Israel, Syria, Iran and the War to Come
On Saturday an Iranian drone entered Israeli airspace and was shot down by an Israeli helicopter a minute and a half later. This set of events put Israel and Iran in direct confrontation for the first time. The drone originated from a base controlled by the Syrian Air Force that has also been used by Iranian forces. In response, Israel launched a military attack, bombing the base and other Iranian-held positions in Syria and ultimately taking out nearly half of Syria’s air defense system. In the process, an Israeli F-16 was shot down—the first since 1986—but both pilots survived.
Moment speaks with investigative reporter and author of the new blockbuster Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations, Ronen Bergman, to explain what happened this weekend—and its implications for the future.
Is there an imminent threat of war?
I don’t think so. I think that it’s now calmed down. But there are all the ingredients needed for another confrontation. I have been warning about this for a very long time because on one hand, you have three forces that are hostile to Israel with an appetite for retaliation. Israel has been bombing them for a very long time without their ability to counter that or send their forces. So, they have a great appetite for revenge. The other factors in the area, whose behavior are contributing to the tension and to the recipe of confrontation, are Russia and the United States. The Russians are not very keen to have an Iranian-Israeli confrontation, but they will do nothing to prevent it because their set of interests has other priorities. Therefore, they will allow the Iranians to continue their deployment.
Where is Washington in all this?
I think that the U.S. could have taken a far more decisive and important role. But the U.S. has practically evacuated the Middle East. Not everything can be put on the shoulders of Donald Trump. Throughout the last five years, Israel has been able to act more or less freely in Syria. This goes back to what I have been saying for a very long time, that the U.S. could have done much more in order to help the refugees and prevent at least some of the atrocities that happened in Syria. The decision that was taken by President Obama was wrong, and it was followed by yet another wrong decision by President Trump. The Israelis have pleaded with the United States many times, trying to convince the Americans to exercise more pressure on Russia, in order for the Russians to use their leverage on the Iranians not to deploy. That didn’t happen, and some Israelis are very frustrated with the Americans for not doing enough in order to prevent that. So Israel feels alone. And history has proven that there is nothing worse that you can do to Israel than to give the Israelis the feeling that they are left alone.
What impact will Netanyahu’s indictments have?
I’m not sure that it will have an effect. There are conspiracy theorists who say that Netanyahu is going to launch a war in order to divert attention. With all due respect to these theories, I haven’t seen Netanyahu doing anything of that kind during the many years he’s been the prime minister. On the contrary, Netanyahu is not a trigger-happy person. He’s not into confrontation. He knows that confrontations have a disastrous potential for his career even if they save him from another problem momentarily. It’s not that it cannot happen, but it still needs to be proven. But even without Netanyahu initiating this, all the ingredients of a recipe for a confrontation are there anyway. And that could happen—and will happen—unless the two superpowers join forces together to make sure that it doesn’t.
Your book argues that Israel may have won militarily but lost its moral authority in the process. How does this idea apply here?
I referred mainly to the Palestinian issue. I’m not sure that, when dealing with Hezbollah or the Iranians right now, diplomacy will bring a better ending. Because I think these forces are still in a stage where they will only react to force. Iranians only signed the nuclear deal because the West—including Israel—exercised extreme pressure on them in various fronts. I think that the ongoing special operations tactics that Israel has employed against Hezbollah in Iran is different. They have proved to be effective.
But I do think we have another security problem that Netanyahu is not addressing: the danger of eruption of violence in the West Bank. Again, all the ingredients for such a recipe are there. Frustration, no political horizon, no discourse with Israel, the continuation of the settlements. These people will see no alternative but to resort to violence. That could be prevented by a truthful, meaningful dialogue with the Palestinians, and that doesn’t happen because Netanyahu doesn’t want it to. He believes that his political survival is dependent on right-wingers. And the right-wingers will never agree to a two-state solution, which can be the only outcome from a fruitful negotiation with the Palestinians.