What's Really Behind Netanyahu's Warnings About Syria?

At weekly cabinet meeting, prime minister declares that a broad government is the proper response to defend against the 'cluster of threats' from Syria, Hezbollah and Iran.

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A few days of partial reports regarding the delicate situation in Syria actually came to a head in Jerusalem Sunday with a relatively unusual declaration by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. During the photo-op at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting, the first since he eeked out his victory in the Knesset election, the premier decided to focus on the region's volatility, particularly on what is going on to the north.

"We must look around us, both at what is going on in Iran and at the deadly weapons in Syria, which is starting to disintegrate," Netanyahu told the ministers. "The Middle East doesn't wait for the election results and doesn't stop during the formation of a government. We face a cluster of threats and a stormy reality that continues to evolve, and we have to be prepared and strong to face any development."

He then explained what he believes is the proper response to the growing risks: "For this purpose, I am aiming to establish the broadest and most stable government possible so we can respond, first of all, to the security threats."

Netanyahu's remarks came after a weekend in which numerous residents were reporting an exceptional number of takeoffs from Israel Air Force bases, even as two Iron Dome anti-missile batteries were deployed in the north, near Haifa. From Lebanon came a report of a mysterious explosion in a Hezbollah weapons cache in the Lebanon Valley, near that country's border with Syria.

Iran, meanwhile, announced menacingly over the weekend that it would see any foreign attack on Syria as an attack on itself.

Last week Haaretz reported that the day after the election Netanyahu convened senior defense officials - the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, the head of the Mossad, the head of Military Intelligence and the IAF commander. That meeting was also devoted to the situation in Syria. Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom even told Army Radio yesterday of accumulating signs that the Syrian regime was losing control over its chemical weapons.

But Netanyahu's comments Sunday came only a short time after his future coalition partner Yair Lapid said he would insist on a government that had relatively few ministers and no ministers without portfolio. One could thus see the prime minister's announcement as an answer to both Syrian President Bashar Assad and Lapid: Only a broad government can respond to the sensitive security situation. With 15 ministers from Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu, including Yuli Edelstein and Limor Livnat, none of our enemies would dare start up with us.

So which came first? Is Netanyahu exploiting a security development for political purposes, or is there an even worse explanation - that it's a totally political spin, with no basis in fact? As far as we can tell right now, the first answer is correct. At the same time, the prime minister clearly has no problem with leveraging a security threat for political gain. If there's already fear of a flare-up in the north, let it at least be utilized to prevent an intifada in Likud.

Israel has been preparing for a series of worrisome scenarios in Syria. Assad, whose country is being wracked by civil war, is under enormous pressure from the opposition forces and needs any help Hezbollah is willing to offer to repel the attacks against him. There is clearly concern that Syrian weapons arsenals could fall into the hands of the Sunni extremists who oppose the Syrian regime.

In recent months other countries have come to share Israel's concern about Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles. Arab media have reported that the United States has formed a special task force to seize control of Syrian chemical weapons sites if the situation there deteriorates further.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at weekly cabinet meeting.Credit: Emil Salman
Yair Lapid, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Naftali Bennett.Credit: Archive

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