Trump's Iran decision is victory for Netanyahu — but now come the risks

Israel’s prime minister has spent much of his career warning against the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran. Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal is vindication for Benjamin Netanyahu. But as Derek Stoffel writes, it could come with a cost for Israel.

Shadow war in Syria between Israel and its arch-enemy Iran has country on high alert

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking during a visit to Cyprus on Monday, has spent much of his political career opposing Iran's nuclear ambitions. (Yiannis Kourtoglou/Reuters)

His laser-like focus on Iran as an enemy of Israel began more than a quarter of a century ago, when the up-and-coming member of the Israeli parliament penned a warning that would become his political battle cry for the decades that followed.

"The most dangerous threat to Israel's existence is not in the Arab world, but rather in Iran," Benjamin Netanyahu wrote in the newspaper Yeditoh Ahronoth back in 1993, when he was member of the Knesset for the Likud party.

Netanyahu, who now serves as Israel's prime minister, won one of the biggest political victories of his long career Monday when U.S. President Donald Trump echoed Netanyahu's long-held concerns and pulled the United States out the Iranian nuclear deal.

"Israel fully supports President Trump's bold decision," Netanyahu said, thanking him for "courageous leadership."

An Israeli soldier stands on a tank as another jumps off it near the Israeli side of the border with Syria in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on Wednesday. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)
But the risks Israel and its prime minister face became clear in the minutes before Trump entered the Diplomatic Room of the White House to announce his decision. Israel's military announced that its forces are now on "high alert" in the northern part of the country, where bomb shelters in the Golan Heights have been opened up.

The worry for Israel is that Trump's withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement could embolden Tehran to retaliate against Israel for a number of recent airstrikes in Syria, believed to be carried out by Israeli warplanes.

The most recent incident unfolded about an hour after Trump spoke in Washington, when explosions were reported near Damascus. Syrian state media reported that eight Iranians were among the 15 killed in the attack.

Mysterious air raids

This yet another in a string of bombings that are thought to be part of the shadow war Israel is engaged in with the Iranians, who have built up their military muscle — including stockpiling surface-to-surface missiles — inside Syria. 

Israeli military officials began warning of a possible Iranian retaliatory strike following another mysterious attack against the T-4 airbase in central Syria one month ago, where Iranians were also killed.

A tank can be seen on a flatbed trailer as it is carried on a road near the Israeli side of the border with Syria in the Golan Heights Wednesday. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)

"If the enemy casts a covetous eye on our interests or conducts a slight act of aggression, the Islamic Republic will give an appropriate response at an appropriate time," said Iran's military chief, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, according to a statement carried by regime-affiliated Press TV.

Netanyahu said earlier this week Israel is "prepared for any scenario.

"We are determined to block Iran's aggression against us, even if this means a struggle. Better now than later," he told reporters in Jerusalem before his weekly meeting with his cabinet.

'Resounding victory'

Netanyahu's speech railing against the nuclear deal to the U.S. Congress in 2015 angered former U.S. president Barack Obama, who negotiated the agreement. European diplomats have also been frustrated at the the prime minister's hardline stance against the accord.

But at home, Netanyahu — a polarizing figure in Israeli politics — enjoys widespread support from across the political spectrum in his obsession with Iran as an existential threat to Israel.

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani threatened to restart his country's enrichment of uranium during a speech that followed Donald Trump's decision on the Iran nuclear deal. (Reuters)

"Every rational Israeli should today cheer Trump and admit honestly, with no relation to political affiliation, that this is also [Benjamin] Netanyahu's resounding victory," wrote Ben Caspit, a political commentator often critical of the prime minister.

The prime minister's victory will boost the image he projects as the only Israeli politician who can keep the country safe from its fiercest foe. It could also help calm the upcoming political storm expected if he is charged in a series of corruption investigations.

Israel forced to act?

But if Trump's decision does bring the death of the Iran nuclear deal, that brings risks for Netanyahu and Israel.

Already Iran's president Hassan Rouhani has threatened to jump start uranium enrichment "without limitations," a signal that the country would restart its nuclear program.

That could force Israel and its allies to take action to stop Iran from building a nuclear weapon — the security threat that keeps Israel's military brass up at night.

"Without broad international support for tough, effective sanctions, the only option for stopping Iran will be military action," said Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli general who commanded the country's military intelligence division.

"President Trump does not want another war in the Middle East, and it's hard to envision his spearheading a military course of action to block the Iranian nuclear program," he said. "Ultimately, the task will most likely only be ours."

An Israeli soldier gestures near mobile artillery units in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on Wednesday. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)


Derek Stoffel

World News Editor

Derek Stoffel is a former Middle East correspondent, who covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war. Based in Jerusalem for many years, he covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.