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Shadow warrior: Benjamin Netanyahu takes a dangerous gamble with Iran

Simon Tisdall
·5-min read

In a region famous for warmongers and tyrants, who is the most dangerous man in the Middle East right now? Not Bashar al-Assad, the isolated gauleiter of Damascus. Not disgraced Mohammed bin Salman, the princely Saudi executioner. Not even Turkey’s misogynist-in-chief, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the local neighbourhood bully.

Step forward Benjamin Netanyahu, easily the most convincing contender for the “danger man” title. Israel’s prime minister has outdone himself of late, threatening war with Iran, ordering one-off attacks, assassinating a top scientist, sabotaging international fence-mending, and defying the US, his country’s indispensable ally.

Last weekend’s mystery explosion at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility, which destroyed crucial equipment, was the most spectacular strike since the 2010 Stuxnet cyber-attack. Except it’s no mystery. Anonymous “intelligence sources” freely admitted Israeli involvement. Netanyahu, ace provocateur, wanted Iran and the world to know whodunnit. It was like waving a red flag at a bull.

The amazing thing about this risky high-wire act is that Netanyahu leads Israel on sufferance only. Four times in the past two years he has sought and failed to secure an electoral mandate for his paranoid brand of nationalistic, borderline racist, rightwing populist politics. He’s also lost Donald Trump, a powerful likeminded ally.

If the majority of voters who view him, at best, as an embarrassment were able to decide the outcome of ongoing talks on forming Israel’s next coalition government, Netanyahu’s long reign would be brought to an end. The courts may save them the trouble. He is currently being tried for alleged corruption. He denies any wrongdoing.

Israeli and American commentators suggest this predicament may be the key to understanding Netanyahu’s efforts to derail indirect negotiations between Iran and the US on resurrecting the 2015 nuclear deal. “Sowing… fear and crisis is his best hope for holding on to power,” said Slate analyst Fred Kaplan.

“The prevailing conventional wisdom in Israel… is that Netanyahu is deliberately and dangerously escalating an ongoing, low-intensity confrontation with Iran, with two interlocking objectives,” said Haaretz columnist Alon Pinkas. First, “a national security crisis could change the adverse political environment he is facing”. Second, by dramatising his obsession with a hypothetically nuclear-armed Iran, Netanyahu hopes to “disrupt and complicate” the US-Iran talks, Pinkas suggested. His undermining of Israel’s closest ally was self-serving. “First, you create a confrontation with the US, then market yourself as the only actor capable of defusing it.”

US president Joe Biden agrees with Britain and the EU that the much-battered 2015 nuclear deal still offers the best way of ensuring Iran, which insists it does not want nuclear weapons, keeps its word.

As Netanyahu surely knows, overt confrontation may force the Europeans to publicly take Israel’s side, upsetting their delicate diplomatic balancing act

Trump’s 2018 repudiation of the agreement, and imposition of swingeing US sanctions, predictably led to escalating, retaliatory non-compliance by Iran. Ironically, this absurd own goal pushed Tehran closer to acquiring bomb-making capability. Regional instability increased in parallel, with a rise in tit-for-tat attacks.

The same self-defeating pattern repeated last week after the Natanz blast. Forced to respond to Netanyahu’s public provocation, Iran said it would install more advanced centrifuges at Natanz and step up uranium enrichment. It also reportedly fired a missile at an Israeli ship in the Gulf.

It could have been much worse, militarily and politically. But Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, overruled hardliners and instructed negotiators not to walk out of the Vienna talks. Even this blindly anti-American ayatollah saw the trap set by Netanyahu.

Israel’s security now depends, in effect, on Iran’s self-restraint. By allowing officials for the first time to confirm sabotage operations and attacks that were previously denied or covered up, Netanyahu is purposefully pushing Israel’s so-called “shadow war” with Iran into the open, rendering it potentially more volatile and uncontainable. This could negatively impact Lebanon, Syria and Gaza, where proxy-type conflicts simmer, and set back Israel’s bridge-building in the Gulf. It could empower reactionary forces in June’s Iranian presidential election and dash reformists’ hopes. Its polarising effect endangers all Israelis.

As Netanyahu surely knows, overt confrontation may also force the Europeans to publicly take Israel’s side, upsetting their delicate diplomatic balancing act. It’s already happening. Last week, France, Germany and the UK jointly condemned Iran’s enrichment plan but made no mention of sabotage at Natanz.

The descent into violence has been accelerating since Trump and Netanyahu trashed the nuclear deal three years ago, Pinkas argued. “During this period, a primarily air, occasional land and cyber-war campaign against Iranian targets was extended into maritime operations… and targeted assassinations on Iranian soil… The last several days are not a qualitative escalation but an outing. This is no longer a shadow war… This is war.”

Netanyahu’s machinations personally challenge Biden. There’s no love lost between the two men. They disagree sharply on Palestine. Biden distrusts Netanyahu’s Saudi cronies. He has not forgotten the slights and insults of the Obama years and the cosiness with Trump and the Republicans. He will not be railroaded into another Middle East conflict.

“Biden is well positioned to put the squeeze on Netanyahu... [His] commitment to Israel is long established,” Kaplan wrote. “It is as good a time as any for a US president to make clear that US interests cannot be subordinated to the domestic political strategies of a prime minister, not even an Israeli prime minister.”

Such sentiments constitute a warning. Netanyahu says his country is not bound by agreements reached by others, even its “best friends”. Yet Israel cannot take American goodwill for granted indefinitely. The latest US intelligence assessment flatly contradicts Netanyahu: it finds no evidence Iran is trying to build a bomb.

Although weakened, wounded, risibly disorganised, divided, Covid-ravaged, corrupt and badly led, Iran remains a threat. But politically speaking, Netanyahu is the bigger danger right now. Israelis should sack him before he does any more harm.