Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman traveled to Washington on Wednesday, April 24, as Israel’s last resort for arresting the slide of President Donald Trump’s positions on Iran and Syria. But he was too late. Trump was already caught up in the charm offensive staged by French President Emmanuel Macron for dissuading him from abandoning the Iran nuclear accord on May 12 and, if this proved impossible, to prevent the departure of US forces from Syria. His message will be reinforced by German Chancellor Angela Merkel who is due in DC on Friday. Trump’s decision is still up in the air.
Although Israel has been left out of the US-European loop on these issues, Lieberman made its presence felt in Washington with a stark warning: He told the London-based Saudi Elpah news site, “If Iran should attack Tel Aviv, Israel will strike back at Tehran and demolish every Iranian military site in Syria that threatens our country.” The interview was published on Thursday, April 26, when the defense minister was still in Washington.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu saw no point in bursting through a closed door at the White House and left it to the Defense Minister to try his hand at convincing the new national security adviser John Bolton and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis of the dangers posed by Iran as soon as the Americans were gone from Syria. Two days earlier Gen. Joseph Votel, head of the US Central Command, had visited Israel to present the Trump administration’s case for quitting Syria. Instead of reassuring Israel, his message exacerbated its concerns. We have grouped those concerns under eight headings:
- In the past two weeks, Russia has accelerated its advanced arms shipments to Syria by sea, using the US-British-French strike on Bashar Assad’s chemical facilities on April 13 as the pretext for refreshing and updating the Syrian army’s arsenal. Moscow knows full well that the new weaponry, including the S-300 air defense systems, present a new threat to Israel, but the Kremlin’s overriding consideration is the need to strengthen the depleted Syrian army to buttress the Assad regime against all coming eventualities. Since the S-300’s capabilities pose a challenge to the Israeli air force, Lieberman warned earlier this week that if the new air defense system goes into action against Israeli air force jets, it will be destroyed.
- The Western strike in Syria has also spurred Tehran into opening an air corridor for delivering new arms consignments to Syria and Hizballah.
- Jerusalem is not convinced by the claims broadcast by US and European sources that Iran is in the throes of a crippling economic and monetary crisis and in no condition to start a war with Israel. There is indeed a run on the banks in Tehran and the rial has lost a third of its value since Hassan Rouhani first took power in 2013. Then the dollar was worth 36,000 rials. It has plunged now to 66,000 on the black market. So what? Israel says.
- Because President Trump omitted to make good on his vow of a “sustained” attack in Syria for its chemical warfare and instead announced the withdrawal of US troops, Assad feels he is sitting pretty and Iran has deepened its military presence.
- The understandings forged between Netanyahu and President Vladimir Putin which worked smoothly for three years have been seriously eroded since Putin put restraints on Israeli air force and military activities in Syria.
- Israel looks askance at the Trump plan to bring European and Arab forces to Syria to replace the Americans. Israel has no interest in tangling with French, Egyptian or Saudi forces in Syria, but is skeptical about their willingness to cooperate with Israel in actions for its security.
- Incoming information suggests that President Trump is considering giving Iran certain concessions in his pursuit with the Europeans of a way to enable him to re-certify the nuclear deal on May 12. According to this information, senior Trump administration officials have agreed, in response to weeks of pressure from European leaders on the White House against quitting the deal, to soften its demand for Iran to scrap its entire ballistic missile program on pain of new or re-imposed sanctions. Instead, those officials are said to have agreed to the restriction applying only to the long-range missiles that could reach America. Iran’s huge arsenal of short-range and medium-range missiles that could easily target Israel and the rest of the Middle East would be left intact and unpunished. This report was disclosed by US Sen. Ted Cruz.
If this US concession is confirmed, then the price Israel is paying for Trump’s generosity in acknowledging Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the transfer of the US embassy from Tel Aviv may prove prohibitive. This week, an anonymous senior Israeli official (most likely the prime minister) commented that Israel will be paying an exorbitant price for US recognition of Jerusalem, but Jerusalem is worth any price.
- The harder the US-Russian-European alliance presses Israel on political and military issues, the greater the chances are of Iran using Israel’s international vulnerability for a direct or a proxy attack. Tehran has not given up on evening the score for Israel’s deadly April 9 strike on the Revolutionary Guards command post at the Syrian T-4 air base.