Something uncanny is happening in Israel. Though plagued by an unprecedented political deadlock that is almost certain to guarantee a third round of Knesset elections in less than a year, the so-called “interim” government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is engaging in crucial high-level diplomacy and meeting serious military challenges without skipping a beat.
This is no small feat due to a number of factors, chief among them Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit’s announcement that he intends to indict Netanyahu on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. As if this didn’t make the incumbent PM’s job any harder than it already was, it coincided with the failure of Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz to form a coalition – following weeks of negotiations – and a decision within Netanyahu’s Likud Party to hold new leadership primaries.
In other words, Netanyahu has been forced to focus, simultaneously, on interrogations, internal politics and international policy. It is a rare statesman who can pull all that off with such apparent aplomb. But then, Netanyahu is sui generis – as even his fiercest critics grudgingly admit – which is why he has been in power longer than any of his predecessors, including the country’s first and previously most legendary leader, David Ben-Gurion.
Whether Netanyahu’s political acumen and personal ambition enable him to survive the current storm seems to be questionable at the moment. In spite of his being as loved by his champions as he is loathed by his rivals, he has supporters who believe that his time is up, and that he would do better to step down to deal with his legal problems than end up defeated and disgraced.
Judging by the events of the past week, he clearly disagrees with the latter assessment. In the midst of what the public and punditry constantly refer to as national “chaos,” Netanyahu has indicated a determination to conduct “business as usual” for as long as he retains his seat. This is a blessing for a country in the crosshairs of Iran’s proxies and at the same time in the good graces of the administration in Washington.
It is this very combo that led to the meeting between Netanyahu and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Portugal on Wednesday.
“Iran’s aggression is growing, but its empire is tottering,” Netanyahu said, as the two men met at a hotel in Lisbon, before taking the conversation behind closed doors. “And I say, ‘Let’s make it totter even further.’”
Netanyahu also pointed to Iran’s “increasing aggression,” despite its having to contend with mass anti-regime protests.
“They’re trying to have staging grounds against us and the region from Iran itself, from Iraq, from Syria, from Lebanon, Gaza and Yemen,” he stated. “And we are actively engaged in countering that aggression.”
This statement came mere hours after an explosion hit an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) weapons depot at an airport on the Syria-Iraq border. When asked by reporters about whether Israel was behind the attack, Netanyahu declined to respond. But given the IDF’s acknowledged airstrikes last month on dozens of Iranian targets in Syria, the likely answer is “yes.”
AS NETANYAHU and Pompeo were speaking, the Pentagon revealed that, earlier the previous week, the US military had seized a small boat in the north Arabian Sea containing a cache of Iranian weapons and advanced missile components. The vessel, called a dhow, was apprehended on its way to Yemen, leading American officials to believe that its contents were being delivered to Iranian-backed Houthi terrorists in the war-torn country.
Yemen was one of the countries that Netanyahu specified late last month as a base for Iranian operations against Israel. During a tour of the Golan Heights on November 24 with his newly appointed defense minister, Naftali Bennett, Netanyahu declared, “We are taking all the action necessary to thwart the transfer of lethal weapons from Iran to [the region] via the air or sea.”
The following day, on November 25, IRGC commander Hossein Salami gave a televised speech in which he threatened to destroy the United States and the “Zionist regime” if they “cross our red lines.”
This was by no means the first time that an Iranian military official had vowed to annihilate both the “Great Satan” (America) and the “Small Satan” (Israel). But the phrase “Israel must be wiped out” was emblazoned on two ballistic missiles test-launched by the Iranian military in March 2016, in the aftermath of a trip to Israel by then-US vice president Joe Biden.
This was well after the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the deal pushed by the Obama administration and embraced by other world powers to slow down Iran’s race for nuclear weapons. What the JCPOA didn’t include, however, was a clause forbidding regular old long-range deadly missiles. Not that the document was worth the cost of the paper or ink spent on it in any case, which Netanyahu understood and warned about from the get-go.
Fortunately for Israel, the election of US President Donald Trump was a game-changer in many respects, one of which related to Iran. When he was running for office, Trump promised that he would “rip up” the nuclear deal.
At the beginning of April in 2018, Netanyahu presented him with concrete proof of Iran’s ongoing nuclear program – in the form of a massive trove of material retrieved from a warehouse in Tehran during a jaw-dropping Mossad raid deserving of the awe it inspired, both at home and abroad. A month and half later, Trump announced that the US was withdrawing from the JCPOA.
This did not stop the ayatollahs’ pursuit of regional and then global hegemony. Nor has it prevented the powers-that-be in Tehran from extending their terrorist tentacles across the globe, and particularly in Israel’s immediate vicinity.
To Netanyahu’s great credit, his own battle for survival has not impeded his efforts to keep these tentacles at bay. At the end of May, for example, while the Knesset was voting to disband itself – following Netanyahu’s failure to form a coalition in the wake of the April 9 elections – the IDF was busy neutralizing the sixth and last Hezbollah terrorist tunnel extending from Lebanon into northern Israel. These tunnels were part of the Iranian proxy’s “Conquering the Galilee” plan, the aim of which was to facilitate the cross-border abduction and slaughter of innocent Israelis.
The significance of the above operation is that it coincided with Netanyahu’s renewed struggle to stay in office.
THIS BRINGS us to his immediate predecessor, Ehud Olmert, Israel’s prime minister during the 2006 Second Lebanon War against Hezbollah. The war ended with UN Resolution 1701, but Hezbollah – in typical terrorist fashion – promptly violated it.
Within two years, the Shi’ite group, backed by Iran, had recruited tens of thousands of new fighters, had amassed some 100,000 missiles in its ever-refurbishing arsenal and had begun mapping out a complex and advanced network of tunnels.
Olmert, who resigned in 2008 to combat the bribery charges that ultimately landed him in jail, offered a parting defense of the UN resolution, absurdly claiming that it had led to “quiet” along Israel’s northern border.
When Netanyahu took office in 2009 (after having served in the role for three years, from 1996 to 1999), he was left with the clean-up. This entailed, among other military endeavors, repeated airstrikes on Hezbollah weapons convoys from Lebanon into Syria, as well as on actual Iranian targets in the area. All this, no less, while trying to protect southern Israel from Hamas and Islamic Jihad rockets, also courtesy of Iran.
What a difference a decade – and a prime minister under indictment – makes. Hopefully, Netanyahu’s legal fate will be as dissimilar from Olmert’s as his ability to run the country, cultivate allies and stymie Iran.
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