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On its 70th Independence Day, Israel frets about whether allies are doing enough to counter Iran

Israeli youths watch fireworks over the center of Jerusalem as Independence Day celebrations start.
(Menahem Kahana / AFP/Getty Images)

As Israel celebrated the 70th anniversary of its independence this week, its leaders were voicing concern that the United States — which has always been its most important ally — was doing too little about what they view as a growing threat from Iran.

Tehran is more than 1,000 miles east of Jerusalem overland. But Iran has been amassing power and influence just across the Israeli border in Syria, where it’s a key backer of the government of Bashar Assad in the long civil war there. Iran also has a foothold in Lebanon — which also shares a border with Israel — through its support for the Shiite Muslim militia Hezbollah.

The fear in Israel is that Iran is setting up permanent military bases in Syria that could be used to launch cross-border attacks.

Israel has been looking to the U.S. and to a lesser extent its European allies to lean on Russia, an ally of the Syrian government, to help curtail Iran’s military buildup.

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“There are those who can stop it without using military force,” Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said last week during a visit to the border with Syria. “I hope they will act and do the right thing. It is in their power to prevent Iran from establishing itself without unnecessary friction.”

But the West has been losing leverage with Russia amid deteriorating relations, Europe has been unable to agree on an Iran policy, and the Trump administration has flummoxed Israel with mixed messages.

On Sunday, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley buoyed Israel when she announced new sanctions against Russia in response to its support for Assad and his apparent use of chemical weapons against his own people. She also said one U.S. goal in Syria is “to make sure the influence of Iran doesn’t take over the area.”

Then on Tuesday, Larry Kudlow, a senior White House economics official, said that Haley’s statement reflected “momentary confusion” on her part and that the administration was still deciding what to do.

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Steven Simon, a history professor at Amherst College who led the National Security Council’s Middle East and North Africa desk from 2011 to 2012, said, “It’s hard to say where the administration is going in part because there’s been a notable tension between the Oval Office and the national security team.”

In a radio interview this week, Tzipi Livni, an opposition member in Israel’s parliament and a former foreign minister, was still hanging on to that hope that its key ally would come through. “We need the United States to resume its customary leadership role in the international community and act on Syria,” she said.

Uncertainty in Israel over the U.S. commitment is all the more surprising because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu portrayed the election of President Trump as a positive step for U.S.-Israeli relations. Netanyahu clashed with the administration of President Obama and was especially critical of the nuclear deal he struck with Iran, saying it increased the threat Iran posed to Israel.

But Netanyahu’s relationship with Trump is proving to be more complicated than he had anticipated.

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“Netanyahu has already made a significant effort to convince Trump to address the Iranian presence in Syria and has apparently failed — because after that conversation Trump reiterated his intention to remove all American forces from Syria,” Yossi Kuperwasser, a retired brigadier general and former head of Israeli military intelligence, said in an interview.

Kuperwasser said that the U.S. military presence in Syria, alongside Kurdish and opposition forces, “may last for a while” but that “Trump’s clear aim is to remove his forces and replace them with local forces.”

“This could make it easier for Iran to succeed in establishing a ground corridor from Iran to Lebanon,” he said.

Jonathan Schanzer, a senior vice president for research at Washington’s Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the Trump administration appreciates the threat Iran poses to Israel and to U.S. interests.

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“But there is still real reticence to make a strategic commitment,” he said. “This is the friction between [Netanyahu] and Trump, despite their genuinely warm ties.”

Tension between Israel and Iran has been rising.

Israel said last week that an Iranian drone that entered its airspace from Syria in February was “armed and aiming to attack.”

Israel is being blamed for last week’s bombing of Syria’s T4 air base, where the drone was launched — and where Iran aims to establish an air force compound. The strike reportedly targeted an advanced Iranian air defense system as well as the systems deploying the drones.

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From the beginning of Syria’s civil war, Israel has said it would not permit Iran to bring “game-changing weapons” into the region.

Iran, which said seven officers from its elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps were killed in the attack, threatened to retaliate.

“Tel Aviv will be punished for its aggressive action,” Bahram Qassemi, the spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, told reporters. “The occupying Zionist regime will, sooner or later, receive an appropriate response to its actions.”

Israel is so concerned about the escalation of tension with Iran that on Wednesday it canceled its air force’s participation in a training exercise with U.S. warplanes in Alaska, an army spokesperson said.

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Experts said Russia remains the key to stymieing Iran’s ambitions in Syria. But Moscow’s meddling in the U.S. presidential election, its unbridled support for Assad and its alleged poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in Britain have brought relations with the West to their lowest point in decades.

In the absence of a clear American or European policy, Israel’s own diplomacy with Russia has become more important. Kuperwasser said the strategy is to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin that allowing Iran to gain a permanent foothold will hurt Russia’s regional interests. Netanyahu and Putin have met at least eight times over two years to discuss the issue.

So far, those efforts have not worked.

“It seems the Russians prefer not to know what Iran is doing under its nose,” Kuperwasser said. “But if they don’t want to see more exchanges of fire in areas they are supposed to be in charge of, I hope they will take action to ensure the Iranians don’t do anything that threatens Israel.”

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In an interview with the Israeli news website Walla this week, Lieberman, the Israeli defense minister, seemed to suggest that Israel would act alone if need be to protect its security interests.

“We will not allow Iranian consolidation in Syria,” he said. “We won’t allow any restriction when it comes to Israel’s security interests.”

Tarnopolsky is a special correspondent.


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