Analysis

In Netanyahu's Latest Rant, Iran's Meddling in Syria Overcame the Nuclear Threat

Netanyahu may be dividing responsibilities: Trump will take care of changing the nuclear agreement, while Israel will deal with the Iranian-Hezbollah danger next door

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at the opening of the Knesset winter session, October 23, 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

The opening of the Knesset’s winter session Monday will probably be remembered by the après moi, le déluge warning by President Reuven Rivlin, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s seasonal scolding of the people, some of whom he said were suffering from sour grapes.

But the part of Netanyahu’s speech devoted to security hid a statement that could turn out significant. For the first time, Netanyahu classified Iran’s involvement in Syria as a greater and more immediate danger to Israel than the Iranian nuclear threat.

>> With unprecedented chaos in Washington, Israel sets new red lines over Iran in Syria / Analysis >>

For months now, politicians and senior security professionals have disagreed over the importance of Iran’s moves. Netanyahu, who has been mentioning the presence of Iranian forces in Syria with increasing frequency in his speeches, is still stressing the nuclear issue.

Recently his position was reinforced by the deep impression his frequent warnings about the shortcomings of the nuclear deal between Iran and the world powers left on U.S. President Donald Trump. While Trump has yet to throw the agreement on the ash heap of history, as he threatened during his election campaign, he harshly attacked it in his mid-October speech and tossed the ball into Congress’ court.

>> Buoyed by Iran and Russia, Assad gains confidence to test Israel / Analysis >>

In contrast to Netanyahu, most senior Israeli security officials aren’t enthusiastic about the prospect of the complete annulment of the agreement, as the prime minister urges. In the Israel Defense Forces in particular, the focus is on Iran’s actions in Syria: talks over the establishment of a seaport and an air base in Syria, plans to expand weapons plants there and the deployment of Shi’ite militias in the south.

All these elements seem to Israeli security experts to be more clear and present dangers than the nuclear agreement, no matter how flawed, which will end only in another decade or so.

But in Netanyahu’s speech, he reversed the order of threats. “We face even greater challenges inside and outside the country, first and foremost to thwart Iran’s attempts to establish itself in Syria .... At the same time, we are determined to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons,” he told the Knesset.

Netanyahu’s coming speeches will show whether there has been a permanent change in priorities. His statements might also reflect a division of responsibilities as the prime minister understands it: Trump will take care of changing the nuclear agreement, or will at least increase its enforcement, while Israel will deal with the Iranian danger in Syria, especially the deployment of Hezbollah and more Shi’ite militias near the border in the Golan Heights.

Lieberman and Lebanon

Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s speech came a few hours after the surprising statement by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. The latter, who had landed in Israel that morning after a brief visit to Washington, called a meeting of the Knesset members of his Yisrael Beiteinu party. That’s the forum where the defense minister supplies many of his headlines.

Lieberman told the legislators that the rocket fire into the Israeli Golan before dawn Saturday was “definitely not” unintentional spillover from fighting between the Assad regime and Syrian rebels. “This was intentional fire, carried out by a local cell operated by Hezbollah. Hezbollah did this without connection to the Assad regime.” Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah personally ordered the rocket fire, Lieberman said, “to separate Assad and his regime from this fire.”

Lieberman’s statements only partially overlapped previous assessments by security officials. After the rocket fire Saturday, the IDF said that it was indeed not “spillover” fire from fighting within Syria, which accidently landed on the Israeli side of the border.

But the idea that this was an action Nasrallah had taken for Assad, worded with complete confidence as if it relied on precise intelligence, wasn’t known to Israeli intelligence organizations. The defense minister’s aides later had to clarify, in response to questions from the media, that Lieberman made his statements “in keeping with his personal assessment and judgement.”

The difference in versions that was made public was a source of embarrassment to defense officials. Was Lieberman speaking for himself, not expecting his statements to reverberate? Or does he have other channels of information – his talks in Washington or connections with his counterparts in other countries – that the army isn’t aware of? In either case, the process uncovered is disorganized.

In his statement to the Yisrael Beiteinu MKs, Lieberman warned against attempts to drag Israel into what he called the “Syrian quagmire.” But actually it seems that in this case Lieberman didn’t practice what he preaches. His theory, for which so far no proof has been presented, certainly doesn’t help calm the growing tensions between Israel, Syria, Iran and Hezbollah.