Analysis

With Trump at His Back, Netanyahu Feels Invincible. But Reality May Soon Come Crashing Down

Jerusalem hopes that the support from Washington will be leveraged into practical achievements against Iran, an intelligence source says

U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu enter the White House as first lady Melania Trump and Sara Netanyahu follow in Washington, U.S., March 5, 2018.
\ KEVIN LAMARQUE/ REUTERS

There are many causes for the series of political and security successes that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chalked up in the past month, but behind them lies one central factor. All these developments – the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Iran, the thwarting (for the time being) of Iranian plans to respond to Israeli attacks in Syria, the transfer of the American embassy to Jerusalem, Hamas’ readiness to discuss a long-term cease-fire in the Gaza Strip after the failure of the “March of Return” to breach the border with Israel – were influenced above all by the behavior of U.S. President Donald Trump.

Trump possesses insufferable character traits, acts capriciously and usually unpredictably, and his term of office may yet be shortened by a whole can of worms, in both the business and the political realms. But there is no longer any doubt that, with his declarations and actions, which appear to be completely coordinated with Netanyahu, he is strengthening Israel’s regional standing and forcing its rivals into a posture of greater caution.

The American president is laying down new, aggressive rules and shattering all the conventions by which things were done (or rather, and mostly, not done) in the international arena during the eight years in office of his predecessor, Barack Obama. And with that tailwind, it’s not surprising that the prime minister feels almost omnipotent. That feeling could be reversed later, in a clash with the limits of reality. The current U.S. administration suffers from many problems, in both planning and execution, and there have been cases in which Trump pinned the responsibility for failure on close friends. In the meantime, though, the power he’s projecting is also affecting the perception by others of Israel’s might.

On May 9, Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted Netanyahu at the Kremlin. A few hours after the prime minister’s return home, Israel launched an aerial attack on both Iranian targets and bases of the regime of Bashar Assad, in response to the firing of Iranian rockets at the Golan Heights. If Putin chose to show restraint in responding to the blow to assets that belong to the alliance supporting Assad – in complete contrast to Moscow’s public condemnation of Israel following a February strike against Syria – the main reason for this would seem to be that Putin sees Netanyahu as the leader who is closest to Trump and who has the greatest influence over him.

A senior intelligence source in Israel told Haaretz this week that Jerusalem hopes that the support from Washington will be translated into other practical achievements against Iran. In the source’s assessment, the primary prospect for this lies in Syria and in the effort to halt the military consolidation that is being led there by the commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Gen. Qasem Soleimani.

“There is no longer any doubt,” the source added, “that Soleimani’s adventurism is of concern to everyone, including some of the people in Tehran. When President Assad gets up in the morning, he is undoubtedly grateful to the Iranians, who saved his life and his regime, but he is also concerned that he will be stuck with them for all time. When Israel attacks Iranian targets inside Syria, the Assad regime is obliged to fire antiaircraft missiles, and then we put half of his air defense batteries out of action. Putin, too, isn’t enthusiastic about the Iranian moves in Syria, which are inducing us [Israel] to take action and endangering the stability of the Damascus regime. And the Iranian leadership has more urgent problems on its hands, notably the interconnection between the economic situation, the domestic protests and the American withdrawal from the nuclear agreement.”

The New York Times on Wednesday reported on the assessment by American arms experts that Iran is again secretly developing missile technology at a desert site in the east of the country. This is part of a plan to manufacture intercontinental missiles, the experts say. The senior intelligence source sees an opportunity now to renew the pressure for a halt to the Iranian missile program and, to a lesser degree, even to extort new concessions from Tehran in the nuclear realm.

This week’s speech by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo set forth 12 extremely tough demands for Iran. Accepting them all would mean the emergence of a completely different Iran than the one we’ve known for the past four decades. The leadership in Tehran is not likely to accede to the demands, so the greater probability is that the United States is aiming to bring about regime change in Iran, by way of new economic sanctions that Pompeo described as being of unprecedented severity. Trump’s new national security adviser, John Bolton, has been urging such a course of action for years. It’s a very ambitious goal, and at the moment it seems unlikely that the administration has an orderly plan for implementing it.

Organizational snafu

How well prepared is the Israeli civilian home front for war? Two speeches within less than a week by senior officers of the Home Front Command before the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee did not offer reassuring news. In the 12 years that have passed since grasping the scale of the threat, when the country was hit by 4,000 Hezbollah rockets in the Second Lebanon War, Israel has spent vast sums to improve protection for civilians and to develop rocket and missile intercept systems. However, large disparities remain in the civil defense alignment in the north.

Home front policy will always be one of risk management, and the security blanket will always be too short to cover all needs. Coping with the rocket threat from the Gaza Strip is easier. The probability of a flare-up there is higher than in the north, as attested to by three large-scale operations in Gaza in the past decade and dozens of short rounds of fighting. But the risk posed by Gaza is smaller, and the costs of civilian protection are correspondingly lower. As a result, the gaps in the south have been closed for the most part.

The head of Home Front Command, Maj. Gen. Tamir Yadai, told the Knesset committee that about 28 percent of Israel’s population, representing about 2.5 million people, lack adequate protection against bombings in their homes. In a different meeting, of a subcommittee headed by MK Amir Peretz (Zionist Union), representatives of the HFC stated that 150,000 homes within 100 kilometers of the northern border lack proper protection. In communities close to the Lebanon border fence, the HFC officers added, a system is needed that will provide a 15-second warning when rockets have been fired, like the system in the communities adjacent to Gaza. That would require, however, an outlay of 100 million shekels ($28 million), which has yet to be allocated.

Army Radio this week reported on an ambitious plan by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman for massive protection of communities in the north up to 45 kilometers from the border. Its estimated cost would be 5 billion shekels ($1.4 billion) over five years. There’s only one problem with the plan: Financing hasn’t been found for it yet. And Lieberman is also still sparring with the Finance Ministry over his demand to add billions to the defense budget, above and beyond the home front needs.

Still, Lieberman took one meaningful step this week, when he approved the recommendations of a committee headed by Maj. Gen. (res.) Avi Mizrahi to rationalize the powers of the different bodies that deal with home front protection. The committee recommended the annulment of a variety of powers held in parallel by both the HFC and the National Emergency Authority, and determined that the latter agency should become a staff body at the national level rather than an operative entity.

The committee found that a fairly major organizational snafu had developed due to large-scale funding. In the past few years the NEA created more and more capabilities for itself, which the HFC also possesses, including a training system and operations rooms, both of which will now be placed under HFC responsibility. This decision comes in the nick of time. A few months ago, the military industries were astounded when the NEA put out feelers about whether they were in need of a special budget to develop new missiles. What does the NEA have to do with missile manufacture? 

It’s to be hoped that by July, when Lieberman announces the appointment of a new NEA head, the boundaries of its activity will be clearer.