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Why Israel Is Picking a Fight With Iran

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

What’s the reason for Israel’s current confrontation with Iran? In the past few weeks, the surging escalation of hostility between the two countries has come to seem almost self-evident. But we should remember that the Iranian issue is one that comes and goes on the public agenda. In 2016-2017, after the nuclear agreement with Iran was signed, the Iranian threat was dislodged from public attention and even from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speeches. It’s not clear, then, what brought about the dramatic rise in tension between Jerusalem and Tehran, which are 2,000 miles apart.

Commentators provide two principal answers to this question. One attributes responsibility to Iran, maintaining that it is secretly continuing to work on its nuclear project, or at least is turning Syria into its frontline outpost. According to this view, the ultimate intention behind these moves is to annihilate Israel. But Iran has already taken direct or indirect steps against Israel, without a military confrontation having been the consequence. The second answer sees the heating up of the situation as a manipulative attempt by Benjamin Netanyahu to distract attention from the criminal investigations that are underway against him. But this answer does not explain why the move is enjoying such broad support from the army, the media and public opinion, without arousing even feeble opposition.

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However, a third explanation can be put forward as well. The reason for the current confrontation with Iran is not any particular act by the regime of ayatollahs, but neither is it a Netanyahu caprice. The reason for the conflict with Iran, according to this theory, is that Israel has become too strong. In this situation, Israel feels ready for a clash with an adversary worthy of it as a regional power, and Iran, for its part, feels more threatened than in the past. The confrontation with Iran is the other side of the atmosphere of arrogance that has dominated Israel in recent months in the wake of its diplomatic successes, above all U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem. After effectively defeating the Palestinians (at least in the current round), Israel needs an enemy at a higher level. And that part is played by Iran.

What put these two countries on a collision course? The Iranian nuclear project was launched back during the period of the shah, and the hostility between the two countries began after the Iranian revolution almost 40 years ago. But it was only in the mid-1990s that the Israeli leadership started to deal intensively with the Israeli nuclear threat. The issue was placed on the agenda by none other than Yitzhak Rabin. In an attempt to persuade the Israeli public of the necessity of an agreement with the Palestinians, Rabin argued that withdrawal from the territories was a relatively minor risk, worth taking to advance peace with countries close by, while on the far horizon lay the “second circle” threat: Iran. Rabin didn’t intend to initiate a war with Iran, but evoked it as part of his case for pursuing peace. However, the “Iranian threat” remained on the table. Iran, for its part, stepped up its support for Hezbollah, Hamas and other forces that fought Israel.

In the meantime, the vision of peace closer to home faded. But under the auspices of the upheavals in the region, and with Trump’s support, Israel succeeded in consolidating its political strength in the region even without peace, working in cooperation with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. Against this background, Israel’s ambition to obtain a monopoly of force in the Middle East grew. In his Independence Day speech last month, Netanyahu declared that Israel was becoming a “rising world power” and promised that admiration of the country was also trickling into the Arab states. In effect, Netanyahu is reviving the tarnished vision of the “New Middle East,” even if in a new, brute-power version suited to the present era.

But don’t expect the state of Likud to lie back and enjoy the fruits of success. Because now, after having ostensibly overcome the Palestinians, Israel feels ready to cope with the distant threat of Iran. That goal dovetails with Netanyahu’s megalomaniacal ideology. He is convinced that Israel’s mission is to lead the world crusade against radical Islam. Naturally this ratchets up the level of the pressure on Iran, which has taken steps of its own to enhance its strategic posture.

Before it’s too late

In his “History of the Peloponnesian War,” Thucydides explained the reason for the war between the cities of Sparta and Athens. Its true cause, the “father of history” wrote, was “the growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm this inspired in Lacedaemon [Sparta].” In this state of affairs, all that’s needed is a small match to spark a great war.

A dramatic change in the balance of forces can bring about a war, even if there is no apparent reason for an encounter. An equally relevant example is found in the relations between Russia and Germany in the period before World War I. No ideological rivalry existed between the two monarchies. The war between them stemmed from a change in the balance of forces, in the wake of Russia’s growing strength in the European arena. Germany felt encircled, and a dominant wing in its leadership thought that it should initiate a preventive war before it was too late. The assassination of the crown prince of the Austro-Hungarian empire was only a pretext.

“Better now than later,” Netanyahu said this week. In this contemporary Middle East equation, it’s not clear who’s playing the part of the German Empire, but the case made by the prime minister this week bears a close resemblance to the one made by the German generals a century ago. Israel’s growing strength, and the fear of Iran’s aggrandizement in the wake of the lifting of the sanctions and the emergence of the vacuum in Syria, is creating a system of mutually reinforcing fears on both sides. Add to this the perpetual cause of wars: the power games of male leaders.

Like a muscleman who works out in a gym and decides he should press a heavier weight; like a gamer who triumphs over the monster in the first phase and hurtles toward the monster in the next phase – just so, Israel is barreling toward a confrontation with the regional power. Israel believes it will emerge from the campaign stronger and will be able to impose its most secret desires without interference.

But it’s not clear whether Israel is truly as strong as we imagine ourselves to be. Growth in power is primarily relative, deriving from the collapse of other regional forces. When push comes to shove, it may turn out that Israel should have stayed on the playing field of the little guys.

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