Opinion

Is Iran Really a Threat to Israel From Syria?

Nobody is asking whether Iran really has an interest in turning Syria into a base for attacking Israel, or in embroiling Lebanon in another round of violence. A new war would seriously undermine the rebuilding of Israel's enemies to the north

Hezbollah fighters in Syria, August 23, 2017.
OMAR SANADIKI/REUTERS

The defense minister is demanding that the defense budget be increased by 4.8 billion shekels ($1.4 billion) and has cited the consolidation of Iran’s presence in Syria as one of his reasons. The flaccid public debate over this demand reflects the Israeli public’s characteristic retreat from its obligation to debate the principles of defense policy and how it is implemented. This obligation stems from the principle that the army is subordinate to the collective will of the civilian community.

For now, let’s ignore the question (which isn’t being asked) of what military plan Avigdor Lieberman is proposing in order to cope with the new Iranian threat, and for which he is seeking this extra funding. Before we get to that, we ought to ask a more fundamental question: Has Israel’s security situation really been worsened by the Iranian deployment? I don’t have a definitive answer to that; my criticism focuses on the fact that there hasn’t been any discussion of this question, or of the steps required to address it.

In Israel’s public debate, which is nourished primarily by advocates of military thinking, the existence of the “Iranian threat” needs no proof. Therefore, Iran’s presence in a region close to Israel is also seen as a self-evident threat. In the face of this gut instinct, there has been no critical discussion of several questions.

The first is whether Israel doesn’t have a clear interest in Syria not disintegrating, since if it did disintegrate, militias would operate from its territory without any political responsibility to exercise a restraining influence. An Iranian presence, especially along the border with Israel, would likely contribute to stabilizing a responsible sovereign authority in Syria rather than undermining it.

In the background of Israel’s view of the “Iranian threat” hovers contempt for the Trump administration’s responsible policy of opting to end the Syrian civil war rather than continuing to feed it by supporting the rebels, as Trump’s predecessor did.

Another question is what Iran’s interests are. The automatic tendency is to think that Iran’s sole interest is furthering its struggle against Israel and to ignore its efforts to normalize its relationship with the Western world.

Nobody is asking whether Tehran really has an interest in turning Syria into a base for attacking Israel, or in embroiling Lebanon, via Hezbollah, in another round of violence. A new war would seriously undermine all the steps that have been taken to rebuild Lebanon, as well as those that will be taken in Syria if the civil war in fact ends.

And of course, in the spirit of the military discourse that is customary here, the question of what diplomatic alternatives Israel has at its disposal to resolve its conflict with Lebanon has never even arisen. That conflict is the reason why Iran’s involvement is seen as increasing the potential for the outbreak of a third Lebanon war, or as increasing the harm to Israel should such a war erupt. The UN secretary general has called for resolving this border conflict, and he has accused Israel, too, rather than Hezbollah alone, of responsibility for the deterioration in the situation, due to the flights it conducts in Lebanese airspace.

The public also hasn’t asked what will ensue from Israel’s aggressive demand to set red lines for Iranian involvement. The talk of “red lines” frequently embodies the absurd idea that in order to remove a potential threat, we should turn it into an actual threat by escalating the situation into a war, which would exact a heavy price. Yet the very people who would pay this price are refraining from discussing it.

The public’s silence on an issue like this is tantamount to the civilian community ceding its sovereignty. And that is a greater threat than any Iranian presence in the region.