With all of Israel preoccupied by the flurry of investigations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of the most incredible strategic statements that has been uttered by an Israeli prime minister in the current era passed almost under the public radar. These words were uttered by Netanyahu in a speech to the attendees of the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 18.
Much attention was paid to the speech because Netanyahu whipped out one of the pieces of the Iranian drone that was felled by the Israeli air force Feb. 10. After he exhibited the piece and explained its origin, Netanyahu said the following: “Israel will not allow Iran’s regime to put a noose of terror around our neck. We will act without hesitation to defend ourselves. And we will act, if necessary, not just against Iran’s proxies that are attacking us, but against Iran itself.” In other words, according to Netanyahu, Israel will try to put an end to the Iranian-proxy contest and change the rules of the game. Iran will no longer be able to hide behind Hezbollah, Hamas or anonymous Shiite militias. Should Israel identify any terror act as being orchestrated by Iran — whether by Iranian directive, funding, guidance or even mere inspiration — then Israel will retaliate not only against the direct perpetrators, but also against Iran itself. The masquerade party is over, Netanyahu is saying. From now on, Israel will extract a painful price from Iran for its involvement in terror against Israel.
A day later, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman repeated the message. Again, the message was very clear: No more games, no more immunity. In other words, when something blows up in Tel Aviv under Iranian inspiration, something else will blow up in Tehran, something “Made in Israel.” Iran needs to start paying a direct, high price for its actions against Israel and for disseminating and promoting terror.
The subject came up in the Israeli Cabinet more than a year ago, and it was Education Minister Naftali Bennett who conceived the idea. According to Bennett, the time has come to rip the mask off of the Iranians and start exacting a price from them. Bennett used the following parable: When the land-owning farmer is bitten again and again by mosquitoes, he must dry up the swamp in which the mosquitoes breed. Until the swamp is gone, the mosquitoes will continue to bite the farmer, despite all the methods he invents to destroy these pests. Iran, according to this parable, constitutes the swamp. Israel has no illusions regarding its ability to dry up the swamp completely, but it does want to achieve one thing: the balance of deterrence. And it hopes that this will lead to wise limitation of the mosquitoes by the swamp that created them.
The Cabinet discussions did not lead to an Israeli decision to publicize its intentions to change its policy vis-a-vis Iran. The penetration of Israel’s airspace by the Iranian drone and the incident that led to the downing of the Israeli F-16 on Feb. 10 changed the rules of the game. It is also possible that Netanyahu’s personal trials and tribulations, and his aspirations to change the media agenda in Israel, influenced his Munich speech. One way or another, the fact is that certain things were uttered clearly for the first time. All that remains is to wait and see: Will Israel carry through on its threats the next time military activity against it can be attributed directly to Iranian influence?
The new equation that emanates from Netanyahu’s words creates an especially volatile situation. Every rocket launched from Bint Jbeil in Lebanon will be viewed as if it had been launched from Tehran. Israel is keeping a vigilant eye on the situation in Iran; some of Israel’s intelligence resources are devoted to this issue. Israel is also aware that Iran is confronted with complex internal problems that led to the waves of civilian protest that flooded the country in recent months.
“In the old days, Iranian leaders could send hundreds of thousands of Iranian soldiers to meet their deaths on the battlefield. That is what happened in the Iran-Iraq war, for example,” an Israeli Cabinet minister told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “But those days are long gone. Now the Iranian [leaders] have to report back to their people, who are sensitive to the loss of human life in a way that resembles the Israelis. If the Iranians are forced to pay a heavy price each time the Israelis suffer — that could be a formative event that could strategically change the situation in the Middle East.”
According to a senior security source speaking on condition of anonymity, “Iran’s strategy against Israel is an act of strangulation using multiple tentacles. So far, Israel fought against each of these tentacles separately. Now we will also fight the octopus itself — the nerve center, command and control in Tehran. They [Iranians] must start paying a direct price.”
However, between talk and actions lies a long and dangerous road. It is not at all certain that the Israeli Cabinet would authorize an operation against Iran the next time that an Israeli target is hit by a missile or mortar fire or terror under Iranian aegis. Israel is well aware of the dangers involved in such a reprisal and the possibility of putting the entire region on fire. For example, Iran could instruct Hezbollah to retaliate strongly to an Israeli action.
And the situation is even more complicated due to increasing Russian presence in the battlefield and the fact that the Russians have no intention of retreating from the strategic alliance they have formed with Iran and the Shiite axis. The contrary is true: On Feb. 24, an Israeli satellite photograph revealed Russia’s modern stealth jets at the Khmeimim air base in Syria — a clear sign that Russian President Vladimir Putin is here to stay and that he has no intention of making it easy for Israel to mess things up for him. The recent, massive anti-aircraft fire from Syria’s defense system against Israel’s air force is perceived as being under Russian inspiration. Israel is very concerned about the moment when the Russians synchronize their powerful S-300 and S-400 systems in Syria with the Bashar al-Assad regime’s aerial defense system. That is the moment that may spell the death knell for the freedom of action of Israel’s air force. We are not yet at that stage, but it is definitely possible that we are on our way.
With all this in mind, the startling Israeli statement may have been intended to raise the stakes for all three sides — Israel, Iran and Russia — in the hopes that the two other participants in this dangerous game will blink first. We can only wait for the next flare.