In a virtually unprecedented move, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged on Sunday that the Israel Defense Forces has been “working with impressive success to block Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria.”
Breaking with Israel’s policy of operational “ambiguity,” Netanyahu not only stated generally that the Israeli military has struck Iranian and Hezbollah targets “hundreds of times” in recent years, but went into uncharacteristic detail about the latest strike. “Just in the last 36 hours, the air force attacked Iranian warehouses with Iranian weapons at the international airport in Damascus,” he said. “The accumulation of recent attacks proves that we are determined more than ever to take action against Iran in Syria, just as we promised.”
Netanyahu made these statements at his weekly cabinet meeting, exactly one week after U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton came to Jerusalem to reassure him that Washington would be “very supportive” of continued Israeli military action in Syria.
Nevertheless, Netanyahu’s so-called “breach” of ambiguity reportedly caused a stir among unnamed members of Israel’s defense establishment, who were horrified that the prime minister of all people would reveal such sensitive information to the enemy. You know, as though the world previously assumed that the attacks on Iranian and Hezbollah bases and weapons convoys had been carried out by, say, Norwegian forces.
More ridiculous was the response of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, whose pathetic attempts over the years to return to the political arena and topple Netanyahu have been utterly fruitless. Barak had the gall to accuse Netanyahu of spilling state secrets at the expense of national security for “personal promotion” ahead of the April 9 Knesset elections.
Barak knows that in the age of the Internet, traditional Israeli ambiguity has lost all relevance. We Israeli journalists groan every time the military censor forces us to preface reports of Israeli operations with the phrase, “According to foreign media reports.” It is altogether an antiquated requirement—just as Barak is a failed “has been” whose claims about Netanyahu constitute a clear case of the pot calling the kettle black.
Furthermore, the battle against Iran is not merely military. It also involves no small amount of psychological warfare. By taking credit for successful airstrikes, Netanyahu was not breaching ambiguity; he was conveying to the mullah-led regime in Tehran that its aim to wipe Israel off the map is backfiring. He was also saying that the slated U.S. withdrawal from Syria will not put a dent in Israel’s resolve and ability to eliminate the Iranian threat.
Which brings us to Tehran’s reaction to Netanyahu’s pronouncement. On Tuesday, Iran’s Foreign Ministry asserted both that claims of hundreds of successful Israeli operations in Syria were a “baseless … attempt to conceal [Israel’s] ongoing failures in the region,” and denied that Iran even has a military presence there.
On Wednesday, however, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Mohammad Ali Jafari, announced, “The Islamic Republic of Iran will leave its military advisers and its weapons in Syria.”
Issuing conflicting and contradictory statements about its military prowess and presence is par for the course among the tyrants of Tehran. Like all Islamist regimes, Iran alternates between portraying itself as a victim and a victor. Fluctuating this way within the space of 24 hours is a good indication that the ayatollahs are running scared.
Netanyahu exposed something “unambiguously” valuable this week: Tehran’s fear that its initial smug elation at the news of a U.S. pullout from Syria was premature.
Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ”