Why Netanyahu Backtracked on Engaging Iran in Syria and Turned to Gaza

On the face of it, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu came out of the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki with shining colors, as the first Israeli leader to draw the presidents of the two rival global powers into a joint commitment for Israel’s security, coupled with high praise for himself.

At their press conference in Helsinki, Vladimir Putin noted to reporters that, during their two-hour one-on-one, President Donald Trump paid particular attention to Israel’s security needs. With regard to Syria, he said, the task of establishing peace and reconciliation could be the first showcase example of successful joint work. He then revealed that he and Trump had agreed that Israel’s border with Syria should be secured according to the terms of the 1974 separations of forces agreement for the Golan.

(Read the lead article in this issue for details of their secret deal.)

President Trump then said: “We both spoke with Bibi (pet name) Netanyahu and they would like to do certain things with respect to Syria, having to do with the safety of Israel. Both countries will work jointly. Creating safety for Israel is something that both President Putin and I would like to see very much.” In another comment, Trump said: “A very good conclusion for Israel, something very strong, He (Putin) is a believer in Israel, he is a fan of Bibi. He is really helping him a lot and will help him a lot, which is good for all of us.”

The prime minister’s office in Jerusalem first commended the “abiding commitment of the US and President Donald Trump to Israel’s security,” then added: “Prime Minister Netanyahu also very much appreciates the security coordination between Israel and Russia and Putin’s clear position on the need to uphold the 1974 agreement between Israel and Syria.”

Netanyahu had every reason to pat himself on the back. He was not only persona grata in both Washington and Moscow – a rare position for an Israeli leader – but he was advantageously placed to serve as go-between for Putin and Trump on Iran and possibly other key issues relating to the Middle East.

This diplomatic feat, however, has three drawbacks for Israel:

One: The prime minister had to drop, without explanation, the slogan he thundered almost daily which singled out the uprooting of Iran and its satellites from Syria as the primary goal of Israeli policy. This slogan vanished from his rhetoric after his last interview with Putin in Moscow on July 11 – apparently unnoticed by the general public. An outcry may be lacking because most people were not aware of the full connotations for Israel of the 1974 Golan separation of forces agreement, which Netanyahu has been touting instead.

It means that Israel has formally accepted the positioning of Syrian government forces along its northern border. And since Hizballah and the Shiite militias, under Iranian Revolutionary Guards officers command, make up 80 percent of Bashar Assad’s combat units, it would be realistic to expect them to eventually creep up to Israel’s northern border. Netanyahu has therefore not only given up on throwing Iran out of Syria, but also dropped his demands for pushing them far back.

This will be the second time in six years that Netanyahu has, at the decisive moment, shied from a military engagement with Iran, DEBKA Weekly notes. Then, as now, he omitted to inform the public or explain his zigzag and simply let it ride.

In mid-2012, the prime minister directed Israel’s military and intelligence chiefs to prepare for an attack on Iran’s nuclear faculties as a pre-emptive move against its weaponization program. But the go order somehow never materialized. Now, too, Israel’s determination to fight Iran to abort its permanent military presence in Syria has tailed off.

Two: Not too long ago, Netanyahu’s warm personal friendship with President Trump was hailed as Israel’s greatest strategic asset. It peaked with the celebration of the US embassy’s transfer to Jerusalem in May. Now, however, as both Trump and Netanyahu begin to stumble, some Israeli circles are questioning the wisdom of the government’s sharp cutoff of ties with other political camps in America, including the Democrats. Israeli-US intelligence cooperation has so far not been affected by Trump’s battles with his intelligence services over their probes into Russian interference in his election campaign. But things may be changing. Trump’s evident sympathy for Putin’s case, on the one hand, and Netanyahu’s intensified interchanges with Putin, on the other, may impact the intelligence partnership between US and Israeli agencies.

Three: Israeli will keep up its sporadic strikes against Iranian and pro-Iranian targets in Syria. But since the prime minister turned away from a major war operation against archfoe Iran in Syria, the IDF is free to shift its main focus from the north to the endlessly troublesome Gaza Strip and bring some relief to the Israeli communities forced to live amid the diverse torments inflicted on them by the Palestinian Hamas.

IDF concentrations on high alert last week on the Syrian and Lebanese borders. have headed south. By Monday, July 16, Israel officials were saying that IDF forces would drive into the Gaza Strip in a matter of days, barring unforeseen obstacles. Instead of grappling with Iranians and Hizballah in Syria, Israel’s armed forces would crush Hamas and its fellow terrorist groups, including Iran’s Palestinian surrogate, the Islamic Jihad.

But there have also been hints of a delay. After all, for a hundred days, since declaring its March for Return campaign on March 31, Hamas has staged violent demonstrations for pushing over the border fence while hurling firebombs, grenades, rocks and burning tires at the IDF defenders, for which it paid in 130 Palestinian deaths. It has fired 500 rockets at Israeli communities and laid waste with incendiary kites and balloon bombs thousands of acres of flourishing farm land and vegetation planted in this once barren region.

During that time, Israel’s military chiefs left the Gaza front on the back burner while building up for their first priority, the Iranian peril in the north. Dealing with the Gaza front now is doubly urgent, as there is no certainty, DEBKA Weekly’s sources warn, that Iran and Hizballah won’t interfere in Gaza too, on the side of the Palestinian terrorist groups they have long championed.

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