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Iran and a Dash of Politics: Behind Israel's Scramble to Boost Missile Defenses

Israel's politicians, namely Netanyahu, are warning of a 'state of national emergency' and 'daily threats.' What do they know that we don't?

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Qassem Soleimani, leader of the Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force, in Tehran on October, 2, 2019.
Qassem Soleimani, leader of the Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force, in Tehran on October, 2, 2019.Credit: Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Here is a collection of recent statements made by top Israeli figures. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that anybody “with eyes in their head can see that Iran is growing stronger.” Two days before, he said that budgetary decisions need to be made and that the defense budget needed vast reinforcement – billions, and right away, too, requiring tough decisions by the government, and the public had to be prepared.

Knesset member Avigdor Lieberman, the chairman of Yisrael Beiteinu, called on Netanyahu and on Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz to “show responsibility” given the “state of national emergency.” President Reuven Rivlin has also said that Israel is in a state of national emergency, the likes of which we haven’t seen for many years. Minister Yuval Steinitz of Likud said the Iranians are right on our borders and Israel faces threats “on a daily basis.”

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 43

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>> Read more: Netanyahu seeks billions to fund Israeli defense against Iranian cruise missiles | Analysis

Do they know something we don’t? Maybe less than one might think. The public already sees most of the big picture, but perhaps not in as high resolution. Israel has stepped up its level of military friction with Iran in Syria in the last couple of years, and the last three months have brought reports of Israeli attacks on Iranian sites and organizations in Iraq and one in Lebanon. The Iranians, especially the Revolutionary Guard Corps, have vowed revenge several times.

Israeli intelligence predicts that vengeance could take the form of cruise missiles or drones sent from Syria or western Iraq, where Shi’ite militias are operating with the support of Iran. The latest Iranian attack in Saudi Arabia rang warning bells in Jerusalem, given the show of high operational ability and potential Israeli weakness in defending itself against similar attacks.

Hence Netanyahu’s pressure on the cabinet to push through billions for the defense budget, some of which was to be earmarked for upgrading missile interception systems, especially cruise missiles. The army has also been asking to speed up the discussion on beefing up its budget and approving its next multiyear plan, called Tnufa (“momentum”). It’s supposed to go into effect at the start of 2021, but this requires preparation.

Then there are political considerations to take into account, of course. We will always have Iran. For a decade now the Iranian threat – from its nukes to its missiles to its support for terrorism – has served Netanyahu as his main justification for strategic moves, as well as tactical excuses. Somehow the latest developments on the Iranian front always indicate the need to go in the direction Netanyahu finds politically convenient.

Right now Netanyahu’s main goal is to play for time. He hopes to somehow convince Kahol Lavan to renege on its vow not to join him in a unity government headed by him and which would also defer or soften any indictments filed against him. Iran provides him with an excellent rationale, providing genuine security events which can be leveraged to achieve political goals, en route to which any demand to stick to the details is ignored.