Above all, Netanyahu, despite his nationalist posturing and self-proclaimed “Mr Security” image, is mainly a political operator and survivor with minimal-to-zero long-term objectives or vision. In the good old tradition of the far right, he understands the value of domestic and external enemies when clinging to power. And a recent police investigation into his and his wife’s alleged corruption and misuse of public funds has intensified his siege mentality.
Last’s week’s opening of the Knesset’s winter session, after the hiatus of a long summer and Jewish holidays, provided him with the perfect platform to position himself as the innocent victim of a smear campaign by the left and the media, and then to elevate the danger of Iran’s presence in Syria above that of Tehran’s nuclear program. The latter was not a passing remark, but a new and potentially dangerous trend that could lead to an intensification of military clashes with the Syrian army, Iranian affiliated groups such as Hezbollah, or even Iranian military personnel present in Israel’s troubled north-eastern neighbor.
It is not only Netanyahu, but also his hawkish Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman who has upped the ante. Lieberman threatened this year to destroy Syrian air defense systems “without the slightest hesitation” after they targeted Israeli warplanes on a bombing mission. Last week he accused Iran’s ally of deliberately firing rockets from Syria into the Israeli occupied Golan Heights in an attempt to “drag Israel into battle.” He told his party members that this wasn’t just a spillover from the war in Syria but, “a personal and direct order from Hassan Nasrallah,” Hezbollah’s leader. Astonishingly, there was no confirmation from Israeli military intelligence of these blunt accusations. Instead, the Israeli response was swift, striking three Syrian artillery vehicles. In the past, when Israel responded with military force to such attacks, it did not attribute deliberate intention, and did not always feel obliged to retaliate. But last week’s events have intrinsically increased the risk of escalation and open hostilities.
The combination of increasing incidents of a military nature, the claim that these are deliberate provocations on the part of the Syria–Iran–Hezbollah axis, and an Israeli prime minister who is rattled by a police investigation that might lead to fresh elections, is a potentially explosive one. It has led to heightened tension and has been exacerbated on both sides by the exchange of vitriolic threats. Between the tensions on the ground and the language used by the top echelons of all parties involved, a war that neither side has an interest in is not beyond the realm of possibility.
Strategically Israel has been content, as long as the war in Syria was finely balanced, to see President Bashar Assad remain in power as long as he is not strong enough to pose a military threat to Israel. But as the war unfolded it came with a price for Israel — that of a better equipped and war-experienced Hezbollah. Furthermore, that group’s fighters and paymasters from Tehran are within sight of the Golan Heights border. The near collapse of Daesh and the restoration of the Damascus regime’s control of two-thirds of Syrian territory creates a new reality.
Benjamin Netanyahu has never placed intelligent strategy above his personal and political problems, and his instinct for self-preservation may lead to a conflict that no one can win.
Iran is eyeing a land corridor through Iraq and Syria all the way to Lebanon. The working assumption of the Israeli security establishment is that the probability of confrontation with Hezbollah is real, and would result in many casualties, mainly civilians. Any direct and easier access to Lebanon by the group that Israel regards as its arch-enemy is a recipe for a more proactive Israeli involvement in Syria. Escalating the war of words could drag Israel into a quagmire it has thus far sensibly managed to avoid. It might also be the case that in view of the Trump administration’s constant pressure to rescind the Iran nuclear deal, Netanyahu feels that, unlike during the Obama years in the White House, such a move now would leave the issue in “safe” hands, and in this case Israel can take a back seat and concentrate on the Iranian involvement in Syria and Lebanon.
The former military commander of Israel’s Northern Zone, Major-General Amiram Levin, warned last week in an opinion piece for a major Israeli newspaper that Netanyahu lacked statesmanship qualities and was surrounded by people who lacked experience in matters of security, lacked diplomatic discretion, were devoid of a sense of political balance, and all this “alongside arrogance and a disregard of our enemies” that could have disastrous consequences.
The threat of confrontation is not imaginary — it is a real one. However, to deal with it sensibly will require less inflammatory language and bravado, and more cooperation with regional and international actors. This is true for any conventional confrontation as much as the nuclear issue. However, in the next few months strategic calculations are going to be diluted by political and personal ones aimed at diverting attention from the personal hole the Netanyahus appear to have dug for themselves, and appeasing the extreme right views of coalition members, alongside increasing Iranian ambitions in the region — a menacing mix that could end in a confrontation that neither side wants or is capable of winning.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. Twitter: @YMekelberg