The Iranians studied the way the Israeli security echelon under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu handled the nuclear crisis at the beginning of the decade, and they have no reason to assume that something in him has changed: All talk and no action. Business as usual.
Today it’s already clear, more than in the past, that the Iranians didn’t take Israel’s threats to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities seriously—not even during the critical years, 2011-2012, when the Israeli government created the impression that it was prepared and about to make a decision to destroy the Iranian nuclear project at any given moment.
Western diplomats who served in Tehran during those years, Iranian exiles residing in the West and other sources are able to tell their Israeli colleagues today that the Iranians were never afraid of an independent Israeli strike at the time. They were afraid of an American attack that would perhaps be carried out together with Israel or as a result of an Israeli provocation that would push the United States to launch a military operation.
According to reports that accompanied the nuclear crisis in the beginning of the decade, then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak maintained as well that Israel could attack on its own, as a last resort. But an effective attack with international backing, which wouldn’t leave Israel in a state of isolation, could only be carried out together with the US.
There were some people in Israel who estimated that the Americans would discuss a joint military option with us only if they were convinced that Israel had the ability and willingness to carry out a military operation deep within Iran. Indeed, they did hold very concerned dialogues with Israel based on the intelligence they had, which indicated that Israel had acquired independent abilities to attack. The US closely followed the Israeli preparations and was updated—in an informal and unauthorized manner—by our own people, who believed that an Israeli strike was a dangerous idea.
At the end of the day, the Israeli military pressure created three phenomena: The Israeli public actually took its leadership seriously, and received a daily dose of anxiety over an unconventional war with Iran; the Americans stepped up their threats of military action and economic sanctions on Tehran, but that was what eventually led to an initial agreement with Iran in 2013, which Israel was left out of; and at the same time, in their difficult anxiety periods, the Americans promised to supply Israel with security aid in imaginary scopes, as long as it halted its military preparations, and even presented Israel with military abilities that they promised to use if Israel suffered the slightest damage.
Netanyahu, however, refused to be impressed by the American goodwill at the time: He believed that he, with his rhetoric power, would lead the American representatives against their president.
The national master of missed opportunities lost in every possible corner. He lost security aid in sums that Israel could only dream of, and received instead a generous annual grant—though one whose size was not unusual when compared to previous grants—from US President Barack Obama. That didn’t stop him from marketing this missed opportunity to the public as an extraordinary achievement.
Netanyahu never believed in the efficiency of economic sanctions as an absolute solution to the nuclear issue. Sanctions, as far as he is concerned, as just an interim stage. He believes in the military solution. In the Obama era, a joint Israeli-American attack was unrealistic. Donald Trump is giving him some hope that the military vision will be implemented, but according to the American president’s conduct so far, it’s a false hope.
Netanyahu is enjoying the image he has built for himself of the father of the military option against Iran: He is the one who identified the problem, he offered solutions, and thanks to him, the nuclear development in Iran was postponed.
These are half-truths. He is not the one who started the preparations for the military option—it was former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who, towards the end of his term, began allotting money to preparations for a major military operation, while favoring the Mossad’s secret activity. The military preparations continued during the Ehud Olmert era too, in which the Mossad was said to have scored impressive achievements in postponing the project.
Netanyahu was in the opposition at the time. He was in on the secret. He didn’t invent anything and didn’t offer anything new, apart from a series of eloquent speeches on the nuclear issue. The world moved in a different direction, leaving us behind. When he already presented his own strategy for a military move, he was overpowered by the army and the Mossad.
This is what is going to happen vis-à-vis Syria as well. Netanyahu will talk, threaten and sweep the masses off their feet, but it’s unlikely that Israel will carry out a wide-scale military operation that would pull the rug from under Iran’s feet in Syria. Moreover, it doesn’t seem like Israel is being included in any diplomatic moves that could support a military operation to drive the Iranians away from the region.