Although Prime Minister Netanyahu is known for his focus on the Palestinian and Iranian threats to Israel’s national security, in recent months he has increasingly sounded the alarm over Iran in particular rather than the Palestinians. As the defeat of ISIS in both Iraq and Syria is all but inevitable, Netanyahu’s main concern now is that Iran will insist on maintaining a strong foothold in Syria by establishing a significant military presence as recompense for its continuing support of the Assad regime throughout the civil war. This, of course, should not come as a surprise to Netanyahu or anyone else familiar with Iran’s ambitions to become the region’s hegemon, as it views Syria as the linchpin that will preserve its influence from the Gulf to the Mediterranean.
For Netanyahu, however, to put the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the back burner, is a terrible mistake. In fact, because of the increasing Iranian threat, Netanyahu should do everything in his power to negotiate a peace agreement with the Palestinians now in the context of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. In so doing, he will not only neutralize the Palestinian threat but potentially mitigate the Iranian menace at least to a certain degree; otherwise, he will simply continue to play into Iran’s hand.
Iran’s involvement in Syria is not new and precedes the civil war by several decades. What is new, however, is that Tehran is now determined to establish—in addition to Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon—a third front in Syria against Israel.
Israel’s high military command are particularly concerned about the possibility that once hostilities break out between Israel and Hamas, it could potentially be joined by Hezbollah (or vice versa), and Iran may decide to join the foray or instigate the hostilities in the first place and force Israel to fight on three fronts. This would also provide the Palestinians in the West Bank the opportunity to rise against the occupation.
In a speech at the Foreign Ministry commemorating the Israelis who were killed in the 1992 embassy bombing in Argentina (in which Iran was implicated), Netanyahu statedthat “The regime in Tehran aspires to plant its flag atop the ruins of the free world. It continues to threaten to annihilate Israel.”
Although Netanyahu realizes that he cannot persuade the Trump administration to revoke the Iran nuclear deal, he wants to make certain that Washington remains attentive to Iran’s mischievous and destabilizing conduct in the region and continues to hold Iran accountable to its commitment to fully adhere to the deal.
In addition, Netanyahu wants to ensure that Washington understands the danger that emanates from Iran’s military presence in Syria by establishing a base not far from the city of Quneitra, only a few miles from the border of the Golan Heights. To that end, he also conferred with Russia’s President Putin, expressing in no uncertain terms that Israel will not tolerate such an outcome once ISIS is defeated.
It should be noted that while ISIS’ defeat is all but certain, by all military calculations it will take at least six months to bring about its demise. In the interim, Iran is systematically consolidating its presence in Syria by increasing its military hardware, including short- and medium-range rockets, with no objection from Assad, who views Iran’s continuing presence for the foreseeable future as pivotal to his hold on power.
Although Moscow and/or Washington may support Netanyahu’s position, neither can do much about it now as the war against ISIS continues with the participation of Iran. In addition, Tehran is carrying on with the transfer of an array of weapons to Hezbollah, including rockets. In spite of the fact that Israel has and continues to intercept and destroy many such weapons shipments, significant quantities still manage to reach their destination in Lebanon.
It is now estimated that between Hamas and Hezbollah, they have nearly 200,000 short- and medium-range rockets; many of them can reach any target in Israel from Metula in the north to Eilat in the southern tip. Together, they can rain more than a thousand rockets each day for nearly seven months.
Given the increasing tension between Israel and Hamas, and with Hezbollah, a major breakout of hostilities cannot be ruled out. Although Israel’s Defense Forces are not oblivious to such a possibility, they are faced with a nightmarish scenario regardless of how and when such a conflagration may occur.
Even though Israel’s air defense system is one of the most sophisticated in the world, Israel will still be unable to intercept all incoming rockets. Out of the thousand rockets Hamas and Hezbollah can fire daily, a few dozen could still land on many Israeli urban centers, causing hundreds of casualties and massive structural damage, especially in areas where shelters are either limited or do not exist.
In addition, businesses would be closed for weeks, supplies of food and medicine will become increasingly scarce, schools will be shut, and hospitals will be overwhelmed. Moreover, the military will be stretched, especially if Israel ends up invading Gaza and Lebanon while bombing Iranian installations in Syria, overpowering the Palestinian uprising, and protecting settlers in the West Bank.
To prevent such a nightmarish scenario, the Israeli government may feel that they are justified to conduct widespread bombing on all three fronts. Given the fact that much of Hezbollah and Hamas’ rockets are embedded in civilian communities, there will likely be tens of thousands of civilian casualties. Moreover, attacks against Israel by Iranian forces in Syria may well force Israel to bomb targets in Iran, focusing in the main on the country’s nuclear installations.
How the Arab world, Europe, the US, and Russia will react is hard to predict. One thing, however, is clear: much of the Middle East will be on fire and it will be hard to fathom how perilous the consequences will be.
Yes, Israel will technically win the war, but it will be the most devastating victory in the annals of warfare in modern times.
This may seem like an unlikely scenario, but the probability of it is increasing every day. If Netanyahu is truly concerned about Iran establishing a permanent military base in Syria from which it can seriously threaten Israel’s national security as he professes, he cannot rule out such a terrifying possibility.
His seriousness about the Iranian threat is now tested by his action or inaction on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I maintain that there is no better time to look very carefully at the two state-solution to be preceded by a process of reconciliation, in the context of a comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace, especially now that the Arab states share his concerns about the Iranian threat.
More than any time before, the Arab states led by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, and Qatar are in a position to exert significant influence over the Palestinian Authority and Hamas to enter into serious negotiations, provided that Israel shows a genuine appetite for real peace.
Netanyahu and some of his recalcitrant ministers can demonstrate that by first stating that Israel has no intentions of annexing more Palestinian territories, and second by declaring a moratorium on the expansion of settlements for at least one year.
If Netanyahu’s coalition partners do not support such an initiative, he should have the courage to fire them and establish a new government with the left and center parties that support a negotiated peace with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu has only paid lip service to the idea of a Palestinian state, but if Israel’s very existence is on the line because of the Iranian threat as he persistently asserts, he has the capacity and public support to pursue that objective. He has a propitious opportunity to forge peace and usher in a more promising and secure future that Jews in and outside Israel are yearning for.
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU