Analysis

How Trump's Election Victory Gave New Life to Netanyahu's Hawkish Rhetoric on Iran

Seasoned observers have noted an increasingly hawkish stance by the Israeli prime minister concerning Iran in recent months

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Hatzerim air base in southern Israel, December 2016.
Amos Ben Gershom/GPO

Those attending the Israel Air Force Flight Academy’s graduation ceremony at the end of June noticed a slightly different tone in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s welcoming speech.

When Netanyahu enumerated the air force’s missions, he concluded with the one he saw as most important: “To ensure that anyone who threatens our existence puts himself in danger of survival.”

Netanyahu comes to almost all these IAF events, which take place twice a year (in summer and winter). His explicit threat, which was undoubtedly aimed at Iran, was not mentioned in any of his speeches at previous pilot graduation ceremonies.

As Haaretz diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid has written, the tone began to change last December. At a meeting with Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Netanyahu asked him to convey a message to the Iranians: “Israel is a tiger, not a rabbit. If [Iran] threatens Israel, it will put itself in grave danger.”

This new, official stance was first made public on December 6, 2016, during Netanyahu’s speech at the annual memorial service to David Ben-Gurion – a venue at which prime ministers customarily air strategic statements. At Sde Boker, Netanyahu said Israel’s military force “must be able to threaten the destruction of those who threaten to destroy us.”

A week later, at the reception ceremony for the arrival of the first F-35 aircraft at Nevatim air base, Netanyahu said: “I want to say clearly: Anyone who wants to attack us will be attacked. And anyone who thinks of destroying us is putting himself in existential danger.” This was repeated at the Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem this May, and at the pilots’ graduation last month.

In the past decade, Netanyahu has referred to the Iranian nuclear program many times in his speeches, describing it as an existential threat to Israel. After the 2015 signing of the Vienna agreement between Iran and the six world powers to suspend the program, Netanyahu castigated the deal and warned of its implications. However, his rhetorical tone in those years didn’t include threats of annihilation and “existential danger” toward those who threaten Israel.

An examination of the Prime Minister’s Office website, which compiles all of his speeches, shows that on the day after the Vienna agreement was signed, in July 2015, Netanyahu made do with: “We will know how to defend ourselves, by ourselves, against anyone who threatens to destroy us.”

The more hawkish tone in Netanyahu’s speeches appeared shortly after Donald Trump’s presidential election victory. The international community attaches great importance to Israeli leaders’ official statements on strategic issues, so these public statements were always phrased with great care. In the past, Israel even coordinated such formulations with the U.S. administration, mainly due to sensitivity regarding the nuclear ambiguity policy – Israel’s stance of neither confirming nor denying that it has nuclear weapons, despite numerous foreign reports on the matter.

Of course, Netanyahu doesn’t mention the nuclear capabilities attributed to Israel by the foreign media in his speeches, but destroying the enemy cannot be achieved with conventional weapons. He presumably believes the new U.S. administration and the open support Trump expressed for Israel’s criticism of the Vienna agreement allow him more room for rhetorical maneuver than he had in the past.

An aide in the Prime Minister’s Office said in response that the wording of Netanyahu’s speeches in recent months does not reflect a change in Israel’s policy.