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Netanyahu Should Not Be Allowed to Start a War With Iran to Save Himself

The prime minister needs a win in the next elections, and initiating a major conflict with Iran may be his only hope to convince Israelis that there is no alternative to his leadership

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Benjamin Netanyahu shows an illustration as he describes his concerns over Iran's nuclear ambitions during his address to the 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shows an illustration as he describes his concerns over Iran's nuclear ambitions during his address at the UN General Assembly in 2012.Credit: Richard Drew/AP

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to place Israel’s conflict with Iran at the center of his recent election campaigns has been causing much concern that his rhetoric might further inflame tensions with Tehran. Netanyahu presents himself as the only one who can protect Israel from what he describes as an existential threat posed by Iran and believes this could help him garner more support in the March 2 elections.

This time, Netanyahu is running his third election campaign in a year while facing three criminal indictments that could end his political career, and he assumes that a victory at the polls might help him gain immunity from prosecution. The concern is that he could initiate a major armed conflict with Iran in the hope of convincing the Israeli electorate that there is no substitute to his leadership in spite of the costs to Israel of such a war.

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Indeed, Israel’s military operations in Syria and Iraq aimed at stopping Iranian forces and proxies from arming Hezbollah with modern strategic weapons, as well as the build-up of Iranian strategic infrastructure in those countries, may eventually escalate into a vaster military conflict. But Iran’s attempts to retaliate against these strikes have so far been relatively weak and very unsuccessful. An escalation is not inevitable and goes against Israeli interests, so the country should avoid initiating a conflict for internal political reasons.

Most Israelis understand that such a conflict is not in their interest. In recent years, public opinion polls on security matters have repeatedly indicated that a majority of Israelis does not perceive Iran as an existential threat as long as it does not acquire nuclear weapons.

Even then, the majority believes that Iran can be deterred from using nukes, and therefore when an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear installations seemed imminent in 2011-2012 public support for such a strike only went down.

Against this background, the mere existence of public suspicion that Netanyahu could initiate a military escalation to serve his political purposes in the lead-up to the elections may be enough to deter him from entertaining such ideas, because he understands that war with Iran would be a very risky gamble. The odds that he would be hurt politically by a costly campaign with inconclusive results and no unambiguous victory are very high.

The escalation can also be avoided because both states have nothing to gain from such a scenario. It is true that Iran is hostile to Israel and this hostility also serves its ambitions in a Middle East with Arab populations that traditionally oppose Israel, but a major conflict with Israel would not be to Tehran's advantage.

Iran is currently facing many other issues that are higher on its agenda. It is struggling with U.S. sanctions and domestic instability while trying to retain its influence in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, protect Shi'ite minorities abroad and oppose Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf and Yemen.

On the other hand, Israel’s security and political echelons are indeed determined to prevent Iran from arming Hezbollah and building up Iranian strategic capabilities in Syria and Iraq, but believe this can be done cautiously and without a major escalation.

Mutual understanding of the thinking on both sides could be helped by delivering messages between them through third parties and would be very useful in preventing an escalation from becoming inevitable.

This still leaves open the possibility that Israel might initiate a major conflict as a result of a decision to attack Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. But it does not seem that in the few months leading to the Israeli elections Iran will take steps in the nuclear area that would justify such a strike.

Tehran will probably continue to cautiously violate the provisions of the nuclear deal that the United States withdrew from, without creating a perception that it is really resuming its military nuclear program, thus denying Netanyahu a real excuse for a major escalation also in the nuclear domain.

In summary, an escalation is far from inevitable. Toning down the often arrogant and insulting rhetoric used to threaten Iran (Israel’s strikes deliver the message clearly enough) and continuing to carefully plan and consider the steps aimed at countering the Iranian build-up in Israel’s vicinity should be enough to stop an all-out war.

Brig. Gen. (ret.) Shlomo Brom is a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies and was previously a deputy head of Israel’s National Security Council

Shimon Stein Ambassador (ret.) is senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University

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