Are Netanyahu’s Threats of War on Iran Serious? And Why a “Regional Conflict?”

Not content with presenting Russian President Vladimir Putin with Israel’s red lines against Iran’s military presence in Syria, Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu spoke of a “regional war” during their three-hour conversation on Wednesday, Aug. 23, at the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
That was the second time in five years that Netanyahu had threatened Iran with war. In 2012, he hoped to forestall President Barack Obama’s drive for a nuclear accord with Iran. The deal eventually struck in 2015 transformed Iran from a bankrupt minor player to a leading Middle East power and a vibrant economic force in the region. Its nuclear program, though temporarily on hold, was never dismantled.
Netanyahu was held back from that attack by Israel’s strongly anti-war military and intelligence leaders, who cornered him into backing down.
Things are slightly different today. The prime minister in his third term of office lives under a constant stream of scathing criticism of his political and personal morality. The generals at the head of Israel’s Defense Forces, the IDF, remain reluctant to attack Iran, either directly or through its allies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. But, in contrast to 2012, the intelligence community is behind him in favoring pre-emptive military action against Iran and Hizballah.
Is that enough support for Netanyahu prime minister to launch direct military action against Israel’s arch-enemies, before the Iranians are more deeply entrenched in Syria?
DEBKA Weekly’s sources are skeptical.
Netanyahu’s overriding policy in his past eight years in office has been to keep Israel out of its neighbors’ conflicts, especially the six-year old Syrian civil war. He has opted for setting up powerful defense barriers around Israel’s borders, massively building up its military strength and cultivating relations with moderate Arab governments.
He has held consistently to a passive course on offensive military action.
Evaluating Israel’s profit margin from this policy, the most prominent outcome is that Israel escaped harm from the turmoil and bloodshed of the regional and civil conflicts besetting the Middle East, and was free to build up its economic and financial strength.
At the same time, Israel’s influence on events outside its high defensive walls dwindled sharply.
This policy was partly aligned with elements of the Obama approach to the Middle East. Today, too, Jerusalem matches Donald Trump’s disinclination to take a hand in the Syrian conflict.
Israel’s hands-off policy in Syria has been exploited to the hilt by Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Hizballah’s Hassan Nasrallah, and the Revolutionary Guards general, Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iranian forces in Iraq and Syria.
Towards the end of 2013, two years into the Syrian civil war, Khamenei ordered Hizballah to send troops over to rescue Bashar Assad’s regime which had its back to the wall. He calculated correctly that Netanyahu would not interfere, because Israel’s military leaders reckoned – erroneously as it turned out – that it was better for the Lebanese Shiite terrorists to be ground down and weakened in the fierce Syria war than be available for fighting Israel.
Then in 2015, after that exercise passed without Israeli interference, Tehran started deploying to Syria Shiite militias from Afghanistan and Pakistan, at around the same time as Russia boosted its military intervention in support of the Assad regime.
Then, too, Israel refrained from stepping in. By now, those militias have swelled to around 100,000 fighting men.
This year, following Trump’s decision to stay out of the Syrian conflict, Tehran took its expansionist drive another major step forward by flooding the Iraqi and Syrian borders with pro-Iranian Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units (PMU).
With all these Iranian moves in place, Netanyahu told Putin on Wednesday that Israel was ready to go to war to prevent Iran from gaining control of Syria through its proxies and stooges.
Even if he meant what he said, it is hard to see how Israeli forces can come to grips with Shiite militias and Hizballah that are widely scattered across Syria and Lebanon.
So why did the Israel prime minister commit himself to a threat of aggression and what did he mean by a regional war? After all, the various armed conflicts bedeviling the Middle East in recent years have not so far spilled over into any regional war.
One answer may be found in President Trump’s warnings against a potentially nuclear-armed Iran. Netanyahu’s reference to a regional war indicates that he is harking back to the initiative he was forced to abandon five years ago – namely, a military strike at Iran’s nuclear facilities, that would be joined at some point by the United States.
However, that option is still very far down the road.
Meanwhile, by cutting through from Lebanon into Syria, Iran’s pawn Hizballah has gained strategic depth and a military edge over Israel. Tehran is uncomfortably close at hand for striking deep into Israel, while the Jewish state lacks a comparable capability against Iran.

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