Israel, Iran, and Trump: Behind the Rhetoric
JNS.org – Referring to a Talmudic dictum relating to self-defense, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a video clip on Sunday morning, explaining the preemptive strike launched by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in Syria on Saturday night.
“If someone rises up to kill you, kill him first,” he began, before uncharacteristically acknowledging that the IDF was behind the airstrikes, which were carried out after the Israeli defense establishment discovered that a special Quds Force unit was dispatched by Iran to Syria to murder Israelis on the Golan Heights with explosives-laded drones.
Standing next to a somber-looking IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, Netanyahu stressed that the “complex” military operation was undertaken to thwart a “very imminent” Iranian threat, and declared that Israel would continue to uncover and prevent further such plans by the regime in Tehran.
In a veiled reference to Lebanon — home base of the Iranian terrorist proxy Hezbollah — Netanyahu then warned, “Any country that enables the use of its territory for attacks on Israel will suffer the consequences.”
The significance of this remark, which was also aimed at the powers-that-be in Damascus and Baghdad, cannot be understated. During the 2006 Second War in Lebanon, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stated, reiterated and kept his word that only Hezbollah was the IDF’s target. Of course, since Hezbollah, like all terrorist groups, used innocent civilians and facilities as shields, this made Israel’s mission nearly impossible.
Furthermore, Hezbollah was not merely a rogue group taking advantage of Lebanese soil from which to kidnap and slaughter innocent Israelis. On the contrary, it was and still is a prominent member of the Lebanese government. Netanyahu’s threat to Beirut, therefore, was as justified as it was necessary.
In response to the IDF airstrikes and Netanyahu’s warnings, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah went rhetorically ballistic. From the safety of his upscale underground bunker, of course.
“What happened in Syria and Lebanon last night is very, very dangerous,” Nasrallah announced on Sunday night, his voice booming and index finger wagging for special effect. Netanyahu, he said, “would be mistaken to think that this issue can go unnoticed. The time when Israeli war jets struck targets in Lebanon while the usurping entity in Palestine was kept safe has ended. From tonight, I tell the Israeli army on the border: ‘Wait for our response, which may take place at any time on the border and beyond the border. Be prepared and wait for us.’”
There’s nothing new about Nasrallah’s doomsday promises, which usually amount to little more than grandstanding. Though needing to reassure Iran and his Shi’ite base elsewhere that he is capable of obliterating Israel with little effort — by bombing Haifa’s ammonia plants or Dimona’s nuclear facility, for example — he knows full well that he and his henchmen are no match for the IDF, especially with Netanyahu as Israel’s leader and current defense minister.
Nevertheless, Netanyahu takes Nasrallah’s words as seriously as his deeds. Particularly since the Hezbollah head takes orders from Tehran, which was behind the rockets from Gaza this week, as well as indirectly responsible for the bomb that killed 17-year-old Rina Shnerb and wounded her father and brother while the family was on a holiday hike in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank).
US Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo both spoke to Netanyahu on Monday, and expressed American support for Israel’s “right to defend itself.”
Imagine Netanyahu’s surprise (if not dismay) when on the very same day, Donald Trump told reporters at the G-7 summit in Biarritz that he would be meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in the coming weeks “under the right circumstances.”
Waxing poetic about Iran’s “tremendous potential,” Trump hinted that he would be open to renegotiating the nuclear deal with Tehran and stated outright that he was not seeking a change in the mullah-led regime.
Until now, Netanyahu had faith that Washington would be his key ally in any confrontation with the Islamic Republic. It was Trump, after all, who withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the horrible agreement between world powers led by former president Barack Obama and Iran’s mullahs.
Following Trump’s apparent softening, the question raised across the Israeli political spectrum was whether or not he had shifted his position on Iran.
Was he suddenly mimicking his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron? Was he going to behave with Rouhani as he had with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un? Or was he only pretending to seem more diplomatic, with an eye to the 2020 presidential election?
Without reacting specifically to Trump’s comments, a stone-faced Netanyahu released another video in which he reiterated his assertion that Iran has been operating on various fronts against Israel and called on the international community to act to “act immediately to ensure that Iran ceases these attacks.”
It is not likely that Netanyahu has anything to worry about where Trump is concerned, however.
In the first place, the American president said that he had no intention of lifting sanctions on Iran. So, as was the case where his “buddy” in Pyongyang was concerned, no appeasement towards Rouhani is on the horizon.
Secondly, he was adamant that a precondition for any negotiations with Tehran would be its agreement to “no nuclear weapons and no ballistic missiles.”
Third, Rouhani replied by saying that he would not talk to Trump without a lifting of sanctions. The predictable impasse means that there will be no change in the status quo.
No, it’s not Netanyahu who needs to fear a flip-flopping Trump at this stage, but rather the Iranian people. It was they who were just sent a loud and clear message from the White House that the United States would not help them overthrow their evil regime, even indirectly.
It was “déjà vu all over again” for the population so brazenly abandoned by the Obama administration in favor of the world’s greatest terror-masters.
Let us hope that Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, is able to persuade his boss that Iranian weapons are only part of the battle. As he and Netanyahu are both keenly aware, without new leadership in Tehran — one not governed by a desire for global Shi’ite hegemony and jihadi fighters to carry it out — the West cannot rest.
Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring’.