Jerusalem and Washington have divided up the fight against Iran, with Israel taking responsibility for countering the Islamic Republic in Syria and the United States in Iraq, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett said Saturday.
Last Thursday, Bennett returned from a working visit to Washington, in which he met US Defense Secretary Mark Esper and other senior American officials.
Speaking at a campaign event on Saturday, he said the two countries had agreed to work in tandem to block Tehran’s efforts to create a corridor through which it could move men and materiel from Iran, through Iraq and Syria, and out to Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea.
“I met with my colleague the American defense minister Mark Esper, and we sorted out the coordination exactly — they’re taking Iraq, and we’re taking Syria,” Bennett said at a synagogue in the Tel Aviv suburb of Givat Shmuel.
A Pentagon spokesperson said he could not comment on the matter, but said, “the United States Department of Defense remains committed to a strong military partnership with Israel, as well as the enduring defeat of [Islamic State] in Iraq.”
In his speech, Bennett confirmed that Israel had conducted strikes against Iran in Syria in the past week, apparently referring to an attack on Iranian-linked sites in the predawn hours of last Thursday morning.
“We have significantly intensified, including this week, with very strong attacks against Iran, against the Iranian presence, against Iranian bases, against Iranian surface-to-air missiles, against Iranian fighters, against Iranian militias in Syria and more and more and more, and look at how we’re turning their strength into weakness,” he said.
Israel has said it will not tolerate permanent Iranian military presence in Syria and has conducted hundreds of airstrikes in the country against Iranian targets in recent years, though generally Israeli officials have refrained from acknowledging specific airstrikes, as Bennett appears to have done.
Israeli intelligence has long warned that Iran was working to establish its land corridor as a tool toward regional hegemony, using it to arm and strengthen the proxy militias under its control.
“It’s like a contiguous puzzle — Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon. Imagine a water pipe, only the water is rockets and terrorism. If you take out a piece of the pipe, then you’ve broken up the contiguity and it dries up,” Bennett said.
Bennett, the leader of the hardline right-wing religious Yamina party, who was appointed defense minister some three months ago, laid out his proposed strategy to address the threat posed by Tehran, saying his aim was to expel Iranian forces from Syria within a year and to turn Syria into the Islamic Republic’s “Vietnam,” a reference to the disastrous American war in the east Asian country.
“That territory called Syria — we have intelligence superiority and aerial superiority there,” he said. “It’s a bad place for Iran to be.”
Further commenting on the airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria last Thursday, Bennett added: “Foreign media reported this week that 23 Syrians and Iranians were killed there. Those are large numbers and we will do more and more so that Syria becomes their Vietnam.”
He urged direct aggressive action against Iran and its proxies, arguing that Israel’s previous strategy of targeting individual arms shipment was inherently inefficient.
Bennett, who has long railed against the bombing of weapons convoys as responding to symptoms rather than the causes of Israel’s security woes, said that the Israel Defense Forces should instead be focusing on striking Iranian resources and bases inside Syria.
“I don’t want to chase after convoys because for every convoy you hit, you miss five convoys, and slowly [Hezbollah] accumulates the critical mass of rockets that threaten us,” he said.
Bennett was referring to the fact that since the 2006 Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah has increased nearly tenfold its stores of rockets and missiles to an estimated 130,000 projectiles, larger than the arsenals of many standing national armies, despite Israeli airstrikes on convoys carrying game-changing weaponry.
He said Iran was responsible for 70 percent of Israel’s security problems, via training and funding terror groups like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
“We are losing our boys in [2014’s Operation] Protective Edge [in Gaza], in the Second Lebanon War, in battles with Iran’s fingertips. And who is immune all the while? The head of the octopus,” Bennett told synagogue-goers in the largely religious Givat Shmuel.
“We are in a process of switching to hurting the head of the octopus — Iran’s power. I am not necessarily talking about a full-blown war with Iran tomorrow; it is more similar to the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, with the two regional powers Israel and Iran.”
Bennett added that he would aim to avoid sending Israeli troops into Lebanon or Gaza in potential future wars.
“That is playing on their home turf, and I want to relocate the game to our home turf,” he said, arguing that weakening Iran would inevitably weaken its proxies Hezbollah and Hamas.