. Bush, instead of expressing gratitude for Israeli self-abnegation, made snide remarks about Israel’s non-participation in a battle that removed one its most dangerous enemies although his administration had pressured Israel into passivity. I am highly doubtful that the current administration is capable of mustering a coalition against Iran that the elder Bush or even the younger Bush assembled against Saddam. But if it does, Israel will have to contend with the canard that Israel led the United States into a disastrous war. A further twist of the knife will be the innuendo that Israel let the Americans do all the fighting.
Israel has played its share in the struggle against the mullahs. Netanyahu has played Demosthenes in sounding the alarm about Iran and the Mossad has relieved Iran of its nuclear archives in Tehran. There is no need for coyness and no hope for invisibility in confronting a country that has pledged to wipe us off the map.