Analysis

Netanyahu Seeks Billions to Fund Israeli Defense Against Iranian Cruise Missiles

Iran’s attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities last month made an impression on Israeli defense officials, and could require changes in Israel’s defensive preparations

Saudi military officer stands near an Iranian cruise missile used in an attack on Saudi oil facilities, September 18, 2019.
Amr Nabil,AP

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urgently wants to supplement the defense budget by a few billion shekels to improve the missile defense system in identifying incoming cruise missiles. The security cabinet met Sunday afternoon to discuss the issue of the threat from Iran.

Netanyahu is responding to the Iranian attack on two Saudi oil facilities on September 14. In a sophisticated attack, Iran used a combination of drones and an Iranian version of cruise missiles.

An initial evaluation of the massive damage shows that the Iranians managed to bypass the radar of the American Patriot missile batteries in Saudi Arabia. The attack, which also made an impression on Israeli defense officials, could require changes in Israel’s defensive preparations, too.

>> Read more: It's tempting to connect the dots, but IRan-Israel war doesn't seem imminent | Analysis

Remains of what was described as a misfired Iranian cruise missile used in the attack on Saudi oil facilities, September 18, 2019.
Amr Nabil,AP

It seems that to improve capabilities to prevent similar attacks, Israel will have to upgrade its ability to identify incoming threats. And to certain extent it will have to change the way it operates now – and possibly strengthen the Israeli-made Magic Wand (David’s Sling) interceptor system for middle-range missiles, and the veteran American Patriot PAC-2 missiles.

The Iranian attack caused considerable damage to Saudi oil production. The fact that Tehran hasn’t paid a price internationally could increase the confidence of the Iranian regime – while the United States continues to broadcast a willingness to revisit the terms of the nuclear deal with Iran, which the Trump administration withdrew from in May 2018.

Iran’s success in attacking Saudi Arabia provides it with a dilemma: Should it continue to walk on the edge in its provocations of the West, even to the point of friction with Israel, or should it take advantage of this success and try for expedited negotiations with the Americans?

In the background lies Iran’s unfinished business with Israel because of the attacks attributed to Israel against Iranian targets in Syria, and recently in Iraq and Lebanon too (where in August a key part of an assembly line for weapons built by Hezbollah in Beirut was attacked). In recent days, senior officers in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards have threatened that a revenge operation against the Israeli attacks will take place soon.

Israel has taken into account the possibility that Iran will launch – possibly using Shi’ite militias – cruise missiles or other weapons at Israel from Western Iraq. In the meantime, another development has occurred: Nearly 100 Iraqis were killed during the past week in violent protests against the corruption of the Shi’ite government in Baghdad, which is supported by Iran. At some of the demonstrations, anti-Iranian slogans could be heard. It seems the Iranians are taking this into consideration, too.

Netanyahu at the swearing in ceremony of the 22nd Knesset, October 3, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

The Iran card is wearing out

These are the various developments behind Netanyahu’s recent statements on the worsening of the Iranian threat and the change in the security situation, which Netanyahu says makes the establishment of a unity government – headed by him – so essential. “We are facing an enormous security challenge that is growing and worsening from week to week,” Netanyahu said last week. “This is not spin and not a whim – this is not Netanyahu who is trying to scare us.”

It seems that at least President Reuven Rivlin has become convinced to a certain extent of the seriousness of the situation. In his speech at the inauguration of the new Knesset last Wednesday, Rivlin also noted the security risks and called for a speeding up of the negotiations for a unity government. Rivlin hinted that the military has been asking for an urgent supplement to the defense budget, discussions on which have been delayed by the political crisis.

Anti-government protests in Iraq claimed over 100 lives this week, Baghdad, October 5, 2019.
AFP

But Netanyahu himself pointed out the difficulties in his efforts to persuade: He has used the Iran card so many times to justify postponing, or moving up, elections, a unity government or a right-wing government led by him that suspicions against his claims now seem something natural.

As I wrote here last week, for now, nothing points to an immediate danger of war with Iran, despite the rise in tensions. When Netanyahu points to the need for unity to battle the Iranian threat, he is ignoring – for his own convenience – his own contributions to the emergency situation he is describing. It was Netanyahu who put pressure on Donald Trump to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal, in a way that worsened tensions between Iran and the United States. But for now it’s the U.S. president who has refused to apply military pressure on Tehran and prefers to renew talks with Iran.

Netanyahu, usually with the support of senior defense officials, has ramped up his militant line against the arms smuggling efforts and Iran’s military consolidation in the region. According to reports in the foreign media, and the hints spread by Netanyahu himself, he has chosen in recent months to expand the borders of Israel’s offensive campaign against Iran into Iraq and Lebanon.

It’s possible that these steps are completely justified, as Netanyahu claims. It’s less clear why it was necessary to provoke the Iranians by publicizing the attacks. In any case, now it seems there’s a price to be paid for it, despite the operational successes.