Israel Pulse

Netanyahu's Chinese Wall

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Article Summary
On an official visit to Beijing, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to convince China that a nuclear Iran threatens the stability of not only the Middle East, but also the global energy market, writes Ben Caspit.        

The following is what a high-ranking Israeli politico, of the kind that is deeply involved in the goings-on and makes the fateful decisions, had to say this week. “Nobody knows how all this is going to end in Syria.” He continued, “It turns out that it’s much more complicated and complex than we thought. The conflict there has three prongs. It’s national, religious and ethnic. Everything is intertwined there. It’s the Sunnis against the Shiites; it’s the Alawites against everybody else. You’ve got Kurds and Christians and Druze there — you’ve got it all. There’s also the Hezbollah against al-Qaeda, and all of this creates a huge radioactive powder keg just waiting to explode. Not to mention the innumerable interests at play in Syria. Every powerful country has its finger in the pie, from Iran via Turkey and China, Russia, the US and France; even Israel is stuck deep in the mire, and the situation can explode at any moment and in any direction.”

In the high-ranking source’s statements, I recognized a longing for what once was in Syria. He didn’t confirm this, but didn’t deny it either. He said that we used to know who was who. Back then, things were stable, there was someone we could rely on, we knew who the enemy was, what the threats were. There were intelligence objectives, we could define targets and make assessments. Today, according to the same source, it’s a free-for-all. Problems can spring up anywhere, at any given point in time. He didn’t say that he missed the "old" Syria, Assad’s Syria, but you could tell from the well-placed Israeli political source that they were starting to yearn for what was. That’s life in the Middle East. Nothing ever changes for the better. You’re always longing for what was, no matter how bad it might have been.

What’s going on now in Syria is that everyone has become embroiled in the war. Today, it’s hard to distinguish between the various axes of evil. Hezbollah raised its bet at the table yesterday on May 9, when it confirmed, through a statement issued by its secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, that Syria had committed to give the group “everything it's got.” The Syrians themselves have ceremoniously stated that they will respond to the next Israeli attack. Will there be another Israeli attack? Nobody can answer that question for sure. The Russians joined the festivities with new announcements of their plans to sell 300 missiles to the Syrians, who will certainly pass them on to Hezbollah. Would that cross the Israeli red line? What would the US say? It’s complicated, volatile and tense.

To date, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made the right calls and shown constraint when carrying them out, which isn’t very typical of Netanyahu. It could be that time has taken its toll, and Bibi has learned. The question is what will he do from here on out. The more time passes, the higher the bets at the poker table will be. Netanyahu’s diplomatic-security cabinet couldn’t be smaller or more amenable. Just seven members, three of whom have no real experience, including two who have never served as ministers (Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Trade and Industry Minister Naftali Bennett). Netanyahu can push anything he wants through his cabinet. The material the cabinet members and secret subcommittee of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee have seen is scary and unequivocal. The momentum for a follow-up attack on Syria was created skillfully and based on logic and responsibility. The only problem is that the result of those strikes could be ruinous and worse than the potential result of not attacking.

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In Israel, people are speaking of escalation, of the possibility of a conflict that starts with an attack on Damascus, moves on to a joint missile attack on Israel both by Hezbollah and Syria (with the help of the Hamas) and morphs into the first Israel-Iran war. Those are scenarios where this is a loss of control by one and all, where the players are pushed into quick and tough responses against the actions of the enemy, without anybody being able to extinguish the flames. As of this moment, there are simply not enough moderating forces in Israel that can take this type of deterioration into account. All we can do is put our faith in Netanyahu himself, hoping that he implements his own independent checks and balances. When Ron Dermer, tapped as the next Israeli ambassador to the US, said that Netanyahu is the least trigger-happy prime minister Israel has ever had, he was right. It’s hard to decide whether Netanyahu’s limited show of force stemmed from fear or a sense of responsibility, but as of this moment, it’s a fact and one that could blow up at any moment. In any event, I don’t envy those who have to make the next decisions.

On his visit to China on May 6, Prime Minister Netanyahu tried to get the Chinese to move away a bit from their traditional position that does not view a nuclear Iran as a burning international issue, and does not go out of its way to calm the radical forces in the region. The Chinese, according to the Israeli defense establishment, are simply not afraid of Iran and discount it. In Israel, they say that China is so big that even an Iranian nuclear attack against it does not constitute a real threat. The Chinese could absorb the brunt of such an attack relatively easily, and then wipe Iran off the map without even breaking a sweat. They are convinced that Iran wouldn’t dare threaten them or even imagine that it was threatening them. However, China needs energy. China is increasingly dependent on Iranian oil and wants to undermine US hegemony in the Middle East to the extent possible and prevent the US from gaining control or undue influence over the major oil exporters in the Persian Gulf. When you put all of these ingredients into the pan and bake them, you get China’s infuriating policy on Iran.

But that’s not all. According to Israeli defense sources, the Chinese continue to pour huge amounts of money into their military. More precisely, according to Israeli sources, nobody on the planet, not even the Americans, has a clear idea of how much money the Chinese allocate to their annual defense budget. It is a well-kept secret, and the Chinese intentionally keep it fuzzy. Some in the West believe that the huge sums are much higher that what the US spends, which gives us pause and makes us woefully wonder what the Chinese are planning in the short- and medium-term.

Given all of this very worrisome data, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to China this week in an attempt to persuade. Netanyahu has fine skills of persuasion, but they are mainly relevant in English. The Chinese don’t really hear English, they prefer Chinese. Netanyahu explained that a nuclear Iran won’t necessarily use weapons against them. It won’t have to. Iran will simply disrupt shipments of oil from the Persian Gulf. It would be able to close the Strait of Hormuz whenever it feels like it. Nobody will be able to deter it. Look at what they are doing now, when they are still not a nuclear power, Netanyahu said to the Chinese, look at their involvement in terror, the pressure they put on their neighbors in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula, look at their audaciousness, what they invest to spread the Islamic Revolution and jihad around the world, and imagine what they could do after they have a bomb. Even you, in China, would not be immune, Netanyahu told the Chinese. But, as already noted, he said so in English. The Chinese, as already stated above, speak Chinese.

Ben Caspit is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse. He is also a senior columnist and political analyst for Israeli newspapers, and has a daily radio show and regular TV shows on politics and Israel. On Twitter: @BenCaspit

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Found in: visit, syrian, jihadists, iranian oil, iran, hezbollah, defense

Ben Caspit is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse. He is also a senior columnist and political analyst for Israeli newspapers and has a daily radio show and regular TV shows on politics and Israel. On Twitter: @BenCaspit

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