JERUSALEM — In three bold moves this week — with F-15s, a PowerPoint presentation and the passage of a contentious new law — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has strengthened his hand in trying to foil Iran’s strategic ambitions, while potentially pulling the two nations closer to direct conflict.
In Syria late Sunday, F-15s, widely assumed to be Israel’s, struck facilities where Iran and its proxies had entrenched themselves. The attack on a storage site near Hama destroyed 200 missiles and killed at least 16 people, 11 of them Iranians.
In Tel Aviv the next evening, Mr. Netanyahu gave a bravura PowerPoint performance on live television from inside the Defense Ministry, flaunting the booty pilfered from a secret Tehran warehouse by an intrepid Mossad team — evidence, he said, of Iranian deceit about its long-running efforts to develop a nuclear bomb.
The revelation came less than two weeks before President Trump is to announce a decision on whether to withdraw from the international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program. Israeli officials portrayed it as an attempt to provide Mr. Trump — Mr. Netanyahu’s close ally — with backing for the decision, which they believe the president has already made.
Even as Mr. Netanyahu was speaking, his coalition in Parliament was pushing through a bill that would shift the power to go to war or carry out a military operation from the full cabinet to the smaller security cabinet — and, under “extreme circumstances,” allow the prime minister and defense minister alone to order such action.
In short order, Mr. Netanyahu had managed to exploit important political, military and intelligence advantages to advance his agenda on both the nuclear and conventional fronts, intensify the pressure on Iran, and free his hand under Israeli law to take the country to war without cabinet approval.
Taken together, his moves have prompted longtime observers of the prime minister, whom they have long credited with a healthy aversion to all-out warfare, to ask if he may have turned to a grim new way of thinking.
“All these years he was trigger-unhappy,” said Nahum Barnea, a respected columnist at Yediot Ahronoth. “And I believe that we should appreciate him for being so cautious about using military power. Now, it seems that he is pushing everybody toward a more hostile environment.”
Mr. Barnea said the hostile political environment Mr. Netanyahu faces could also be a factor: He is awaiting a likely indictment in a sprawling corruption scandal; he is believed to want to hold elections before any criminal charges materialize; and he has been presenting himself to his political base as the only Israeli leader capable of keeping the country safe.
“I don’t rule out any reason,” Mr. Barnea said. “And I’m sure there is more than one reason.”
All three actions this week further Mr. Netanyahu’s longtime goals.
As early as 2010, he sought to prepare for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, but was stopped repeatedly by his own cabinet. He railed against the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement from its inception under President Barack Obama, contending it would allow Tehran to threaten Israel with atomic weapons within a decade’s time. And he has vowed for months to prevent Iran from establishing a conventional offensive threat to Israel from inside Syria.
The new war powers law, approved Monday on a vote of 62 to 41, was not written with the current skirmishes with Iran or the current prime minister and defense minister in mind, according to one of the measure’s architects.
Still, critics note that the corruption cases against Mr. Netanyahu, and the lack of security experience in his defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, could raise questions about their motivations should they decide to take Israel to war.
And while the power applies only in “extreme circumstances,” the law does not define what those are.
Some experts said the new law may not have a dramatic effect. The prime minister and defense minister are unlikely to go to war without strong political backing and the support of the military and security agencies, some experts said, which have proven in the past to be cautious.
“A government cannot go to war, no matter what the law says, without a national consensus,” said Shlomo Avineri, professor emeritus of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “Obviously a prime minister under investigation is limited by the kind of choices he can take, and they will be scrutinized even more than usual.”
Crucially, the show of force in Syria and the show-and-tell of spycraft both come as Iran is constrained from plunging into a shooting war with Israel, either by itself or by proxy. Its own public is increasingly restive. Its close ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah, which might otherwise be counted on to retaliate against Israel, is reined in, at least for the moment, by elections on May 6, in which it is fielding candidates.
Most of all, with President Trump set to announce his decision on the nuclear agreement by May 12, Iran is unlikely to give Mr. Trump any fresh excuses to quit it.
“That’s just an opportunity for Israel to do what needs to be done, and at relatively low cost,” said Daniel Shapiro, the former United States ambassador to Israel under Mr. Obama.
Analysts said Mr. Netanyahu’s fight to arrest Iran’s conventional-arms buildup in Syria was linked not merely by coincidence of timing to his efforts to deny Tehran a nuclear option. Just as North Korea amassed a huge arsenal of artillery to threaten Seoul while it worked to develop nuclear arms, Mr. Shapiro said, Iran is seeking to threaten Israeli territory, with drones and precision-guided missiles from within Syria, “while it uses time and negotiations and delays to advance their nuclear ambitions.”
Amos Yadlin, a former chief of Israel’s military intelligence who now heads the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said Iran’s nuclear and conventional threats were “aimed at the same goal: to destroy Israel.”
Mr. Yadlin said the nuclear deal had succeeded in stopping Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons for a number of years.
“So they built a conventional force against Israel in Syria — with ballistic missiles, with precise guidance,” he said. “And this is the most dangerous threat towards Israel today in 2018.”
If Mr. Trump walks away from the nuclear agreement, Mr. Yadlin said, depending on Iran’s response it could lead to a military clash between Israel and Iran perhaps years down the road. “But a clash in the north can happen this week, this month,” he warned.
Increasingly in recent years, Mr. Netanyahu has spoken with almost prophetic fervor about stopping Iran. Yet for all of his assertive moves this week, analysts said it remained unclear where exactly they were intended to lead. In particular, if he succeeds in scuttling the nuclear agreement with Iran, then what?
“He didn’t give us Israelis any logical scenario for what will happen after the American decision,” Mr. Barnea said. “How the Iranians will be less nuclear after it. How confident he is that this action by the U.S. will deter Iran and not speed up its nuclear process. This is something he never elaborated on. And it’s time he does it.”
The heightened tension with Iran, along with the Knesset’s enactment of the lowered threshold to declaring war, came as a surprise, Mr. Barnea said. “Suddenly, they’re faced with a big question mark: Where are we heading?”
“Maybe,” Mr. Barnea added, “he feels his war has come.”
Isabel Kershner contributed reporting.
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