For many years, Israel faced the danger of a nuclear Iran alone. More correctly, it was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as an almost lone voice in the wilderness, who warned the world of the danger emanating from Tehran. He came in for criticism from all sides, including in Israel, for it. He was accused of being obsessed with the Iranian danger and of sowing needless panic.
These voices grew louder after Iran signed its 2015 nuclear deal with the United States and the other permanent members of the UN Security Council as well as with Germany. Then he was accused of attempting to sabotage an agreement that was presumably beneficial to everyone. When he called on the U.S. Senate, in a speech before a joint session of the U.S. Congress, not to ratify the agreement, he provoked the anger of President Barack Obama. In Israel, the Israeli prime minister was accused of ruining relations with the United States.
The agreement was not ratified as a treaty but was implemented by Obama as an executive order. Even those in Israel who were critical of the agreement said that Israel would have to live with it, and that it was better than no agreement at all.
In the wake of the agreement, with the assistance of the resources that the agreement made available to them, the Iranians began establishing themselves in Syria, with their forces approaching the Israeli border. It was clear to every Israeli that Israel would have to confront this danger. Whatever the risks of escalation, the Iranian advance in Syria would have to be stopped, and only Israel was prepared to do it. In facing the Iranians in Syria, Israel was alone.
That was until President Donald Trump announced this month that the United States was pulling out of the nuclear deal. This dramatic announcement was the result of discussions that had taken place at the White House. It was influenced by Netanyahu’s major revelations the week before about Iran’s preparations for the development of ballistic missiles to be armed with nuclear warheads. Trump referred to Netanyahu’s presentation in his announcement.
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Netanyahu had come in for considerable criticism about his presentation — that it was purportedly no more than the usual “Netanyahu theatrics.” It was said that he had presented nothing new, that there was no “smoking gun” there and that it provided no reason for abandoning the nuclear deal. But that is not the way Trump interpreted it, and that is what counted in the final analysis.
In his announcement on America’s withdrawal from the agreement, Trump emphasized the expanding Iranian presence in the Middle East that had been enabled by the nuclear deal and the danger that this poses to the world. Trump was reading from the same page as Netanyahu. It was clear that, in facing Iran, Israel was no longer alone. It now had the backing of the most powerful country in the world. It was welcome to hear that France, Britain and Germany criticized the recent Syrian attack against Israel and that they defended Israel’s right to defend itself. Trump’s position has seemingly influenced the Europeans’ attitude toward the Israeli-Iranian conflict.
The confrontation between Israel and Iran, with Israeli attacks against Iranian bases and installations in Syria and the unsuccessful Iranian attempt to attack Israeli bases in the Golan Heights, seems to be over for the time being. There may be more to come. It may even escalate beyond the recent exchange of fire. It is good to know that Israel now has the backing of the Americans.
The United States may stick to Trump’s announced policy of pulling its troops out of Syria and may very well prefer not to assist Israel directly in its confrontation with the Iranians in Syria. Yet if the fighting were to be renewed, the rulers in Tehran would have to take into account the possibility of direct American involvement on Israel’s side. That may restrain their plans to attack Israel.
Netanyahu’s persistent warnings about the Iranian danger have resulted in a substantial improvement in Israel’s security position. Even his most ardent critics will have to admit that.