For a full five hours, the Israeli security cabinet discussed the topic of Iran, a nut that commentators have been trying in vain to crack. The commentators wonder whether Netanyahu is inventing a security problem, or whether we are indeed confronting an urgent and serious situation. Is he attempting to highjack the agenda to overshadow charges of corruption? Or is he trying to create an atmosphere of emergency, in the hope that Benny Gantz, head of the Blue and White Party, will join him in a national unity government—an act that would breach Gantz’s electoral promise not to sit with Netanyahu in a coalition as long as the latter faces criminal charges?
As we consider what is happening around us, the threat of war with Iran appears serious, especially if we include the frantic behaviour of President Trump. Netanyahu’s strategic ally in Washington is distressed by the congressional impeachment process and is taking a series of significant steps that run counter to Israeli interests. The latest example is the withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria after a phone call from Turkish President Erdogan, who threatened to invade Kurdish territory and establish a 30-kilometre-deep security band across the Syrian-Turkish border.
This last example, which will benefit the Iranians, Russians and the Syrian regime, is not an isolated case. It connects to a series of failed measures and non-measures that characterize Trump’s policy toward Iran. The first step was to withdraw from the nuclear deal, which immediately became Netanyahu’s greatest achievement. To boost this even more, Trump moved the US embassy to Jerusalem, and on top of that, he gave Netanyahu an election gift by recognizing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. In addition, US sanctions have strangled the Iranian economy and raised hopes in Israel. It is no coincidence that on Tel Aviv’s Ayalon freeway there hung a huge poster featuring Netanyahu and Trump, while the American president has been crowned the friendliest ever toward Israel.
The economic sanctions on Iran encouraged Israel to exert military pressure on it through numerous air strikes in Syria, which subsequently spread to Iraq and most recently to the heart of Beirut. The first excuse was to prevent Iranian consolidation in Syria. Yet after this mission failed and Iran remained there, Israel invented another pretext – to prevent the Hezbollah from developing accurate missiles.
Encouraged by Trump’s extreme stance, Netanyahu met no resistance when attacking Iran on Syrian territory, while receiving tacit agreement from his other friend, Vladimir Putin. Holding Trump in his right hand and Putin in his left, Netanyahu believed he had a strategic umbrella that allowed him to act against Iran unimpeded. While he focused on tactics, however, hitting Iran’s soft belly in Syria, the Ayatollah engaged in strategy. The goal was to isolate Israel and destroy its Russian and American strategic umbrella, and they succeeded beyond all expectations. Both the Iranians and Russians possess common strategic interests vis-a-vis Syria and the US, since both suffer from American sanctions. While Netanyahu calls to greet Putin on his birthday and receives Jewish New Year greetings in return, the Russians and Iranians are upholding the Astana understandings, which divide Syria into areas of influence for Iran, Russia and Turkey. Moreover, Iran is likely to provide the Russians with two ports on the Persian Gulf shore, in Bandar Bushehr and Chabahar, to establish military bases.
The Ayatollah has studied Trump. He saw how he consented to Putin’s annexation of Crimea, how he made concessions to North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-Un, and how he dislikes wasting American lives and money in war. Since the Iranians realized that Trump’s strategic weapon was economic siege, they retaliated against the US military. As a first step, they downed a costly drone in June, announcing it had happened within their territory, and awaited Trump’s response. It was not long in coming: Trump threatened a cruise missile attack. However, ten minutes before zero he withdrew, explaining that he’d heard it would result in 100 Iranian deaths, and he didn’t want to respond disproportionately just because some idiotic Iranian junior officer had blundered.
Not satisfied with the drone downing, the Iranians began to hit oil tankers in the Persian Gulf’s Strait of Hormuz. Trump began building an international maritime policing force, which included the Saudis, to secure the flow of oil. But on a clear day in the middle of a scorching August, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif landed in the French Riviera, where G-7 leaders were gathering with Trump. The aim was to arrange a meeting between the US President and the Iranian Foreign Minister, mediated by the President of France. This was the exact moment when Iran achieved its goal: Israel began losing its strategic alignment with the United States.
Netanyahu saw what was going on, wiped Trump’s spittle off his face, and carried on as if nothing had happened. The poster of Trump and Netanyahu continued to adorn the Ayalon Freeway in the second round of elections. While the Trump-Iran powwow did not materialize because Teheran insisted on the removal of sanctions as a precondition for meeting, the Iranians doubled their military ante, sending cruise missiles against major Saudi oil facilities. Once again, they waited to see the American response, and again Trump did not disappoint. He contented himself with sending Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Riyadh, while promising the Saudis several hundred more American troops to secure their oil.
From this foundational moment to the assembling of Israel’s security cabinet, the road was short.Netanyahu was indeed surprised to find the Iranians breathing down his neck. The real problem for him, though, is that Israel remains isolated in its campaign against them. This is the true strategic danger, but how does Netanyahu defend against it? By adding NIS 5 billion to the defence budget. The Iron Dome protects against short-range rockets, the Magic Wand against ballistic missiles, but what can be done against accurate cruise missiles like those that hit Saudi Arabia? Netanyahu’s solution: build an additional defence layer at the expense of the education, health and welfare budgets.
But more defensive missiles cannot made up for lack of strategy. Netanyahu thought he belonged to the bloc of Sunni states, headed by Saudi Arabia, and he thought he could crouch under the umbrella provided by the US and Russia. In reality, though, this alliance has unravelled. Mohammad bin Salman understood the significance of the US response to the Iranian attack on Saudi’s oil facilities, and he is already looking for a way to approach the Iranians. The New York Times has reported that the Saudi crown prince seeks Iraqi and Pakistani mediation in contacts with Tehran. The United Arab Emirates are also leaving Yemen and holding talks with Iran.
We have reached a point, therefore, where Bibi’s shine has faded. Mr. Security and Our Brilliant Statesman has suffered a strategic defeat. Today there is no other country in the world that wants to wage war against Iran. The military option is buried in the sands of the Saudi kingdom, and Netanyahu has no one to turn to. US congressional doors are closed to him. It is inconceivable that he will attack Trump as he did Obama, and the attacks in Syria have been rendered pointless.
Iran is closer than ever to breaking the siege imposed against it. Trump has already expressed willingness to reach an agreement and is currently debating the terms. It is unclear whether Trump and the Ayatollah will actually meet, as Iranians may not want to give Trump an election gift and could wait to see what 2020 will bring. Either way, Netanyahu remains alone, with criminal charges on the way and without the majority needed to form a government. All he can do is suggest spending NIS 5 billion on another layer of defence, which does not guarantee security. His “Iranian obsession” has cost him dearly, leaving Israel alone with a war which no one is willing to join. Unfortunately, the Blue-White Party, headed by three generals, is captive to the same erroneous concept.