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On Iran, Israel Must Not Reprise Netanyahu’s Disastrous Role in the Iraq War and Rise of al-Qaida

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Naftali Bennett, right, with Benjamin Netanyahu in the Golan Heights
Naftali Bennett, right, with Benjamin Netanyahu in the Golan HeightsCredit: POOL New/REUTERS

As Israel’s former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bows out, some of his ideas that have not only guided Israel’s security policies but also inspired America’s military interventions in the Middle East remain with us. 

By sending a defiant message to the United States, emphasizing Israel’s refusal to take part in its negotiations with Iran, Major General Aviv Kochavi, Israel’s Chief of Staff, and Naftali Bennett, Israel’s new Prime Minister, seem to be continuing  Netanyahu’s confrontational approach.

Due to the potential friction that is building up between President Joe Biden’s administration and Israel’s new leadership, it is useful, if not important, to look at Netanyahu’s regional legacy and its potential hazards.

Netanyahu has been offering advice to the United States about the Middle East for over two decades, and due to his connections in Washington DC, especially among Republicans, he will probably continue to do so in the future.

In 2002, during his testimony before the United States Congress, he assured its members that Saddam Hussein had a nuclear program. Asserting that "we," he and  Israeli intelligence, were absolutely certain that Saddam was developing nuclear weapons, Netanyahu was emphatic that the United States must invade Iraq in order to destroy its facilities.

He also predicted unlimited positive fallout from an invasion: "If you take out Saddam, I guarantee you that it will have enormous positive reverberations on the region."

The United States invaded Iraq in 2003, and did not find any trace of a nuclear program. The Iraq War did not lead to "enormous positive reverberations on the region" or a domino-effect fall of the regime in Tehran.

It is not the disastrous intelligence fiasco that is the crux of the matter. Rather, it is Netanyahu’s approach to international crises.

From his perspective, military might, or “implementing power” as he characterized it, was the solution to international crises. This recommendation to use force was followed by his optimistic assessment that military force triggers a virtuous circle of vicory: "[W]inning and winning and winning."

To make his point crystal clear he elaborated before the members of Congress what turned out to be one of the costliest and most ineffectual policy recommendations in Middle East history:

"[T]he more victories you amass the easier the next victory becomes. The first victory in Afghanistan makes the second victory in Iraq that much easier. The second victory in Iraq will make the third victory that much easier…"

In contrast to Netanyahu’s prediction, the United States did not "win" in Iraq. Rather, it lost over 4,700 young men and women, buried over a trillion dollars in the sand, tore Iraqi society asunder, led to over a quarter of a million Iraqi dead and five million displaced. It did not achieve its goal, because it could not find and destroy a nuclear program that did not exist. And the invasion spread the opposite of "positive reverberations" throughout the region.

A 2003 al-Jazeera still showing al-Qaida head Osama bin Laden and aide Ayman al-Zawahri, who declared 'The crusaders and the Jews only understand the language of murder, bloodshed and burning towers'Credit: REUTERS

Not only did the wild goose chase in Iraq draw a painful price from Iraq and the United States, it also enhanced the power of America’s nemesis, Iran, and al-Qaida

The boomerang effect was a result of the fact that when the United States toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime, it in fact opened Iraq’s door for Iran. As Iranian militias entered Iraq, they established the "Shia Crescent," that connected them by land to their allies in Syria, and to Hizballah in Lebanon. The "Shia Crescent" upgraded the Iranians’ ability to wage proxy wars and threaten Israel.

Iraqi demonstrators protest to express solidarity with the Palestinian people amid a flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence, in Baghdad, Iraq last monthCredit: THAIER AL-SUDANI/ REUTERS

The second beneficiaries of Mr. Netanyahu’s misguided advice were al-Qaida, who carried out the 9/11 attacks two years earlier.

Al-Qaida’s operatives understood what Mr. Netanyahu and other supporters of the invasion did not – political and military chaos constitute an ideal environment for terrorists. As the United States and Iran meddled in Iraqi politics, al-Qaida began one of the most atrocious terror campaigns in Middle East history.

Over time, some of its leaders also established ISIS, a feat they could not have performed had they not been well entrenched in Iraq. Thus, part of the collateral damage of the invasion into Iraq was the establishment of the world’s most notorious terror organization.

Benjamin Netanyahu speaks before a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington,March 3, 2015.Credit: AP

Netanyahu’s advice backfired once again in 2018, when he convinced President Donald Trump to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.

As a consequence, Iran intensified its efforts to attain nuclear weapons and today it is closer to reaching that point than it was in 2018.

In both cases Netanyahu advised the Americans who listened to him to use force, and in both cases these direct confrontations proved counter-productive, bringing about the opposite of what their advocates sought to achieve.

Netanyahu’s reliance on military intervention and arm-twisting have proven to be self-destructive. Israel’s military and political leaders would do well to undo his bellicose approach to international crises, and shift to cooperating, quietly, with the forces that oppose Iran’s nuclear program by devising realistic, yet creative, ways to stop it.

Nimrod Hurvitz is a co-founder of The Forum for Regional Thinking and teaches Middle East Studies at Ben Gurion University of the Negev

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