In the Mideast, Anonymous Strikes Help Leaders Save Face

For years, Israel, Iran and sometimes with Damascus’ allies Beirut traded blows under the radar – all to avoid pushing the enemy off the plane of rational behavior and into the emotional one.

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IDF forces in the Golan Heights, January 28, 2015.
IDF forces in the Golan Heights, January 28, 2015.Credit: AP

As an election approaches, the voting public sometimes gets a chance to see how those who aspire to lead it will perform.

Such an opportunity has arisen with Benjamin Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett, the two right-wing candidates for prime minister. For now, the defense portfolio is in Bennett’s hands, until they switch.

With the elections 50 days away, the results are problematic.

While Netanyahu, Bennett and their friends on the small ministerial committee, Moshe Ya’alon and Avigdor Lieberman, did not create Israel’s general situation, they are responsible for the small details that change the picture. Netanyahu and Bennett are therefore competing for the uncoveted title of Mr. Non-Security.

Over the course of more than  five years, including the tenures of Gabi Ashkenazi and Benny Gantz as chief of staff, Israel has exchanged blows with Iran and sometimes with Damascus’ allies in Beirut. Each side has done so under the radar to avoid pushing the enemy off the plane of rational behavior and into the emotional one.

The assumption was, and remains, that striking at property is tolerable so long as it does not involve striking at honor as well. Authoritative and tyrannical leaders cannot be humiliated in front of their subjects, since the road from humiliation to overthrow is a short one, and they will not allow Netanyahu to do what they do not allow their subjects to do.

This is why Israel sought to deliver a secret blow, one known to the stricken foe but not always to those around him. This is how the concept of deniability, which the leaders of both sides nurture, was built. They tried to wage a just war with just means, with pins instead of hammers.

But what may result from a mysterious explosion on the route of an Iranian-Lebanese tour in a third country - which is a reasonable if unproven suspicion - does not resemble an airstrike.

An admission, and an obligation

Even in war-torn Syria, where Western and Arab countries are striking Islamic State from the air, no one believes that the aircraft that came from the West, as UN observers claim, belong to a different galaxy. Sometimes, a UFO is just a UAV.

From the moment that Israel began preparing for a response, the country was admitting that the response was preceded by a provocation. From that moment, the political echelon had a duty to use all available channels to defuse the tension.

Some high-ranking officials in the defense-diplomatic establishment say that the threat from Islamic State justifies and enables sector-based dialogue with Iran, without giving up Israel’s refusal to allow Iran to acquire the means to create a nuclear bomb.

But it is not Netanyahu, the far-sighted statesman, who will approve such talks. As far as the Obama administration’s request is concerned, there is nothing to talk about.

Maybe there will be once Ambassador Ron Dermer, who perhaps interprets his job as burning the last bridges with the White House, has been sent home in disgrace.

Netanyahu is a hollow and superannuated strategist who remains frozen in the Reagan era of the late Cold War period.

How good it was back then, when only two main actors were on the court, with the fairly stable deterrent of mutually assured destruction in place. How good the Middle East was, with only American Israel on one side and Soviet Syria on the other.

In a world order of decentralized focuses of influence, when the regional order crawls with groups like Hamas and Islamic State, Netanyahu is at his wit’s end.

Since the 1940s, when Syria, Lebanon and Israel declared their independence one after another, Jerusalem hoped to see Syria’s influence in Lebanon defeated.

This hope was dashed in September 1982 with an explosion (Bashir Gemayel was assassinated) and in May 1983 (when efforts to reach a peace agreement between Israel and Lebanon were ruined). Both Hafez Assad and Bashar Assad continued to control Lebanon, more and more with help from Iran and Hezbollah.

Suddenly, in 2005, after Rafik Hariri was assassinated, the Syrians were thrown out of Lebanon, but it quickly turned out that Israel had no reason to rejoice about that. Without Syria as a stabilizing force, the Lebanon-Israel front ignited in summer 2006.

A similar thing happened on the southern border as well. The Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power was a strategic danger for Israel, but in the Gazan context, the Mohammed Morsi’s brief tenure as Egypt’s leader helped establish a mechanism for a quick end to Operation Pillar of Defense against Hamas.

Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi is better for Israel and for Egypt, but he is so bad for Hamas that Operation Protective Edge lasted five times longer than its predecessor.

Principle vs. method

Whoever assassinated Jihad Mughniyeh and the Iranian general a week and a half ago acted properly according to principle and less property in time and method.

We cannot expect that the elements who can be held responsible for an attack, whether against soldiers like yesterday’s incident or against civilians in another well-known outline, to act with restraint.

If the chain of events had begun with Wednesday’s attack, we’d still see considerations of restraint or escalation, only with the addition of an investigative committee and mutual accusations among the intelligence officials, commanders and politicians.

So it is permissible to favor the “what” and oppose the “how” and to calculate negatively the balance of Netanyahu, Bennett & Co.

An attempt to throw the operational responsibility on a local commander, in a sector where divisional commanders have been the usual victims for years, will not work. The political echelon, which spoke about the need to be alert and which warned Hassan Nasrallah not to act, must give the reason for its failure.

In the Middle East one can prepare coffee in two ways: the Western espresso machine or boiling water in an electric kettle and the Eastern heating of a finjan over a slow fire.

If Netanyahu and Bennett continue to prepare coffee for the region after the elections, with Nasrallah and Assad, Khamenei and Obama around the table, Israel will find its drink very bitter indeed.