Netanyahu’s ‘War’ Comment Wasn’t an Accident

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- On Wednesday, before the opening of the Warsaw Ministerial conference on the Middle East, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to an Israeli TV reporter. The gathering of more 60 nations -- including Arab countries -- is, he said, an important step in pursuing their “common interest in advancing war with Iran."

This was the official English translation of the prime minister’s remark, published by the Government Press Office of Israel. An hour or so later, Netanyahu’s office removed the word "war" and watered down the comment to a "common interest in combating Iran." This change was explained as the correction of a translating error. It wasn't. Netanyahu plainly said “war”; and he meant war.

This is election season in Israel and Netanyahu has gone public, much to the consternation of senior military officers, on Israel’s almost daily military action against Iran and its surrogates in Syria. This week, he also warned the Iranian leadership that if it dared to attack Israel (as it threatened on the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution) he would put an end to the regime in Tehran.

Netanyahu is usually a careful speaker, especially in front of cameras. Saying belligerent things about Iran at home, in Hebrew, is part of ordinary Likud campaign language. But calling for war sounded wrong at a conference nominally dedicated to peacemaking in the Middle East. And so he ate the word.

There was, it turned out, no need. Previous U.S. administrations would have encouraged him to tamp down his rhetoric, but this time, there was nothing but approval. In a joint photo-op with Bibi, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo not only declined to criticize Netanyahu, he all but endorsed his war cry. “You can’t achieve peace and stability in the Middle East without confronting Iran,” Pompeo told a reporter who asked about Bibi’s statement. “The Islamic Republic is a malign influence in Lebanon, in Yemen, in Syria and in Iraq.”

The Trump administration has largely bought into Netanyahu’s view that regime change is the only real answer to the Iranian threat. Whatever the nominal purpose of the Warsaw conference, its real goal is to build a wartime coalition. If economic warfare proves sufficient to bring down the Mullahs, fine. But if not, “pushback” will come in more kinetic forms.

It is a classic case of being careful about your wishes. In Warsaw, the U.S. made Netanyahu the de facto leader of the war on the Islamic Republic. It is a thankless role, and potentially a dangerous one.

Trump is an unreliable and unpredictable ally, as he has demonstrated in Syria. He hates Iran today, but he might fall in love with it tomorrow, just as he did with North Korea. And if that happens, Netanyahu -- and, more to the point, Israel -- will be all alone on a very large and bloody battlefield. The Arab friends Netanyahu thinks he has will scatter and make their own deals with Tehran.   

In the unlikely event that Trump actually does go to war with Iran, he will probably lose. The lesson of Iraq is that the U.S. can’t win a war in the Middle East without public support. Trump won’t get it, even at home. When things go bad, Israel will be blamed for dragging the U.S. into an unnecessary conflict for its own selfish reasons.

Maybe Trump believes that Israel, on its own, can win a shooting war that brings down the regime in Tehran. If so, he is mistaken. The Israeli Defense Forces can win tactical air battles in Syria. Stopping Iran’s spread toward Israeli territory is a worthwhile and proportional use of military force. But Israel lacks the manpower and the will to participate even in the invasion and occupation of nearby Iranian proxies in Gaza and Lebanon.

Netanyahu is not normally trigger happy or given to wishful thinking (despite his occasional flights of heroic rhetoric). That is what makes his “war” gaffe in Warsaw so alarming. Bibi’s idol is Winston Churchill and it is possible that he now sees himself in a similar role. It’s not one that fits him (any more than that of FDR fits Donald Trump). If he is dreaming bigger, he needs to wake up before he leads his country, and the world, into a misadventure that he won’t be able to blame on his translators.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.

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