Netanyahu's Dangerous Failure

Demonstrations of friendship with Putin and Trump did not help when they forged an accord on Syria – and it is a grave strategic blow to Israel

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Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands after their talks in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, Aug. 23, 2017.
Prime Minister Netanyahu, left, with President Putin in Sochi, Russia, on August 23. The Israeli leader returned from talks there empty-handed.Credit: Alexei Nikolsky/Pool Photo via AP
Ephraim Sneh
Ephraim Sneh

Ever since the civil war erupted in Syria, Israel has treated the domestic situation there cautiously and wisely. Its military actions have been limited to intercepting high-quality armament convoys destined for Hezbollah, while it has almost completely refrained from harmful boasting. Humanitarian activity involving helping residents of the Syrian Golan Heights has also been carried out by Israel with only modest media exposure, enough to earn the country some credit among its neighbors.

Although, we must remember, Israel is Syria’s most powerful neighbor, it was not a participant in international peace conferences dealing with the situation in Syria, having been excluded from the discussions held in Geneva and Astana. Iran, by contrast, was invited as an important and legitimate participant.

Recently, things have taken a significant turn for the worse. Contacts between Syria and the United States have led to an agreement that freezes the situation in Syria, with Bashar Assad remaining in power. That was the moment at which Israel should have insisted on entering the negotiations room. However, the government relied on demonstrations of friendship and intimacy with the Putin and Trump administrations, which closed a deal without Israel – without it and in opposition to its interests.

The Russian-American accord leaves an impressive Iranian military presence in Syria. Not only does Hezbollah remain there as an experienced fighting force. So do two other Shi’ite militias, trained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Those are the ones recently referred to by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, when he mentioned that in the next confrontation with Israel his organization would not stand alone.

The new reality in Syria has three serious implications for Israel: the creation of a land bridge from Iran to Syria and Lebanon, through which Iran can transfer large amounts of high-quality weapons without interference; the exposure of Jordan’s northern border to aggression and subversion by the Revolutionary Guards and their emissaries; and the possible deployment of Hezbollah and other pro-Iranian militias along the eastern border of the Golan Heights.

In his book “Palestine,” Iran’s spiritual leader Ali Khamenei explains how Israel will be destroyed: Gradually, all the territories surrounding it will become launching pads for missiles directed at Israel’s population, which will collapse under pressure. The Syrian Golan is the next piece of territory according to Khamenei’s plan.

Over the last two years Benjamin Netanyahu has been trying to show that Israel is not isolated, as the opposition claims. All his trips to Africa and eastern and central parts of Asia were designed to serve petty domestic political interests, not the aim of world-embracing statesmanship. His bureau is promoting a false image according to which the conflict with the Palestinians no longer poses a hurdle to peace with the Arab world. This image of a well-liked Israel is shattered every time the United Nations votes on the Palestinian issue.

The Russian-American accord on Syria is a strategic blow for Israel, one with a high price tag. What happened to the eloquent promise made by Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, who claimed that “Obama is history. Now we have Trump!” The administration in Washington, with which Israel has a special relationship according to Netanyahu’s boasts, has turned its back on Israel and sacrificed its vital interests on the altar of rapprochement with Russia.

Netanyahu has met Vladimir Putin six times in the last two years, holding intimate talks with him. It seemed as if a strategic alliance was quietly being put together under the table, while Russia was outwardly strengthening the Tehran-Damascus axis. Netanyahu returned empty-handed from his last talks with Putin in Sochi. In talks that I held in Europe with knowledgeable sources, I learned that Russia has taken an unequivocal strategic decision to prefer Iranian interests in Syria over Israeli ones.

This is a diplomatic rout for Netanyahu, which could have grave implications. We could have recruited at least Jordan – which is threatened by this situation just as we are – to join our protest against the accord on Syria recently reached by the two powers. But we’ve lost our close relationship with Jordan because of Netanyahu’s heavy-handed and populist conduct with respect to the recent incident in which an Israeli security guard shot two Jordanian citizens.

The change in Syria, which has now received the blessing of the United States and Russia, is very dangerous for Israel. It’s possible that Israel may have to embark on a military operation in Syria. Not only will the military conditions be difficult – the diplomatic ones will be as well. And then where will we turn to for help?

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