Prime minister’s policy has hit two major obstacles: Tehran’s obduracy in Syria, no matter what the cost; and the fickleness of U.S. President Donald Trump
Eighteen months ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu enjoyed what was undoubtedly the most successful 48 hours of his political career. On May 8, 2018, President Donald Trump announced that the United States was withdrawing from the nuclear deal with Iran. As he delivered his remarks in the White House, Trump could have been speaking from Netanyahu’s own talking points on the deal he had for years fought tooth and nail. In fact, he probably was.
The following morning, Netanyahu was on a plane to Moscow. This wasn’t just yet another of his periodic cloistered meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin. On this visit, he would be on show as guest of honor at the annual Victory Day Parade in Red Square. Standing there by Putin’s side, on the most important national day in the Russian calendar, broadcast to the world that Israel was in demand as a key ally of not just the United States but Russia as well.
A few hours later, in the early hours of May 10, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards launched a salvo of missiles from within Syria against Israel Defense Forces positions on the Golan Heights, missing their target. Israel launched a series of retaliatory airstrikes on Iranian installations in Syria, destroying in the process anti-aircraft batteries of the Assad regime — supplied by the same Russians who had hosted Netanyahu the previous day. The Kremlin kept silent.
It was the peak of Netanyahu’s Iran strategy. Tehran was facing new and crippling sanctions, and the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force was being beaten back in Syria. In Iran, thousands were protesting against the investment in foreign wars and proxies while people were going hungry at home. Over the next few months, there was a growing openness in Israel — both from Netanyahu and other ministers and senior IDF officers — in publicly acknowledging that Israel was indeed behind hitherto unattributed explosions on military bases in Syria.
But Iran didn’t crack under the sanctions, and the Guards faction within the leadership won the internal debate on whether to continue the Syrian campaign. Despite optimistic intelligence assessments, they are still building bases. They may not be as ambitious as the Iranians originally envisaged, but they are still there.
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