Opposition raps PM for touting Syria strikes, ‘forcing’ Russian condemnation

Legislators say Netanyahu’s recent acknowledgements of Israeli actions against Iran north of the border are politically motivated, hamstring the army

Yesh Atid leader MK Yair Lapid speaks to the media in the Knesset, on December 24, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Yesh Atid leader MK Yair Lapid speaks to the media in the Knesset, on December 24, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced a torrent of criticism from the opposition on Wednesday, with legislators blaming his public confirmation of Israeli airstrikes in Syria for Russia’s call for Israel to halt such actions, and claiming the prime minister’s actions were guided by political considerations.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said earlier Israel should stop its “arbitrary” strikes in Syrian territory. It warned that such strikes encourage an “atmosphere of hostility in the region” and warned of the “possible consequences of provoking a new round of chaos in the Middle East.”

Yesh Atid party chairman Yair Lapid, one of Netanyahu’s top challengers in the upcoming April 9 election, said the Russian statement was a direct result of Netanyahu’s taking public responsibility for the recent strikes. He said the prime minister’s move was politically motivated.

“After years of quiet and efficient cooperation [with Moscow], Netanyahu’s election campaign has forced the Russians to come out against us in the Syrian arena,” Lapid said in a statement.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the opening ceremony of the new Ramon airport, near the southern city of Eilat on January 21, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The damage of one irresponsible message will take years to correct.”

Hatnua party leader Tzipi Livni concurred that Russia’s rebuke was “the consequence of Netanyahu’s reckless policy.” The premier, she said, was “breaking with Israel’s policy of ambiguity for personal political reasons, and is tying the IDF’s hands in the northern campaign.”

Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah called Moscow’s move “the final stamp on Netanyahu’s diplomatic failure on the northern frontier” and deemed the prime minister’s public acknowledgement of Israeli actions in Syria “a combination of unnecessary arrogance and blabber that is politically motivated.”

Labor MK Merav Michaeli said Netanyahu was “trading in national security” for the purpose of “campaign propaganda.”

Russia’s Ambassador to Israel Anatoly Viktorov appeared to confirm that such sentiments were shared by Moscow in a Tuesday interview.

Opposition headTzipi Livni attends a faction meeting in the Israeli parliament on November 19, 2018. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

“The Israeli ministry of defense now makes immediate comments on any strikes at a very, very high level,” he told i24 News, “and in our mind, this is very much connected to the election campaign.”

Netanyahu’s Likud party rejected the criticism, saying in a statement that former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot had stated “in his resignation speech this month that there were no political considerations in the prime minister’s [security] decisions.”

The IDF and top Israeli officials have increasingly taken to announcing strikes against Iranian forces in Syria, after years in which Israel maintained a policy of ambiguity, with reports of Israeli strikes coming from within Syria or from foreign news outlets.

Israel acknowledged carrying out airstrikes in Syria this week during a flareup with ‏Iran along the northern frontier. Netanyahu himself has publicly confirmed the matter and has even made snarky comments on social media: On Tuesday, he shared a post on Facebook that hailed him for “renovating” Damascus’s airport, referring to Israeli raids at the site. On Wednesday, he advised a top Iranian general to “look into the state of [his] bases in Syria.”

He similarly confirmed an attack in Syria last week.

Former officials were also critical of the new policy of public acknowledgment.

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert speaks during a conference in Tel Aviv, on February 7, 2018. (Flash90)

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert said Netanyahu was issuing “boastful” statements and talking about the strikes “at every opportunity,” in behavior he deemed “unbecoming.” He reasoned that even if “the other side may know we attacked, as long as we don’t use these facts to provoke the other side, there is less pressure on the other side to respond.”

Israel’s former head of military intelligence Amos Yadlin was also critical, telling 103 FM radio on Monday that Israel’s acknowledgement of strikes “restricts our freedom to act and boosts the probability of escalation.” He added, however, that Russia and Syria had also contributed to the loss of ambiguity by “announcing every Israeli strike” themselves.

Former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon on Tuesday said the loss of Israeli ambiguity was a major reason that Syria has begun to respond more strongly to Israel attacks with missile launches of its own. “We left them no choice, because we ate away at their ability to deny [such strikes had taken place].” He too accused Netanyahu of acting according to “political interests.”

Former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon speaks at an event in Jerusalem on December 27, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The prime minister has received support from some members of the security cabinet.

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz told Ynet on Monday: “Sometimes with these statements, we convey our red lines and our resolve” to the Iranians. He added that many actions Israel takes are not known to the public. “We’ve carried out many operations that haven’t been reported.”

Intelligence and Transportation Minister Israel Katz told Army Radio on Tuesday that Israel only confirms attacks “when it can increase deterrence and there’s no fear of a response.”

On Sunday, Israel reportedly conducted a rare daylight missile attack on Iranian targets in Syria. In response, Iran fired a surface-to-surface missile at the northern Golan Heights, which was intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system over the Mount Hermon ski resort, according to the Israel Defense Forces.

Hours later, in the predawn hours of Monday morning, the Israel Air Force launched retaliatory strikes on Iranian targets near Damascus and on the Syrian air defense batteries that fired upon the attacking Israeli fighter jets, the army said.

Twenty-one people were killed in the Israeli raids in Syria early Monday, 12 of them Iranian fighters, a Britain-based Syrian war monitor said on Tuesday.

According to Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 12 of those killed were members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps; six were Syrian military fighters; and the other three were other non-Syrian nationals.

The IDF said Monday that Iranian troops in Syria launched their missile at the Golan in a “premeditated” attack aimed at deterring Israel from conducting airstrikes against the Islamic Republic’s troops and proxies in Syria.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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