Benjamin Netanyahu wants another war; a war in “self-defence”, of course, but a war nonetheless. Fresh from defending himself from rock-throwing teenagers and the lo-tech home-made rockets of Hamas, he now wants a war with Iran. This is nothing new. Were it not for his generals and a relatively cool administration in the White House under Barack Obama, there would almost certainly have been a serious conflict in the last decade or so which, despite all its technological military wizardry, Israel would have lost. Effectively, the Israeli prime minister wants a war that he knows he can’t win.
The Israel Defence Forces could launch their fancy missiles to take out the alleged centres of Iran’s alleged nuclear programme, while, hopefully, balking at using their own, very real, nuclear weapons of mass destruction. Tehran could then make one phone call to Iran’s friends in Hezbollah, who could make Israel a living hell for the following few months. Israel’s citizenry could then bleed on the streets, victims of vicious and cowardly suicide bombings.
Israel’s fancy tanks might then push north into Lebanon, but there they would face the only armed forces in the Middle East that have beaten them. So the IDF would resort to yet more fancy rockets, rained down on Lebanese civilians, to make up for its lack of military edge. It might even head for Gaza and bomb Palestinian civilians as well.
The public would soon grow tired of Netanyahu, though, at which point, at best, a more moderate leadership would take a grip of Tel Aviv, and the warring would stop. At worst, an even more extreme far-right regime would take power. It would have fewer compunctions, perhaps, about using Israel’s very real nuclear arsenal against Iran. The result of that scenario would be Armageddon in the Middle East.
This is why the more sensible generals in the IDF oppose Netanyahu. Forget the more wide-eyed Iranian hardliners bidding for Israel’s destruction, Netanyahu could inadvertently do it himself.
As the Israeli prime minister touches down in Washington this week, then, the arrangements of power have changed. Fed up with Netanyahu’s over-heated fear of Iran’s nuclear capability, which was once a very real intention but has since faded away, the Western powers have negotiated an imperfect but workable nuclear deal. Netanyahu has stood against it.
So too have his new allies in the Saudi, UAE, Egyptian, Jordanian and Bahraini governments. “Surrounded by enemies,” as the pro-Israel lobby bleats so often, doesn’t seem so keen an analysis now that Israel is in a remarkably friendly neighbourhood.
Aligned on their joint fear of a rising Iran — and Iran is definitely rising — the Israelis and the Sunni states are now largely friendly. Qatar is the exception, but the UAE intelligence services and Israel’s burgeoning cyber security sector act together closely. Saudi Arabia was close, when Prince Bandar was around, to a similarly full-blooded dalliance, but the overall mood in Riyadh is now cautious. Nevertheless, the old adage, “your enemy’s enemy is your friend”, is an enduring proverb, and for good reason. As for Egypt, the duplicitous Sisi has covered the Israelis’ back by blockading Gaza from the south.
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In the pre-deal world, any Sunni Arab state rushing to the defence of Israel would make little sense, given their long-standing animosity. Now, with Iran having taken the unpopular move of backing Assad as well as the nuclear deal, an Israel-led war with Tehran would almost certainly mean the Gulf Co-Operation Council, minus Qatar, would wage war on Israel’s side. That is a regional war that would make Syria look like a playground brawl.
Further afield, the Russians and Chinese have had no compunctions about arming Bashar Al-Assad in Damascus, and they would surely have no problem continuing to arm Tehran, as they have done for many years. The United States, of course, would come to the Israelis’ aid. Donald Trump, with his huge business interests in the Gulf and his part-time role as a hawkish US President masquerading as an “isolationist” may well be convinced of this already. He has surrounded himself with anti-Iran hawks who would goad the ignoramus on. Once America is involved directly, we have a world war by any definition.
I talked last time about the nodding head of Theresa the Appeaser when she met Netanyahu in London. May stopped nodding for one brief moment when the Israeli leader talked about Iran and, for all her legion of failings, she did stand up to him on that point. Will Trump also stand up to him when they meet in the White House this week?
For the time being, we should be quixotically optimistic that none of the above will happen. There are many hawks — Senator John McCain being a good example — who may blink if the war with Iran which has been advocated for so long comes to fruition.
Furthermore, Trump doesn’t like losing, and boy would America lose if it takes on Iran. The country has the world’s most adept intelligence services in proxy and guerrilla warfare; think Hamas, the Kurdish PKK, the Iraqi anti-American and anti-Sunni fighters, Hezbollah and, allegedly, the Houthis in Yemen. Israel has almost zero experience of this potent and highly relevant form of warfare; the kind that actually wins wars. The Americans have experience from Afghanistan — back in the increasingly distant Cold War past — but they have joined the Saudis, Qataris and Emiratis in failing to dislodge Assad or Hezbollah through spectacular mismanagement of the Syrian rebels.
Either way, if a war between Israel and Iran were to erupt, it would not end up being a war between those countries alone. It would be a world war. Do Netanyahu and Trump really want that? These are difficult times; who really knows what they think?