Analysis

Israel Escalates Threats Against Iran

Ex-national security adviser warns that Israel must prevent Iranian infrastructure in Syria at any cost. The explicit threat to Iran and Hezbollah is not an official declaration, but foreign governments will find it hard to ignore

Smoke rises from fighting in Syria, as seen from the Israeli side of the Golan Heights. June 2017
Smoke rises from fighting in Syria, as seen from the Israeli side of the Golan Heights. June 2017 Gil Eliyahu

Israel must prevent Iran from building bases in Syria at any cost, a former national security adviser who retains influence in the Prime Minister’s Office said this week.

Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror was speaking at a briefing for foreign correspondents organized by the nonprofit group the Israel Project.

“The implications of the Iranians building bases in Syria,” Amidror said, is that it creates “launching-pad bases in Syria to Hezbollah and the Iranians. And Israel should prevent it whatever will be the price.”

“If that will not be taken into account by the those who are making those arrangements — the Americans, the Russians and others — that might lead the IDF to intervene and destroy every attempt to build infrastructure in Syria,” he continued, referring to the Israel Defense Forces. “We will not let the Iranians and Hezbollah be the forces which will win from the long and very brutal war in Syria and move the focus into Israel.”

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Asked whether Israel would have the freedom to operate in Syria in such a manner, Amidror replied, “I don’t see who will stop it. I mean, if that is in the interest of Israel, we should strive to be sure that our interests will be kept.”

Though Amidror currently holds no official government position, he still has ties to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and retains a degree of influence on certain issues. Thus it is reasonable to assume that foreign governments that follow events in the region would note such remarks.

It’s also convenient for Netanyahu to have such statements come from Amidror. That way, the explicit threat against Iran and Hezbollah isn’t perceived as being an official Israeli one, yet at the same time it’s hard to ignore.

Rapping the cease-fire deal

Amidror’s remarks came one day after Netanyahu publicly criticized a cease-fire agreement brokered by Russia and the United States in southern Syria. In a briefing for Israeli journalists during Netanyahu’s visit to Paris, he and people identified only as “senior officials” voiced two reservations about the deal.

First, Israel believes it essentially acquiesces to Iran’s presence in Syria, which already includes bases for ground forces, thousands of fighters from various Shi’ite militias and advanced plans for setting up air and naval bases in the country. Second, Israel is skeptical of the agreement’s stated commitment to keep Iranian and Hezbollah forces about 20 miles from its border in the Golan Heights.

Israel doesn’t believe that Russian troops, which are responsible for enforcing the agreement, will actually prevent Iranian forces from approaching the border. Over the past few days, Russian Military Police units have been spotted near the town of Daraa in southern Syria, apparently to help enforce the cease-fire. But Israel is still trying to determine exactly how Russia plans to supervise activities by the Assad regime and its allies, including Iran and Hezbollah.

In response to Netanyahu’s remarks, Russia hastened to issue a soothing statement. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that the cease-fire deal in southern Syria had taken Israel’s security needs into account, and that the agreement would be implemented in coordination with Israel.

Meanwhile, Israel has resumed its campaign of diplomatic warnings on a neighboring front, the Lebanese border. On Tuesday, the IDF released new video footage of intelligence operations by Hezbollah along the border, in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 Second Lebanon War.

This footage comes almost a month after Israel complained to the United Nations about similar Hezbollah activities along the border. Israel also revealed last month that Iran had set up weapons plants for Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The explanation for Israel’s moves on the Lebanese front is obvious. The Security Council will soon hold its periodic debate on the implementation of Resolution 1701 and the extension of UNIFIL’s mandate in southern Lebanon.
Israel thus has an interest in exposing Hezbollah’s violations, as well as what it describes as UNIFIL’s apathy to or deliberate disregard of these violations.

This would push the UN peacekeeping force to be more aggressive in its dealings with Hezbollah – and also lay the public-diplomacy groundwork should a military conflict erupt in Lebanon.

Clashing with Trump

But developments along the Syrian border have an even greater potential for drama. Though it’s doubtful Israel will attack Iranian bases in Syria the next morning, as Amidror’s words might seem to imply, there’s clearly a point of friction over which Netanyahu, for the first time, has been willing to publicly clash with the Trump administration.

Israel’s suspicions about Washington’s conduct in the Syrian theater relate to several issues: Russian-American coordination, which Israel sees as being dictated mainly by Moscow; the emerging American plan to reduce its military presence in the region once the Islamic State is defeated in its Syrian capital of Raqqa; and Trump’s apparent acceptance of Iran’s growing role in Syria.

The administration’s announcement, two years after the nuclear deal was signed with Iran, that Tehran is honoring its commitment to freeze its nuclear program also apparently made Netanyahu uncomfortable. Until then, President Donald Trump had sounded much more forceful and suspicious toward Iran than some of his top officials.

Washington hastened to give itself a bit of cover for that relatively positive statement toward Tehran by announcing new sanctions against 18 Iranian individuals and organizations in response to Iran’s support for terror in the Middle East, its aid to the Assad regime in Syria and its ballistic-missile development.

These conflicting messages from Washington, coupled with the Israeli warnings, reveal that both the Syrian and Iranian situations are fluid. That apparently is why Israel is applying pressure in the hope of spurring the Americans to improve the agreement they reached in a way that would make it better for Israel.