Netanyahu Takes Backseat in Gulf Crisis

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (Ariel Schalit/Pool via Reuters)

Israel’s prime minister has been a vocal critic of Iran over the years; but the outspoken Binyamin Netanyahu has remained uncharacteristically quiet throughout the current crisis between the U.S. and Iran.

While Israel has welcomed Washington’s pressure on Tehran, the crisis has nonetheless put Netanyahu in a delicate position, not wanting to be seen as pushing the Americans into a military confrontation and wary of being drawn into fighting with Iran’s powerful proxy, the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah.

“In recent developments, Israel has taken the backseat. There’s one reason for this: It’s not in Israel’s interest to take the lead,” said Yoel Guzansky, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies, a Tel Aviv think tank, and former Iran analyst in the prime minister’s office.

It’s a new look for Netanyahu, who has made Iran his top priority during his decade-long tenure.

Netanyahu has repeatedly accused Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons and criticized its support for anti-Israel terrorism, development of long-range missiles, besides its frequent calls for Israel’s destruction.

He has compared the Islamic Republic to Nazi Germany, and famously gave a speech to the U.S. Congress against the U.S.-led international nuclear deal with Iran in 2015. The speech infuriated then-President Barack Obama, and remains a sore spot with U.S. Democrats.

Since President Donald Trump was elected, things have shifted in Netanyahu’s favor. The Israeli leader strongly encouraged Trump’s decision last year to withdraw from the nuclear deal. He also has welcomed the renewal and tightening of U.S. sanctions on Iran.

The U.S. pullout from the nuclear deal, which gave Iran relief from painful economic sanctions in exchange for limits on its nuclear activities, lies at the root of the current crisis.

Echoing Israel’s arguments, Trump has said the deal failed to sufficiently curb Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear-weapons capability and did not address Tehran’s support for terror groups and its missile program. The renewed sanctions, meanwhile, have sent Iran’s economy into freefall.

In recent weeks, tensions have soared as the U.S. beefed up its military presence in the Gulf in response to a still-unexplained threat from Iran.

The U.S. also has accused Iran of being behind a string of incidents, including alleged sabotage of oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates and a rocket that landed near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, while Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi rebels have launched a string of drone attacks targeting Saudi Arabia.

Iran in turn has announced it is quadrupling its production capacity of low-enriched uranium, making it likely the country will soon exceed stockpile limits set by the nuclear accord. Iran also gave Europe a July 7 deadline to set new terms for a nuclear deal or it will enrich uranium at higher levels, closer to weapons grade.

All of this has made Netanyahu’s low profile especially noticeable. In a recent speech, he repeated his longstanding position that Israel will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon. Otherwise, he and other officials have said little, trying to portray the standoff as a U.S.–Iran dispute.

Israeli Cabinet minister Tzachi Hanegbi, who is close to Netanyahu, said earlier this month that he sees two potential outcomes of the crisis, both of which he described as good for Israel. The Iranians, he said, will meet U.S. demands, return to negotiations and reach a new and improved agreement, or there will be a conflict.

“I don’t really believe that the Iranians or the Americans are currently seeking a conflict,” Hangebi told Army Radio. If there is one, Iran stands no chance against a super power like America, he said.

Guzansky, the Tel Aviv researcher, said Israel has to be careful about being seen as encouraging the U.S. to attack Iran. In 2002, a year before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Netanyahu, as a private citizen, testified to Congress that toppling Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein would be a “good choice” that would benefit the region.

“Israel cannot risk being seen as the one who led the U.S. and Iran to a confrontation, in the case of a loss of American lives. The price in U.S. public opinion and in world leaders’ opinions would be too high,” Guzansky said.

He said the fact that Israel has become a “very partisan” issue — with support much stronger among Republicans than Democrats — added to the risk.

For now, Israeli officials believe the risk of a direct confrontation with Iran remains unlikely. Instead, they believe the biggest immediate threat is the possibility of Iran unleashing its regional proxies along Israel’s borders — Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip — as retaliation for a U.S. attack.

Even that scenario seems distant. Israeli officials say the situation on the ground has not changed fundamentally. “We monitor,” said an Israeli military official. “We’re not looking to escalate.” He spoke on condition of anonymity under army protocol.

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