The Story Behind Netanyahu’s Shift on Iranian Protests

Netanyahu Iran, Israel
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s office in Yerushalayim on Sunday. (Reuters/Gali Tibbon/Pool)

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu broke his silence on the protests in Iran only after in-depth consultation with his security advisors, some of whom were against it, according to The Times of Israel.

After five days of refraining from comment on the unrest in Iran, Netanyahu spoke out on Monday in a special video statement, backing the protesters’ “noble quest for freedom.”

The reason for the prime minister’s initial reticence on the issue was the recent experience with the Kurds, where open support of the Kurdish independence referendum from Israel backfired. Israeli support was turned against the Kurds by Iraq, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iran. It hurt more than it helped, and a recurrence was to be avoided, according to The Jerusalem Post.

The reason for the shift to public support was a topic of discussion in the Israeli media on Tuesday.

Besides the understandable sympathy for Iranian dissidents, Netanyahu wanted to be aligned with President Donald Trump, who has come out vehemently for the demonstrators and again denounced the regime in Tehran, a “well-placed source” was quoted saying by the Times.

When Iranian President Hassan Rouhani accused Israel and the U.S. of instigating the protests, Netanyahu decided he had to say something, even as some of his senior advisors told him that silence was still the wiser policy.

He was disturbed by the European silence, as well, and once having decided to break his own silence, took advantage of the same video on Monday to criticize “many European governments” for remaining silent “as heroic young Iranians are beaten in the streets.”

“That’s just not right. And I, for one, will not stay silent,” he said.

Shortly thereafter, Germany issued a statement siding with the demonstrators in Iran. Netanyahu was, of course, not mentioned.

Israeli opinion was divided.

In the government, some ministers, such as Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz, had already expressed their support for the dissidents. But earlier on Monday, Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid were still declining comment.

“Let’s be clear: Netanyahu’s analysis might be spot on, but this kind of PR gesture is self-serving and doesn’t help the cause of those protesting in Iran,” tweeted Gabriel Mitchell, the U.S. representative of Mitvim — the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.

“I don’t see advantages in Netanyahu’s reaction. I don’t understand why he did it,” said Yoel Guzansky, a senior researcher at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, where he focuses on Iran and the Arab Gulf states.

“I do see disadvantages,” he argued. “Why connect Israel with that? The Iranian regime already says, ‘Look, it’s the Israelis who are behind this wave of of protests.’ Why would we give them more ammunition?”

But, to be sure, Netanyahu had his defenders. Zeev Maghen, who chairs the Department of Middle East Studies at Bar-Ilan University, said that the Iranians will blame Israel in any case, and did in fact do so before the prime minister’s statement.

“They accuse the Israelis and the American and the British of being behind this regardless of what the Israelis and the American and the British say or don’t say. They always do it,” he said.

Netanyahu thus did the right thing for Israel and for Iran, as the public’s unhappiness with the regime “is some kind of a trend in the direction that might lower the hostility and the tension between Iran and Israel,” Maghen said.

He agreed that the relationship with Trump had a lot to do with it, as well.

“Under Obama, Iran had managed to get the support of America and China and Russia, all at the same time,” Maghen said. “Now that there is that change, Netanyahu and Trump are lining up together against Iran and the ayatollahs.”

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