Netanyahu on the Warpath?

The Israeli leader could be planning a military adventure to offset his domestic difficulties?

By Abdelbari Atwan

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s unexpected flight to Brussels on Monday to meet with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was attending a NATO meeting there, was reminiscent of a similar meeting: the one his predecessor Ehud Olmert paid to Washington to consult with US officials shortly before he bombed the alleged Syrian nuclear reactor near Deir az-Zour in 2007. Like Olmert, Netanyahu could be setting himself up to end his career not only behind bars convicted of corruption, but also accused of military failure.

Netanyahu said his talks with Pompeo would deal with the Iranian presence in Syria and specifically “the ways we are jointly tackling Iran’s – and its northern allies’ – aggression.’ But his visit at the head of a delegation including the chief of the Mossad and his national security advisor may have had another purpose: to notify the US of a planned major assault on Syria and to solicit its political and diplomatic backing at the UN Security Council, and perhaps military support too.

After months of intensive investigations, Israeli police have announced that they have strong evidence implicating Netanyahu and his wife in corruption cases. His ruling coalition’s majority in the Knesset has meanwhile shrunk to a single seat. He could be planning a new military adventure to reshuffle the cards and prevent the public prosecutor from filing charges against him and potentially lead to a seven-year jail sentence.

Last Thursday, the Israeli army launched an intensive missile barrage that it claimed targeted factories producing advanced missiles belonging to Iran and Hezbollah in southern Syria. But the attack failed to achieve its aims. It was countered effectively by Syrian air defences, which prevented the missiles from reaching their targets. Hezbollah insisted that neither its or Iran’s positions or forces in Syria had suffered any harm.

Hezbollah keeps a close watch on Israeli attitudes and behaviour and is braced for all eventualities, including the prospect of a large-scale assault on Lebanon and/or Syria. Last week, it issued a videotape in Arabic and Hebrew warning Israelis they would regret launching any such attack.

What worries Netanyahu and Israeli military leaders most is the presence of Hezbollah special forces, backed by Syrian army units and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Qods Brigade, on the Golan Front. They fear the prospect of that front reopening now that the Syrian state has regained sovereignty over southern Syria after defeating the US- and Israeli-backed armed groups that controlled the area.

It is hard to predict what form any new attack by Israel could take. But it was notable that in last Thursday night’s raid it confined itself to launching missiles, apparently fearing that any warplanes deployed would risk being shot down by Russian S-300 missiles. Netanyahu may have sought the US secretary of state’s permission to use ultra-sophisticated F-35s, which are reportedly capable of evading the S-300s, in any new attack.

US approval is needed for the use of these aircraft, but their invulnerability to the Russian missiles is open to question. Even if they could strike their targets without being intercepted, the Israeli military is well aware that Hezbollah would be likely to retaliate with devastating missile attacks.

The poorly armed, inexperienced, and besieged Hamas movement in the tiny Gaza Strip managed to fire 480 missiles and shells against Israeli settlements in response to Israel’s latest assault. Netanyahu was forced to beg for a ceasefire and call off the attacks after less than 48 hours. Imagine what would happen if Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah’s formidable arsenal were unleashed in the direction of Jaffa, Haifa, and Tel Aviv?

Nasrallah – whose statements are believed by 80% of Israelis according to the latest opinion polls — was blunt and frank in his latest televised recording. Addressing the Israelis, he said: “If you dare [attack us], you will rue it.”  So will they heed this advice? Or will their leaders yet again resort to renewed aggression as a way of countering domestic troubles and compensating for military failure?

We cannot but wait. But we can be confident that if Netanyahu repeats his predecessor Olmert’s folly, and he will share the same fate, and may face an even bigger defeat.

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