Two weeks before the elections and Netanyahu has done it again, with Israelis once again leaning back in their recliners. Netanyahu gave both a stinging slap to Hassan Nasrallah and came out of it at little cost. It was amazing, because the whole affair was entirely staged. Israeli soldiers pretended to be wounded and were transported by helicopter to Haifa’s Rambam Hospital, 40 Israeli shells were fired in the air, Nasrallah declared victory and Netanyahu once again has time to attack Israeli television’s Channel 12 News.
The problem is that what’s going on around us isn’t exactly a theatre performance. It is a bleak reality, delivering us and the Lebanese into the hands of two pyromaniacs willing to do everything, absolutely everything, for their narrow political interests. While this time the political interest dictated restraint, it is quite possible that in the next round, which is undoubtedly on its way, someone will cross the thin line separating quiet from hell, and civilians will find themselves on the front line, with everything this implies.
The Israeli strategy is clear. The country acts in more arenas than ever before, such that control by its genius military personnel is extremely circumscribed. Gaza can be quieted with a $40 million injection from Qatar, and an additional $2 billion can be released to silence the Palestinian Authority and thus pivot attention to Iran. Iran, however, is not the Palestinian Authority, nor is it the Hamas government in Gaza. It is a country of 80 million people and a large oil exporter, possessing a considerable military and scientific cadre.
Iranians are involved in several arenas throughout the Middle East, from Yemen to Iraq, as well as in Syria and Lebanon. Israel must therefore deal with three fronts – Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – as well as with the West Bank and Gaza Strip. First, we will note that Iran is not based in these countries as an occupying power: in Yemen the Houthis toppled the Saudi-backed government and rule the north. In Iraq, a pro-Iranian Shiite regime was established with the help of the Americans, who dictated the state’s constitution on a sectarian basis. And in Lebanon the Hezbollah has not only military control but political control too, having won a majority in the government.
In fact, in Syria, alongside the Russians, the Iranians have been the primary force that defeated the opposition to Assad, even at the cost of destroying the entire country. The Syrian regime formally exists, but in fact is entirely at the mercy of the Russians and Iranians. Moreover, the Iranian presence in Syria did not commence in 2011, with the outbreak of the democratic revolution against the regime. Already as early as the mid-1980s, President Hafez al-Assad chose sides and signed a strategic cooperation agreement with Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime. Assad supported Iran in its war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Israel’s strategic goal of removing the Iranians from Syria is thus impossible, as is the strategic goal of defeating Hamas in Gaza or removing Hezbollah from Lebanon.
Israel is heading toward involvement in a wide-scale war while lacking serious international support. Although Putin and Trump are loyal allies of Netanyahu, this alliance ends where other global interests of the two powers begin. Putin, for example, does not like what Israel is doing in Syria while Trump is wary of supporting Israeli actions in Iraq.
Netanyahu’s unholy alliance with Trump appears to have become Israel’s major obstacle to implementing its military strategy toward Iran. The most prominent example of this is what happened at the recent G-7 summit in France, when on Saturday, August 24, the Iranian foreign minister arrived at the conference at the invitation of President Macron, with the aim of holding a summit between Donald Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Trump did not hide his desire to meet with Rouhani “without any preconditions”, adding to the tyrannical cast that became dear to his heart, including Kim Jong Un, Putin, Erdogan, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Brazil’s Bolsonaro and Duterte in the Philippines.
Netanyahu’s response was no less hysterical. His strategy is built on isolating Iran while imposing harsh economic sanctions together with military strikes, but then Trump made an unexpected and uncoordinated statement that ended the boycott of Rouhani. While Trump is plotting steps to reach a new agreement with Iran, Netanyahu attacked the Hezbollah twice, both near Damascus and Beirut. Thus, a reality contrary to Israeli expectations is being created, and the more Israel expands its fronts against Iran, the more it isolates itself.
It turns out that Americans see the Iranian presence in Iraq, including the Shiite militia officially supported by the Iraqi government, as a stabilizing and essential element in the fight against ISIS. It was actually the Shiite militia, and not the Iraqi army, which was armed and trained by American military personnel with no avail, that took upon itself to conquer Mosul from ISIS. Nor do the Russians see a replacement for Shiite militias and Iranian instructors when it comes to controlling vast territories within Syria and repelling ISIS, which still controls several areas there. This is not the first time. Already in the first Iraq war in 1991, Israel was forced to balance different interests when George Bush prohibited Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir from responding to rockets on the Tel Aviv area.
Israel’s tactical successes cannot hide its two strategic mistakes. The first concerns its stance on the civil war in Syria. Israel took a position of non-interference in the face of the horrific massacre of helpless Syrian civilians, with the foolish view that the longer the war between Arabs continues, the better things will be for Jews. In reality, as the civil war and severe government chaos continued and Syria was destroyed, Iranians and Russians only deepened their hold over Syria.
The bigger mistake of the Netanyahu government was to support Donald Trump’s election and before that to act against Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. The annulment of that deal is considered a huge victory for Netanyahu, but it remains entirely dependent on Trump’s whims; meanwhile Bibi has lost the support of Europe, China and Russia, which remain committed to the agreement. Netanyahu was about to be defeated due to the potential meeting between Trump and Rouhani. The meeting did not take place – not because Trump did not want it, but because Rouhani rejected it.
Iran’s position is clear. It will not return to the negotiating table as long as US sanctions remain in effect. Iran is not isolated like North Korea and maintains the nuclear deal with other countries. The latter, as we have seen, are attempting to broker a new agreement between the White House and the Rouhani regime. Trump’s economic weapons, fired indiscriminately to restore American greatness, have so far been useless: The trade war with China did not bend the Chinese, but shook up Wall Street and drew fierce criticism from the US business sector. North Korea did not divest from nuclear weapons, the Palestinian Authority has not budged from its rejection of the deal of the century, and Iran will not be the first to jump on Trump’s broken wagon. It seems that everyone, Europeans, Chinese and many others around the world, expect that 2020 will bring change in the White House and a saner period.
And Israel? In a few days we shall see if it continues its addiction to Bibi and the right, or whether it will awaken from delusion. What is certain is that the path Israel is taking leads to a war that puts its citizens on the front line. There is no major political force inside Israel against its government’s political support for Trump. The gifts bestowed by Trump, in the form of recognition of Jerusalem and the annexation of the Golan Heights, have been widely applauded. What we have witnessed so far, from both the government and the opposition (led by three former chiefs of staff), is a continuation of the old-fashioned way of looking at reality through the barrel of a rifle, foreshadowing that Israelis will continue to live and die by the sword.