Analysis

Unhappy With Iraq Strikes, U.S. Outs Israel

Israeli strikes on Iran targets will undermine relations with Baghdad, Washington fears ■ What Netanyahu's silence on Trump's 'disloyal Jews' means for the fight against Tehran

U.S. outs Israel over anti-Iran strikes in Iraq. pictured: Netanyahu and an Israeli F-35
GPO

UPDATE: Israel strikes Syria, says it foiled Iranian drone attack

The media in Iraq reported last Tuesday on mortar fire on a Shi’ite militia base supported by Iran, north of Baghdad. The incident occurred after a series of mysterious explosions in recent weeks in various Shi’ite militia arms depots in the Iraqi capital and in the western part of the country. The Iraqi government, which carefully played down the importance of the incidents at first, is no now longer able to ignore them. On Wednesday, the Shi’ite militias directly blamed Israel. In the Arab press there were also reports, the reliability of which is questionable, concerning American-Russian agreement to allow Israel to continue attacks in Iraq.

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It is doubtful the Americans are pleased with repeated attacks that undermine their relations with an important ally, Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi, at a time that is sensitive in any case.

On Thursday night, they decided to out Israel. U.S. officials told The New York Times that "Israel is responsible for the strikes" and "pushing the limits", and warned that the heightened tensions stoked between Washington and Baghdad may lead Iraq to demand that the United States withdraws its troops from the country. However, Israel is continuing to declare that it will strike hard at the Iranians wherever it sees fit. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has avoided referring directly to the incident, scattered heavy hints about Israel’s responsibility during his visit in Ukraine. "We will act — and currently are acting — against them, wherever it is necessary," he told reporters. When asked whether Iraq is also a target for attacks, Netanyahu replied as though he were U.S. President Donald Trump, who views the state he heads and himself as one and the same: “I am not limiting myself.”

However, during the past 10 days Trump, who has quoted enthusiastically on Twitter someone’s definition of him as “King of Israel,” has again demonstrated the extent to which he is liable to become a shaky pillar of support, if and when things go wrong. First he dragged Netanyahu into the farce over refusing to allow two congresswomen from the Democratic Party, Rashida Talib and Ilhan Omar, to enter Israel. And on Tuesday, determined to leverage his campaign into identifying the two extremist politicians with the Democrats as a whole, the president declared that Jews who vote for Democrats show “either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.” Netanyahu, together with his government ministers and his sycophants, maintained silence. We can understand why: Trump is not Barack Obama, whom the prime minister insulted in his speech in Congress against the signing of the nuclear agreement with Iran in 2015. Netanyahu’s silence signals what is to come: Even if Trump, for his own reasons, changes his mind with regard to the Iranian issue, which for Netanyahu is critical, the prime minister will have difficulty clashing with him.

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Netanyahu pushed Trump into the decision about the American withdrawal from the nuclear agreement in May 2018. Presumably at the bottom of his heart the prime minister built on two possible scenarios: either a deteriorating military situation leading to an American attack on nuclear sites, or an extensive move culminating in the toppling of the regime in Iran. (This is the bottom line, implied but not stated, in the 12-point document for applying pressure on Iran that was presented more than a year ago by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.) Actually, Netanyahu could encounter one of the two scenarios in the opposite direction.

Trump could fall for an Iranian charm offensive, succumb to compliments on Twitter and convene a summit meeting that culminates in an American return to the nuclear agreement, with minor changes, on the eve of the presidential election in the United States next year. And by the same token, the Iranians could be encouraged by Trump’s clear lack of willingness to enter into a military confrontation and decide down the road to violate the nuclear agreement in a crude way, and even withdraw from it, on the assumption that this would not be met by strongly punitive measures.

One might have expected the prime minister to be engaged now in preparing for the two more pessimistic scenarios from his perspective, and defining for himself the red lines that if crossed would necessitate an Israeli intervention. Instead, he is a veritable fountain gushing words of praise for Trump, threats on Iran and political tricks, the aim of which is victory in the September 17 election and extrication from the legal threat to his future.

The changes in the strategic picture vis-à-vis Iran could also affect the Israel Defense Forces’ budgetary priorities and force-building plans. At the base of the “Gideon” multi-year plan, formulated by former chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot, was the assumption that the nuclear agreement with Iran created a window of opportunity for several years, enabling the IDF to focus on improving its capabilities in other areas, among them dealing with threats from Hezbollah and Hamas. In the past, former prime minister Ehud Olmert claimed the IDF had invested about 12 billion shekels (nearly $3.5 billion) in preparing for an attack on Iran, under orders from Netanyahu and his defense minister, Ehud Barak. If it looks like there is a possibility of renewed escalation despite Trump’s lack of willingness, this is a scenario that also necessitates special military preparedness.

The timing is far from ideal for Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, who is trying to formulate a multi-year plan in a situation of considerable budgetary uncertainty. Kochavi is dealing with a double whammy: On the one hand the Finance Ministry’s declared intention to cut the national budget, specifically the defense budget, after the election. On the other hand, there is the desire to formulate extensive reforms in the IDF, especially in upgrading the capabilities of the ground forces. Now a third element could enter the picture – renewed focus on Iran, certainly in light of Netanyahu’s years-long obsession with the Tehran threat.

Smoke rises in Gaza City after an Israeli airstrike, August 9, 2014.
Dusan Vranic/AP