The ground is being prepared. Syria is Iran, and Iran is Syria. PM Netanyahu said as much on US television this past weekend. Addressing a wide American audience on the highly popular Sunday morning talk show “Meet the Press”, Netanyahu stated: “I don’t think Assad is in power. I think Iran is in power. Because basically Syria has become an Iranian protectorate. Iran’s henchmen, Hezbollah, are doing the fighting for Assad, for his army. To the extent he has an army, it’s the Hezbollah army.” The Israeli PM also added the following: “There is a danger of granting international legitimacy to a recalcitrant regime that is now participating in the mass slaughter of civilians — men, women and children — in Syria and has done so over the past two years.”
In his 1993 book, “A Place among the Nations”, Netanyahu devoted a good deal of his last chapter to the lack of media preparation leading to Israel’s massive invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Author Netanyahu went on to describe a situation whereby nations can win military battles but lose the political wars because they failed to present a narrative that made sense to a larger audience. This was certainly true for Lebanon in 1982. From the moment of the invasion, the Begin government was on the defensive. Arafat portrayed himself as the “innocent David” to Begin’s “superpower Goliath”. From that moment on, to this very day, the Arab-Israeli struggle turned and became instead the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Arafat understood that in the final analysis, politics can trump military power. He spun a narrative that was widely disseminated and possessed just enough of the appearance of truth to be believed. Of course, within the context of the greater region of the Middle East (including Iran and Turkey), Israel was still the “little David”. But the perception of reality can often outweigh the non-publicized facts of reality.
Regardless of one’s opinion of Netanyahu, one thing is clear: the PM is the ultimate communicator. Not unlike US President Ronald Reagan (“the great communicator”), Netanyahu has spent an entire career depicting for Western audiences the danger represented by the Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear program. Until this weekend, however, he has tended to stay clear of the Syrian civil war and Iran’s direct involvement. In fact, in a response to a direct question, Netanyahu answered that he didn’t want Assad to remain in power in Syria but preferred a “third way”, neither Assad (Iran) nor the Sunni terrorists. But clearly, some kind political ground is being prepared. The linkage between Hezbollah, Assad and Iran is being established. An American-led deal on the Iranian nuclear program, without addressing the regional context, is being portrayed as inadequate. When asked about the sanctions by “Meet the Press” interviewer, David Gregory, Netanyahu replied that Congress had applied the sanctions for a number of reasons. He listed Iran’s support of terrorism (Hezbollah), the situation in the Gulf (regional hegemony) and the nuclear issue.
This is either a brilliant tactical ploy, or the genuine widening of the daylight between the Obama Administration and the Netanyahu inner circle. If it’s tactical, the goal of the operation is to influence Congress. Obama believes that he can sell a deal to the Republicans and the moderate Democrats, but only if the deal is a good one. In his mind, a good deal is one of timing. The longer the time of nuclear breakout capacity, the better the deal. However, Obama knows that he might have to settle for a deal with shorter breakout capacity than he prefers. The US president would probably try to portray a semi-good (semi-bad) deal as a better option than war. Naturally, he would first take the deal to the American people. Of course, his description would be rosy. If Netanyahu’s approach is tactical, it means he will accept a deal with the widest possible time element for a breakout. In a recent op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, Amos Yadlin (ex-director of Israeli military intelligence) suggested that a good deal is better than war. In other words, if the PM accepts this thesis, he would merely be using the Iranian regional context to ensure that Congress doesn’t succumb to a semi-good (semi-bad) deal.
But what if Netanyahu’s linkages are strategic? It can only mean one of two things: either war or a grand bargain. Netanyahu has now linked Iran’s support for terrorism, it’s position on Gulf security and its nuclear program as a whole. Congressional sanctions must not be lifted until the entire package has been satisfied. If Congress buys into the Netanyahu approach, the good deal scenario would go out the window, and the negotiations would fail. Iran could never accept these terms without major US and Israeli concessions in return. Netanyahu knows this. He also knows that there are strong elements within his own military complex that would accept a good deal. Remember a so-called good deal will always allow Iran a minimum level of enrichment with the longest possible breakout time.
However Netanyahu, unlike Yadlin, has always said that he will not accept any enrichment. At this point in time, there is no way to achieve a zero enrichment deal without a grand bargain. Unless Netanyahu contemplates a grand bargain, his decision to link regional issues to the complete absence of enrichment is a deal breaker. So has Netanyahu chosen war? Or is he simply using a reasonable tactic to achieve the best deal possible?
The PM is not saying. Congress is talking tough. The hardliners in Iran include the Revolutionary Guards, the Expediency Council, large sections of the Parliament and potentially the Supreme Leader himself. The timing of the negotiations and sanction removal are fragile, to say the least. Bringing in the regional context without a grand bargain would make a negotiated success almost impossible. In this scenario, war appears inevitable.
I have continued to argue that a negotiated deal without a regional context is a bad deal. I agree with PM Netanyahu that there must be a regional linkage between Iranian support for Hezbollah, Assad, all hegemonic designs and a nuclear deal. My argument is strictly strategic. It is not clear exactly which way the Israeli leadership is leaning. But if PM Netanyahu is also operating on a strategic level, only one question remains: Is war inevitable, or could a grand bargain be the alternative?