Liberman warns Iranian anti-aircraft systems in Syria could shut Israel skies

Liberman warns Iranian anti-aircraft systems in Syria could shut Israel skies

Defense minister vows Israel will not let Tehran set up a presence on the northern border; predicts Europe will fail to keep nuclear deal with Iran in face of US sanctions

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman leads a faction meeting of his Yisrael Beytenu party at the Knesset on May 7, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman leads a faction meeting of his Yisrael Beytenu party at the Knesset on May 7, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman warned Wednesday that an Iranian military entrenchment in Syria could see the deployment of anti-aircraft systems that would close Israeli air space as far as Tel Aviv to military and civilian traffic alike.

Liberman cast doubt that Israel is on the verge of a war with Iran But while Jerusalem is doing everything it can to prevent an escalation, he said, it is also preparing for any eventuality.

Liberman gave interviews to major television networks in which he talked about the current face-off with Iran that has seen defense officials warn of an imminent Iranian missile strike on northern Israel.

“If the Iranians are going to set up anti-aircraft systems that close our air traffic up to Tel Aviv, including civilian flights, no one is going to accept that,” he told Channel 10 news. “Let’s imagine that Israel would try to put a system next to the border with Iran, how would they respond in Iran. How would the international community respond?”

Israel has vowed to prevent Iran from establishing forward bases in Syria, fearing they could be used to launch strikes against the Jewish State, and also to prevent advanced weapons from reaching Iran’s Lebanese proxy, the Hezbollah terror group. A number of deadly air strikes against Syrian targets which reportedly destroyed Iranian military assets, have been attributed to Israel.

Speaking to Hadashot news, Liberman said: “I don’t think we are on the eve of war. We are doing everything to not cause an escalation, but we are prepared for every development.The Iranians are trying to build a third front on the Syrian Golan Heights. We will never allow Syria to become a forward base against Israel.”

“We have a very simple policy: if someone is about to launch rockets at us, we will try to preempt him,” Liberman continued. “It is not always infallible, and it is impossible to always seal things hermetically — buy we must make a 100% effort to defend the security of Israel’s citizens. The message will reach those who need it — it is not worth your while to launch rockets at Israel.”

An Iron Dome missile defense system, designed to intercept and destroy incoming short-range rockets and artillery shells, is deployed in northern Israel on May 7, 2018. (Jalaa Mary/AFP)

On Tuesday night, the IDF released a highly unusual warning to residents of the Golan Heights, calling for local governments to open public bomb shelters, after “abnormal movements of Iranian forces in Syria” were identified by Military Intelligence.

The army also announced it had deployed missile defense batteries in northern Israel and said “there is high preparedness of IDF troops for an attack.”

Hours later, Syrian state media reported Israel conducted an airstrike in el-Kisweh, south of Damascus, an area that had previously been identified as the site of an Iranian military base. Israel refuses to comment on its operations abroad, as a matter of policy.

The army’s announcement on Tuesday night followed multiple warnings by Israeli defense officials of a potential Iranian missile strike on military targets in northern Israel and came just before US President Donald Trump announced that the United States was pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and imposing new sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

An Israeli artillery unit takes position near the Syrian border on the Golan Heights on May 9, 2018. (Jalaa Marey/AFP)

The so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action saw Iran agree to dismantle the weapons-capable aspects of its nuclear development program in return for the lifting of sanctions. As part of the US exit from the deal, Trump said he will reintroduce even stronger economic sanctions on Iran.

Speaking Wednesday to Hadashot news, Liberman predicted that European countries who responded to the US withdrawal by saying they will maintain the 2015 agreement with Iran, would find it hard going because of the sanctions.

“The sanctions that Trump is talking about are not only on Iran, but on all the companies that trade with it,” Liberman said. “They [European countries] need to choose: the Iranian market or the US market. I don’t believe any European company will act against the sanctions.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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