Aside from the contribution from the department of tactical props, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at the Munich Security Conference also included two important statements. Netanyahu directly threatened Iran if it continues in its aggression toward Israel. To this he added a threat to the stability of Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria if he continues to help Iran gain a foothold in his country. With all due respect to the gimmick of showing conference participants part of the downed Iranian drone and to his biting remarks directed at Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, these two statements will certainly be noted and analyzed in Tehran and Damascus.
More than a year ago, just after U.S. President Donald Trump was elected, Netanyahu began to slightly change his public tone toward Iran in a series of speeches. Over the months that followed, he pledged that “those who threaten us with annihilation put themselves in peril” and that Israel’s military might “must be able to threaten to destroy those who threaten to destroy us.” When he met with Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev, he even asked him to convey a message to the Iranians: “Israel isn't a rabbit, it's a tiger. ... The Iranians don't know who they are dealing with, and Iran is putting itself in grave danger."
In recent months, Netanyahu has changed the order of the threats that he says come from Iran. He has not reduced his warnings against the Iranian nuclear project and the disadvantages of the Vienna agreement (which he also attacked in his Munich speech on Sunday), but he placed the danger of Iranian involvement in Syria ahead of them. This new order appeared for the first time in his “pickle” speech at the opening of the Knesset winter session last October, and has appeared in other speeches since then. Netanyahu has stressed the many aspects of Iranian activity on Israel’s northern border: the impact on the Assad regime, the deployment of Iranian militias and the aspiration to build weapons factories, a naval port and an air base.
The new element on Sunday is the threat to act directly against Iran: “We will act if necessary not just against Iran's proxies but against Iran itself,” said Netanyahu. Directly addressing Zarif, who was sitting in the conference hall, he added: “Don’t test us.”
Not for the first time, Netanyahu sounded like he was corresponding with his partner-rivals in his coalition back home.
When Education Minister Naftali Bennett spoke at the annual convention of the Institute for National Security Studies in late January, he presented what he called the “octopus head doctrine” and called on Israel to specifically threaten Iran itself in response to the latter’s actions in Syria and Lebanon. The remarks by Bennett and now by Netanyahu cannot be dismissed as empty rhetoric. Major developments are taking place on a number of fronts as they speak: the success of Assad’s camp, supported by Iran and Russia, in the civil war in Syria; frequent trading of threats by Riyadh and Tehran; the zigzagging of the Trump administration, which in the meantime is not being translated into a show of force on the ground vis-a-vis Iran or the Russians; the downing of an Iranian drone and an Israeli F-16 in a clash which saw the Israel Air Force attacking Iranian targets in Syria for the first time; and finally, tension on the border with the Gaza Strip on Saturday.
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This a sensitive period and through his statements, Netanyahu is ratcheting up tensions with Syria. In another exceptional declaration in his Munich speech, the prime minister said that Israel has not intervened in the Syrian civil war so far “except for humanitarian assistance” (although rebels have recently been quoted in the foreign press claiming they also receive weapons and ammunition assistance). But according to Netanyahu, if Assad is now inviting Iran into his country, he is changing the Israeli position and “challenging his own position.”
Zarif, as expected, ridiculed Netanyahu’s speech and even taunted him about the police investigation for alleged bribery. But over time, the Iranians will also have to see whether Netanyahu might be returning to a policy of walking a fine line regarding Iran. Every summer between 2009 and 2012, Netanyahu intentionally turned up the heat, intensively discussing the possibility of an Israeli military attack on Iran’s nuclear sites. Those threats were never carried out – and the Iranians probably didn’t really take them seriously – but in so doing, Netanyahu launched a process that subsequently imposed heavy international sanctions on Iran’s economy, causing Tehran had to go back to the negotiating table and eventually accept the Vienna agreement. This time, too, the question is not just what people in Iran and Syrian will think about the threats, but how the Israeli warnings will be seen in other countries involved in the region.
On the margins, one should ask whether the audience in Munich paid attention to Netanyahu’s drone gimmick or whether it was intended for sympathetic ears back home. The conference attendees are familiar enough with the Middle East to know that not only is Israel considered a leading world power in drone development and use, but that according to foreign reports, Israeli drones have been flying in neighboring countries for years. This policy is fully justified in light of the security risks, but Netanyahu’s playing the victim with regard to the Iranian drone seems exaggerated under the circumstances. Hasn’t Israel done similar things in its neighbors’ skies? Hasn’t it been accused of such things – even toward Iran – itself?
In his speech, Netanyahu described Iran as trying to place a noose around Israel’s neck. There’s no doubt about the nefariousness of Iran’s intentions, as it has proven by its negative involvement in the region in recent years. But to imply that Israel, the greatest military power in the region, is a helpless victim of Iranian aggression misses the truth – and indirectly damages Israel’s deterrence. It’s doubtful that the unique Israeli mix of boasting of its might together with conveying a sense that it is a wretched unfortunate woven into Netanyahu’s words necessarily persuaded any of his audience in Munich.