Whenever Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu uses props for his speeches, his critics pounce. That’s why some of his usual detractors—both at home and abroad—could barely contain their contempt for his decision to wave a piece of debris from an Iranian drone that violated Israeli airspace while speaking about the threat from the Islamist regime at the Munich Security Conference on Sunday. For the legion of Netanyahu critics in both the Israeli and the international press, the drone will go down alongside the cartoon bomb picture he used at the United Nations in 2012, when trying to illustrate the Iranian nuclear threat as another example of the prime minister’s penchant for drama and hyperbole.
Critics dismissed the Israeli leader’s attempt to focus the world on Iran’s use of Syria as a military base and its aggression. Instead, they saw his rhetoric as intended primarily for domestic consumption. But while politics is part of anything politicians do, there was more to unpack here than Netanyahu’s rivalry with his right-wing coalition partners or an attempt to distract Israelis from the corruption charges that have been brought against him by the police.
Far from concealing his true motive, Netanyahu later admitted that the main audience for whom the speech had been intended was neither in Israel nor Iran. The one person that he hoped would be listening was the chief of the White House. The only question was whether President Donald Trump was paying attention to a warning that if the United States wasn’t prepared to assert itself, Israel was more than prepared to do. As it has often done in the past, the Jewish state is willing to take on America’s dirty work.
Iran’s decision to violate Israeli air space set off a chain of events that inflicted serious damage on Iranian forces and Syrian anti-aircraft installations, even though it also led to the shooting down of an Israeli air-force jet. But while Israel’s enemies got the worst of that exchange, there was also little doubt that the attempt to warn Russia, Syria, Iran and Hezbollah of the limits of the Jewish state’s patience was not a complete success.
In the wake of Iran’s intervention in the Syrian civil war, Israel now faces powerful foes in the north as the Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon and the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad—and its Iranian, Hezbollah and Russian allies—remain essentially unchallenged as they mop up the last remnants of the rebellion against Damascus. Israel may hope that Russia has the will to restrain the actions of its Iranian partners. But as Iran just proved, its ability to exert military pressure on Israel has greatly increased.
Iran’s enhanced strategic position cannot be ignored. The financial and diplomatic assets it acquired via the nuclear deal it signed with the West, as well as the certainty that it will eventually be able to get the bomb that the pact was supposed to stop it from obtaining, creates a long-term threat that Israel can’t avert on its own. Combine that with Tehran’s ability to start a two-front war in the north via Lebanon and Syria, and you have a volatile situation in which even a still powerful Israel no longer calls all the shots.
What is the United States doing about any of this?
The short answer: nothing.
President Trump still occasionally talks tough about Iran but, as Reuters reported yesterday, the State Department is already watering down his demands for America’s European allies to join him in an attempt to fix the Iran deal or watch the U.S. re-impose sanctions on Iran. The sunset clauses in the deal must be ended, while restrictions on missile development and a more intrusive inspection regime must be imposed. But the State Department seems to be aiming at creating an amorphous blueprint for consultations that will allow the U.S. president to pretend that he is working on these goals without actually making any progress.
What has this to do with the fighting along Israel’s northern border?
The short answer: everything.
Though Trump deserves credit for helping to achieve a victory over ISIS in Iraq and Eastern Syria, which eluded the Obama administration, he also appears content to continue his predecessor’s policy of letting Russia control what is happening elsewhere in that country. Which means that for all of his bluster about Iran, its power is growing on his watch as much as it did under Obama.
While no one expects or wants U.S. forces to directly engage the Iranians in Syria, Trump can do Tehran more damage by announcing a firm date for more sanctions on Iran, in addition to a commitment to punish anyone who does business with the regime unless it renegotiates the nuclear deal. That would give the Europeans a stark choice between doing business with Iran or with the United States.
Is Trump listening to Netanyahu? Given the president’s lack of interest in serious policy discussions and the distractions posed by other issues, the answer is probably not.
Waving the drone debris was a warning to America that if it doesn’t act, then Israel will.
Russia’s involvement in this problem complicates Israel’s options. But no matter what Moscow says, the Israelis aren’t likely to tolerate Iran consolidating its hold on parts of Syria. All of which means that a Trump administration that has been asleep at the wheel on Syria and Iran had better wake up soon before the situation deteriorates.
Instead of mocking Netanyahu’s props, serious observers should be seconding his counsel that Trump must make it clear to Russian President Vladimir Putin that he won’t put up with Iran turning Syria into a base from which it can attack Israel. And that it’s time to change the nuclear deal. Trump has the leverage to make these demands stick, if only he will use it. The alternative isn’t more empty diplomacy. It’s letting a bad situation turn into something far worse.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — the Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.