JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel acknowledged on Sunday that Israeli forces had attacked Iranian weapons warehouses in Syria, after years of ambiguity over involvement in specific attacks on the country.
“We worked with impressive success to block Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria,” Mr. Netanyahu said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, adding that the Israeli military had struck Iranian and Hezbollah targets “hundreds of times.”
“Just in the last 36 hours, the air force attacked Iranian warehouses with Iranian weapons at the international airport in Damascus,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “The accumulation of recent attacks proves that we are determined more than ever to take action against Iran in Syria, just as we promised.”
The rare admission came hours after the Israeli military announced that it had exposed the sixth and final tunnel under its border with Lebanon, which it says the Iranian-backed organization Hezbollah dug, wrapping up a six-week operation to seal the cross-border tunnels.
By lifting the veil on its campaign to curb Iranian influence in the region, as well as Tehran’s efforts to upgrade the capabilities of Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Israeli government appeared to be trying to convey confidence that the threats from across its northern frontiers were under control.
The public airing of security achievements came as the departing military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, is ending his four-year term and 40-year army career and as Mr. Netanyahu is campaigning for re-election under a cloud of corruption investigations.
Mr. Netanyahu also appears to be demonstrating that Israel will not be deterred from acting in Syria despite Russia having supplied the Syrian military with the sophisticated S-300 ground-to-air missile system.
Relations between Israel and Russia frayed after a Russian military plane was shot down over Syria in September, killing 15 Russian service members. The plane was accidentally shot down by Syria in response to an Israeli airstrike, and Russian officials blamed Israel.
Syrian state media reported early Saturday that Israeli warplanes had launched missiles toward the outskirts of Damascus shortly before midnight on Friday, causing material damage to the ammunition warehouses at Damascus International Airport.
Israeli officials have acknowledged carrying out hundreds of strikes against weapons convoys and Iranian targets in Syria, but they have traditionally refused to confirm or deny responsibility for specific attacks immediately after they take place, to avoid pushing the other side into having to retaliate.
The new confidence on display on Sunday may stem from the paucity of responses so far, both to the strikes in Syria and to the dismantling of tunnels from Lebanon.
In interviews marking his departure, General Eisenkot expressed pride in the policy known as the “campaign between the wars,” including continued efforts to curb Iranian entrenchment in Syria, and said Israel had struck thousands of targets there.
Mr. Netanyahu, who, in addition to being prime minister is serving as defense minister and foreign minister, among other roles, would stand to benefit from projecting the image of being tough about security ahead of the April 9 election, even as he faces possible bribery charges.
His opponents had accused him of over-dramatizing the anti-tunnel operation and of fear-mongering to distract the public’s attention after the Israeli police recommended that Mr. Netanyahu be indicted on bribery, fraud and other charges in a third corruption case against him.
Regarding the disclosure about the attack in Syria, Omer Bar-Lev, a lawmaker in the opposition Labor party, wrote on Twitter on Sunday, “It’s a shame and disgrace that the prime minister is violating the policy of ambiguity that was appropriate for the last three years in the campaign between the wars in Syria, for political purposes.”
Avi Dichter, a lawmaker in Mr. Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party and a former security chief, dismissed any political motives, saying in a radio interview: “ Israel has a great interest in creating deterrence. Some deterrence is better achieved with ambiguity, some deterrence is better achieved with open statements.”
It was a busy last weekend on the job for General Eisenkot. The Israeli military struck Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip on Friday and Saturday night after Palestinian protests and attempts to breach the border fence, during which a Palestinian woman was killed by Israeli sniper fire, and after Gaza militants fired a rocket into Israel.
Orignially published in NYT.