Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the British Conservative Party. He runs Brexit Analytics.
It’s the daily fare of tech executives. Al Gore toured the planet doing it after he lost to George W. Bush. Colin Powell even attempted it before the UN Security Council. But Benjamin Netanyahu made history Monday as he stood, TED talk-style in front of a huge LCD screen bearing two words in large print (but in an authoritative Roman typeface):
Like all TED talks, this didn’t tell us anything new. He informed us that Iran had got very far along the road to developing nuclear weapons (something so widely known that Iran was placed under sanctions), that Israel’s security agencies were able to break into what Netanyahu – so good with a phrase he should consider replacing Martin Sorrell at WPP – called the Islamic Republic’s “atomic archive” (keep up the good work, boys and girls of the Mossad) and that Tehran was not to be trusted (ask Salman Rushdie).
At least Netanyahu didn’t stand, legs splayed “as if he were wearing a golden codpiece”, in the manner of the debunked TED talk on body language that inspired so Cabinet ministers in the late Cameron era.
The first response of Israeli cynics (and what Israeli would deny being one?) is to suspect him of drumming up support for war. Police investigations into corruption are closing in; his rivals in the Likud party are preparing for the succession, and his party is growing weak in the opinion polls. It would be entirely in character for him to wrap himself in the flag.
But I think this does him a disservice. Though it hides it better now that the Holocaust denier who threatened to “wipe Israel off the map” isn’t president any more, Iran assuredly threatens Israel’s interests. Through Hezbollah it projects formidable power on Israel’s northern border. It helps finance Palestinian terrorists, and though the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the international deal to freeze Iran’s nuclear programme is called (tip to Home Office: if you’d called the Hostile Environment that, Amber Rudd might still be in post), is now in place, Tehran retains nuclear ambitions and could resume them after the JCPOA expires between 2028 and 2030.
Netanyahu has an obsession with the Iranian regime, which he considers the latest Haman (after the Babylonian king’s vizier from the Book of Esther, who tried to exterminate the Jews) that he’s been pursuing since at least when he left office for the first time in 1999, and has been trying to get someone to bomb Iran’s nuclear programme for years. Unable to convince his own generals (more on this in a moment), he turned his efforts to America, with little success.
But he senses a chance after Trump fired HR McMaster and replaced him with the decidedly more bellicose John Bolton. From Netanyahu’s perspective, the case for an American war against Iran’s nuclear facilities has an indirect as well as a direct benefit. Not only could it physically destroy those elements of the Iranian programme the JCPOA can’t reach; it would also force Iran to cope directly with military conflict against the world’s most powerful military. This could relieve pressure on Israel’s northern border and give Israel a freer hand in Syria.
And perhaps, if the war unfolded as planned, and as Netanyahu hoped when he toured Capitol Hill arguing for regime change against Saddam, it would. That war, which I, then a much younger man, supported, of course went disastrously wrong, and it was Iran that took advantage of the chaos. It despatched its Quds force (the expeditionary arm of the Revolutionary guards, called after the Arabic name for Jerusalem) to support Shia in Iraq, and helped establish the Popular Mobilisation Force militias there. It now has a permanent presence in Syria as well as Lebanon, and claims – not entirely without truth – to have helped defend their people from the fundamentalist barbarians of Isis.
Balancing the risk of unintended consequences like these against the intrusive inspection regime established by the JCPOA is what led Gadi Eizenkot to conclude:
‘Right now the agreement, with all its faults, is working and is putting off realisation of the Iranian nuclear vision by ten to 15 years.’
Gadi Eizenkot is Chief of Staff of the Israel Defence Forces – and if the IDF doesn’t think a security measure is necessary, it isn’t.