Where Netanyahu Sees an Iranian Threat, His New Defense Chief Sees an Opportunity

On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Naftali Bennett took a tour of the northern part of the country. Accompanied by Israel Defense Forces Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir and Northern Command chief Maj. Gen. Amir Baram, they visited troops from the Galilee Division, responsible for security along the Lebanon border, and the Bahsan Division, in charge of the border with Syria.

Security issues are apparently serving the prime minister’s own purposes, more than they are giving him sleepless nights. Constantly raising the public’s awareness of military dangers heightens Netanyahu’s image as the country’s great defender, and ostensibly justifies his remaining in power, despite the indictments. The visit took place a few days after four Fajr-5 rockets were fired at Mount Hermon from Syria by Iranian-controlled Shi’ite militias from the southern outskirts of Damascus. The rockets were intercepted by the Iron Dome system, and Israel responded with an extensive attack on Iranian and Syrian military sites in southern Syria. During their tour, Netanyahu and Bennett reiterated the usual threats against Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Israel’s other enemies. The impression created was that Israel is determined to use all means at its disposal to combat the Iranian danger looming on its borders.

– Haaretz Weekly Ep. 50

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 50Haaretz

The trip north was, of course, entirely political. Just a few days earlier, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit had announced his decision to file corruption charges against Netanyahu in three cases; two days later, thousands of supporters of the prime minister gathered at a solidarity rally for him in Tel Aviv.

These days, Netanyahu is simultaneously waging a battle of vilification against the attorney general and state prosecutors, deploying to defend himself ahead of the possible lifting of his immunity by the Knesset, and also stonewalling, in the hope of thwarting last-minute efforts by his rivals (in Kahol Lavan as well as in Likud) to form a new government without another election.

The tour of army installations on Wednesday by Kahol Lavan leader MK Benny Gantz and others from his party paled in comparison to Netanyahu’s. Moreover, Gantz, unlike Netanyahu and Bennett, isn’t entitled to have his picture taken with IDF officers at his side.

A sensitive ear would have noted a difference in tone between the remarks made by the prime minister and those of the defense minister, when they were up north. The former pursued his alarmist line: The Iranians are lurking at the Syrian border, and they are building missile bases in Iraq and in Yemen in order to threaten Israel from those regions. Bennett sounded different, almost gung-ho, and addressed the Iranians directly: “There’s nothing for you in Syria, there’s no reason for you to try and consolidate yourselves there. Whatever you try to do, you will encounter a strong and determined IDF that will strike at you.”

Where Netanyahu talks about a threat, his defense minister perceives an opportunity. The Iranians, he believes, made a mistake in deciding to move their campaign close to the border with Israel. Establishing themselves militarily in southern Syria requires a long and vulnerable logistical chain, stretching all the way from Tehran to Damascus. Deployment of militias on the Golan Heights front allows Israel intelligence and air superiority, close to home. Iran will have a very hard time closing that gap, no matter what quantities of materiel and troops it may try to deploy along the border.