Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed this week “to act vigorously and continuously against the Iranian military entrenchment in Syria.”
Addressing graduates of the Israel Air Force cadets’ pilot course on Wednesday, he said, “You have one mission: to defend the homeland and be victorious in war. [This] starts with eradicating major hostile threats.”
Netanyahu went on to assert that U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent decision to withdraw American troops from Syria “will not change our policy.”
The speech was eerily fitting, as it came mere hours after the IAF conducted massive strikes on Iranian targets near Damascus. Referring to the operation, which was condemned by Russia as “provocative,” IAF Commander Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin said that “in several arenas and over a wide scope, our jets protected [our positions] and attacked [those of the enemy]. With exceptional cooperation from the Intelligence branch, we prevented the establishment of an Iranian military capability on [Israel’s] northern front. It is not the end of the story, and if called on to do so [again], we will act on the ground and from the air.”
Netanyahu’s and Norkin’s words were not only directed at the new group of fighter pilots tasked with keeping Iran and its terrorist proxy, Hezbollah, from attempting to annihilate the Jewish state. The joint message was also aimed at Tehran, Damascus, Beirut and Moscow.
The verbal warning was as clear as Tuesday night’s military one: that Trump’s exit from the region does not signal the onset of Israeli defeatism. If anything, it bodes even more ill for Israel’s enemies.
One indication that those enemies are getting the picture is Syria’s response to the airstrikes. This took the form of a letter of lament to the United Nations, stating that “Israel’s continuous aggressive policy is possible due to the unlimited and consistent support of the American administration.”
Ironically, the Syrian Foreign Ministry lodged this complaint on Wednesday, just around the time that Trump was paying a surprise visit to U.S. troops in Iraq. There he explained why he will be withdrawing all American soldiers from Syria and half from Afghanistan, yet leaving those stationed in Iraq where they are. He intimated that having a U.S. presence in Iraq would serve as a bulwark against Iran, while also enabling a swift ground re-entry into Syria, if necessary, or airstrikes from the very base where he was addressing the troops.
Coming as it did on the heels of Israeli military actions, Trump’s statement was the only encouraging communication about the Middle East to emerge from the White House in the past week. That the administration in Washington did not issue a statement about Tuesday night’s IAF raid indicates tacit American approval, if not outright coordination.
The silver lining for Jerusalem, according to Caroline Glick’s latest column for Breitbart news, is that “far from constraining Israel’s freedom of operation in Syria, the U.S. pullout may have the effect of empowering Israel to strike more freely.”
Paraphrasing what she was told by a senior U.S. official, Glick wrote, “[W]ithout U.S forces in Syria, Israel wouldn’t need to worry that Iran and its allies in Hezbollah and the Syrian regime will effectively hold those forces hostage to Israeli operations by threatening to retaliate against the American forces in response to Israeli military strikes.”
Fortunately for Israel and the United States, Netanyahu possesses an uncanny ability to function on multiple fronts simultaneously. In spite of being under incessant police investigations for corruption, he has been managing the “major hostile threats” he referred to in his speech to the IAF course graduates, including the detection and destruction of Hezbollah tunnels from Lebanon into Israel, and extreme unrest in Gaza and Ramallah. Added to the mix on Wednesday night was the vote to disband the Knesset and hold elections on April 9, 2019.
It is more than likely that Netanyahu’s Likud Party will emerge victorious, particularly with an increasingly fractured opposition filled with retired generals too preoccupied with peace to recognize that we’re already at war.
Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ”