On the Iran Front, Netanyahu Is Blurring the Border Between Defense and Politics

A week before the general election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is battling simultaneously on three fronts.

In the political arena, he is leading an intense effort, at times desperate and unrestrained, to cross the threshold of 61 members of Knesset to assure a right-wing coalition that will enable him to stop the legal proceedings against him. On a strategic level, Netanyahu is making a last-ditch effort to stop a development he views as catastrophic – the looming start of direct negotiations between the American and Iranian presidents. And on the day-to-day military level (according to the international media), the exchange of strikes between Israel and Iran continues in the vast area stretching from Iraq to Lebanon.

– Haaretz Weekly Ep. 39

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 39Haaretz

On Monday all the fronts merged. Several hours after his failed attempt to pass a law placing cameras at polling stations with the aim of deterring Arab voters and shaking right-wing voters out of their apathy, the Prime Minister’s Office quickly convened a press conference in which Netanyahu made new revelations about Iran’s nuclear program. In the early morning, an attack attributed to Israel had been reported against a Shi’ite military base in eastern Syria. This was followed by a hasty, failed effort at Iranian revenge, via rockets that were fired from Syrian territory at the Golan Heights, but which fell on the Syrian side of the border.

The closer the elections get, Netanyahu seems to be getting closer to the edge of the cliff, and it’s hard to differentiate between the political, strategic and military considerations. The campaign timeline slides into the prime minister and defense minister’s security timeline. In the background there is the question of whether Netanyahu, who has generally handled the northern front cautiously and responsibly, is now blurring the dividing lines as part of his battle for survival?

>> Read more: How Israel, Hezbollah and Iran almost went to war last week

This was particularly noticeable at the nuclear-themed news conference. At least some of the information presented Monday seemed to be a belated recycling of the Mossad’s success last year – the theft of the Iranian nuclear archive under the noses of the authorities in Tehran. The prime minister leveraged it well for his needs at the time, using the information revealed in the archive to push U.S. President Donald Trump to withdraw the United States from the Iranian nuclear agreement in May 2018.

The revelations this time were less dramatic. The first one had already been reported (first by Channel 13 and Sunday by Reuters) – that inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency had found traces of uranium at the site that Netanyahu had pointed out in his address to the UN General Assembly last year. The second revelation included new information about an old site – at Abadeh, south of Isfahan. Israeli intelligence was already scouting out such secret sites last decade. Now it has proof regarding one of them.

Benjamin Netanyahu walks on the stage as he delivers a statement to the media on the Iranian nuclear issue, Jerusalem, September 9, 2019. Kobi Gideon / GPO

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But in the way Netanyahu presents things (as was the case with the archives news conference last year), there is a whiff of manipulation; contrary to what one might understand from his remarks, this was an Iranian violation from the period before the nuclear agreement, which went into effect in January 2014. Assuming that this is indeed a nuclear weapons site, it reinforces the Israeli claim that the Iranians lied when they said that their nuclear program had no military component. However, it offers no direct proof that Iran’s prohibited conduct is continuing now, and if there was such evidence one assumes that Netanyahu would present it. The facility is no longer active and was even destroyed by the Iranians in July – according to Netanyahu, after he realized that Israel had discovered their operations there.

Contrary to some of the opposition’s claims, it doesn’t seem that Netanyahu’s remarks will cause any immediate security damage. The question relates to his considerations: Why was it so urgent to present these details on Monday, and is it possible to separate between the prime minister’s diplomatic move, directed at the international community, and his desire to maintain a security-diplomatic agenda, in which Netanyahu has a built-in advantage over his election rivals?

In the background, there remains a dispute with the Trump administration over the planned, French-mediated summit between the U.S. president and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rohani. Netanyahu also seeks to block the French proposal to allow the Iranians $15 billion in credit by the end of the year, as part of the negotiations-renewal package. It is doubtful, however, whether the Israeli move will get much attention from Washington. There are apparently many high-ranking administration officials who disagree with the new line the president is formulating, but it’s hard to see any of them openly opposing Trump and keeping his job.

Moshe Ya’alon, who in his days as defense minister quarreled frequently with the Obama administration, attacked Trump’s new policy at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism conference on Monday.

Members of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces carry the coffin of Kazem Mohsen, known by his nom de guerre Abu Ali al-Dabi, in Najaf, Iraq, August 26, 2019. AFP

“There must be American determination across the board to continue to pressure the Iranian regime without yielding,” Ya’alon said. “The problem is the American unwillingness to cope. And when you don’t cope, you convey weakness. If I was [Iranian Supreme Leader Ali] Khameini, I’d be happy – I shot down a drone and they didn’t respond, I attacked oil tankers and they didn’t respond. The Americans are conveying an unwillingness to cope, and therein lies a problem.”

Back to vagueness

Before dawn on Monday there was an air strike at a big base in Albukamal, on the Syrian side of the Iraqi border. The target was a large base that is in the construction stage, a base intended for pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias. According to opposition Syrian forces, 18 militia members were killed in the attack. Israel, if it was the one carrying out the attack, has returned to its policy of vagueness. This time there was no taking of responsibility by Jerusalem, not even a hint.

This attack came after previous ones that were attributed to Israel, targeting Shi’ite militias in western Iraq, in July and August. The earlier attacks evoked sharp criticism by the Pentagon and Centcom, the U.S. Army’s central command, out of concern that they would endanger the lives of American troops in Iraq. Iraqi parliamentarians have already rushed to demand the withdrawal of American units, accusing them of assisting Israel.

Iraqi soldiers stand guard with their weapons on the border crossing with Syria, Qaim, Iraq, 2018.Hadi Mizban,AP

This time, at least, the strike was on the Syrian side of the border. And yet, there is a campaign here that constantly stretches its boundaries, reaching all the way to Iraq. A few hours after the strike came the Iranian response. A few rockets were launched from a location south of Damascus towards the Golan Heights. Several rockets, apparently Grad-type Katyusha models, landed in Syrian territory, two kilometers from the border with Israel. Since Israel’s interception system can calculate a probable landing site, no intercepting missiles were launched and no sirens were sounded in the Golan area.

Nevertheless, there is something new here: This was an attempt by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, acting through Shi’ite militias, to immediately settle scores with Israel. In the past, it took Iran several days to initiate such a reprisal.

The final week before the election will be conducted under the shadow of the tense northern front. In Gaza too, these are not calm days. Hamas and Islamic Jihad, like Iran and Hezbollah, understand Israel’s sensitivities and are waiting to see how Netanyahu, who is under domestic pressure, responds. One can assume that security-related issues will find their way into the news in the home stretch of the political race.