Nasr 1 (Victory) missiles are displayed during the inauguration ceremony of the Nasr 1 cruise missile production facility at an undisclosed location in Iran on March 7, 2010. (VAHID REZA ALAEI/AFP via Getty Images)

Netanyahu Boosts Specter of Incoming Iranian Weapons

The Media Line looks at what might be behind Israeli prime minister’s repeated warnings

In recent weeks, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has been bringing up Iranian cruise missiles and drones, and the threat he says they pose to Israel.

The Jewish state has long felt threatened by Iran, although the emphasis has usually been on Tehran’s apparent drive toward the production of nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles to carry them, but also on its growing hegemony in the region, especially in neighboring Syria.

Netanyahu’s shift seems to correlate with a mid-September attack by cruise missiles and drones against two major oil facilities in Saudi Arabia. The airstrikes temporarily reduced the kingdom’s refining output by half, and world output by an estimated 5 to 10%. Iranian proxies in Yemen claimed responsibility although Riyadh, Washington and several European capitals placed the blame squarely on Tehran.

Some in Israel and elsewhere say that Netanyahu’s repeated comments about drones and cruise missiles are mostly a scare tactic aimed at hurrying along the formation of a unity government that could help him weather possible indictments on charges of alleged corruption. But MK Sharren Haskel, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, calls this nonsense.

“Iran says out in the open that its goal is to eliminate Israel. … We have to make sure that we are ready. Prime Minister Netanyahu is making sure that everything is in line so that we are capable of defending ourselves,” Haskel told The Media Line.

“The more the international community is silent about this, the more Iran becomes violent. And the more violent it is, the more it is a threat to the State of Israel,” she said. “We have to prepare ourselves. The international community is standing silent. Who is going to defend us?”

Eitan Ben-Eliyahu, a former commander of Israel’s air force – which has overall responsibility for protecting the country’s skies – told The Media Line that in his view, politics is politics.

“I make a distinction between real security threats and political behavior,” he told The Media Line. “A threat is a threat. How [military commanders] deal with it and what tactics they use is one thing. But a prime minister has another agenda or a combination of agendas.”

Ben-Eliyahu agrees, however, that Iran does pose a threat to Israel, although not in the way it does for the Saudis.

“We are covered with radar that is capable of detecting missiles from high altitude, low altitude, long range and close range. This is not the same situation in Saudi Arabia; there is nothing to compare,” he said.

“Yet, you know, nothing is 100%,” he continued. “If you launch a huge number of missiles simultaneously, every system will have some difficulty dealing with it. … The prerequisite is you have to detect the threat, and on this matter, Israel is – well, nothing is really 100% – but I can say it’s 100% covered. Now it’s only a matter of what you do with what you detect.”

And if it’s a cruise missile, for example?

“Cruise missiles,” he said, “present their own problem. You have to be very precise [to counter them]. You [can handle them from] a very long range or you can wait until they get closer. They fly at a much lower speed. It’s true that they can fly at low altitude and you might have a problem, but an [intercepting] airplane can maneuver while they themselves cannot maneuver.”

Dr. Gil Murciano, a research associate at the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told The Media Line that Iranian-supplied cruise missiles are already in the area – and have been since 2006, when Israel clashed with Hizbullah, Iran’s Lebanese proxy.

“Hizbullah launched a Chinese missile manufactured in Iran against an Israeli naval vessel,” he said.

“It hit the ship. It did not cause it to sink but it killed four sailors,” he continued. “So [this type of missile] is already there. There is also talk of [Russian-made] Yakhont missiles that might be launched by Hizbullah or other [Iranian] proxies against Israeli oil installations at sea.”

Yet cruise missiles and drones, for all their potential destructiveness, might not be the true issue, says Murciano.

“When we speak about [weapons] platforms, I wouldn’t focus so much on drones or cruise missiles. The real issue – and I can’t emphasize it more – is GPS guidance systems and improving the accuracy of Hizbullah’s and other [Iranian] proxies’ ‘dumb’ missiles,” he said.

“Israel has already come to terms with the fact that Hizbullah and other proxies have accumulated at least tens of thousands of missiles, and that these can be launched at Israel in a huge barrage in the next war,” he explained. “The real game-changer is that in the past couple of years, Iran is trying to turn those missiles into weapons that can accurately hit strategic assets in Israel.”

For its part, Israel admits that it has regularly attacked Iranian targets in Syria, where Tehran has established a strong presence owing to its support for the Assad regime in its more-than-eight-year fight against rebels waging a civil war. The targets hit by Israel appear to have included workshops used for the manufacture of the guidance equipment for Hizbullah’s missiles.

Iran’s solution? According to Murciano, it undertook the “politically interesting” move of transferring the workshops to Lebanon itself, creating a new issue for Israeli military planners.

“Israel has had different rules of engagement regarding Lebanon since 2006,” he explained, referring to one of the terms of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, which helped end that year’s fighting between Hizbullah and the Jewish state.

“The Israelis cannot undertake the same ‘acts of containment’ in Lebanon that they do in Syria,” he explained. “This is the main issue, because for Israel, it is a game-changer.”

Ben-Eliyahu, the former air force commander, acknowledges that attacks against Israel proper can have complex profiles, including the weapons employed, where they are launched from and who launches them.

“There are numerous possible combinations,” he told The Media Line. “For example, Israel is simultaneously under cyberattack and its [defense] systems, or parts of them, are paralyzed. Another scenario depends on your [level of] readiness. For instance, it’s a nice day, and all of a sudden dozens of missiles are on their way to Israel!”

Meantime, Netanyahu-ally Haskel hammers home the way Israelis – and Israeli policymakers – take it all in.

“We look at wars probably a little bit differently [from other countries] because we constantly face an existential threat,” she told The Media Line.

“We’ve had a few wars, very difficult ones,” she explained. “In some, we were more successful, but in all of the wars, we’ve had people who have died, and every individual who dies [from such conflicts], it’s like a whole world for us.”

What’s more, it’s a question of accountability.

“At the end of the day, it is the political echelon that is going to carry the responsibility for a lack of preparedness,” she said.

“The leadership of Israel,” she stressed. “Not the military.”

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