Opinion |

Netanyahu Heads to Moscow as Battle Commander, Not Statesman

On each of its troubled fronts, Israel is employing strictly tactical force. It has no long-term plans or policies

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attending the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, on Sunday.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attending the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, on Sunday.Credit: Abir Sultan/AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will arrive in Moscow on Wednesday as a battalion commander rather than a statesman, and certainly not as the leader of a regional power. For on each of Israel’s troubled fronts, it is employing strictly tactical force. It has no long-term plans or policies.

In Syria, its goal is to remove Iran. But Israel has no modus operandi other than random airstrikes – which are highly unlikely to cause Iran to leave and could lead to violent conflict.

What if Iran refuses to withdraw its forces? Is Netanyahu prepared to launch an all-out war? Has he convinced the public that this is the only solution?

His embraces with Russian President Vladimir Putin demonstrate collegiality and a strategic partnership. But at the same time, Russia is only allowing Israel to attack tactical targets in Syria, like arms convoys or missile bases, and only as long as those attacks don’t hinder its diplomatic moves.

>> Netanyahu may offer Putin: Remove Iran from Syria for lifting of U.S. snactions on Russia | Analysis

At any moment, Russia could set new rules of the game and present Israel with an ultimatum. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has already made it clear that demanding an Iranian withdrawal of all its forces from Syria is unrealistic.

Thus Netanyahu will have to think up a way to retreat from his adamant positions and make do with an Iranian withdrawal to a depth of a few dozen kilometers from the border in the Golan Heights. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s resumption of control over most of Syria, and the Golan in particular, will also require a fundamental diplomatic rethinking – one that would enable an agreement to be reached, even if indirectly, about the future of military relations between Israel and Syria. But while such thinking may be engaging the government’s professional staffers, it doesn’t exist in the cabinet.

The diplomatic vacuum on the Syrian front also characterizes the Gaza front. The discussion moves on an axis between the numbers of trucks to be allowed into the Gaza Strip in exchange for the return of the bodies of two Israeli soldiers and coming up with inventions to fight the incendiary kites or launching counterstrikes by the air force. The latest brutal and instinctive reaction, the closure of the Kerem Shalom crossing between Israel and Gaza, was meant solely to put out the fire.

There are quite a few proposals for reconstruction, economic development and forging coordinated agreements between Hamas and Israel such as a long-term truce, but what there isn’t is a policy. As on the Syrian front, the main concern is whether or not war will break out rather than how to prevent a war.

The Israel Defense Forces are prepared for any scenario, Netanyahu says. But this hollow slogan ought to worry every Israeli. It attests to Israel’s haplessness, its complete lack of initiative, its ineffectual waiting for the other side to present its “scenario.” Only then will Israel demonstrate its ability, or lack thereof, to cope with this scenario.

What is true in Gaza and Syria is also true in the West Bank. The strategy is at the level of a company commander. Who will replace Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas? What will happen if the Palestinian Authority collapses? Nada. What’s important is how to fight incitement, and how much money to deduct from the taxes Israel collects on the PA’s behalf due to its payments to the families of people who have been imprisoned or killed.

The government’s idea of “policy” relies on bureaucratic actions. Faced with strategic scenarios and a risk of war, in Syria or in Gaza, the solutions are pinpoint – here a few bombs, there a few drones, and of course, closing the Kerem Shalom crossing. Israel is good at checkpoints. It’s an excellent gate guard.

For even when Israel defines a kite as a strategic threat, it seeks solutions only from the military filing cabinet and nothing beyond that. And even when it presents Iran’s presence in Syria as an existential threat that justifies all-out war, it absolves itself of the need to explain why it doesn’t attack Hezbollah’s 100,000 missiles in Lebanon.

Are Hezbollah’s missiles any less dangerous than Iranian missiles in Syria? No, but sending planes to bomb Syria is easier than attacking Lebanon. Pinpoint bombings also make it easy to create the impression that Israel has a policy and a strategy, without taking too much of a risk.

The IDF is prepared for various scenarios, but the government isn’t. And that is the true threat.

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