Despite Ambiguity, Netanyahu Must Answer for Syria Attack

In wake of deadly strike in Golan Heights, PM and Defense Minister Ya'alon's insistence on hiding behind fictitious screen accomplishes nothing.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Ya'alon and Netanyahu in the Knesset, October 30, 2014.
Ya'alon and Netanyahu in the Knesset, October 30, 2014.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee devoted itself to an important issue on Tuesday: the Israel Defense Forces’ decision to stop stationing soldiers in communities near the Gaza Strip. But if these Knesset members aren’t too busy with the election campaign, perhaps they should also make some time in the near future to discuss what is beginning to look like a major security crisis: the open threats by Iran and Hezbollah to take revenge for Sunday’s assassination of senior officials from both Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which they attribute to Israel.

Officially, Israel refuses to confirm or deny its responsibility. But Israel Hayom, the newspaper closest to the government, wrote on Monday that “our forces attacked a group of high-level terrorists on the Syrian Golan Heights.” The MKs could rely on this report to pose a series of questions to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon:

Was Hezbollah’s Jihad Mughniyeh the intended target, or did the perpetrators intend from the start to also kill an Iranian general traveling in the same convoy? Did Military Intelligence even know the general was there? (In an interview with Israel Radio on Tuesday, former MI chief Amos Yadlin, now Zionist Camp’s candidate for defense minister, said, “There’s a question of whether there wasn’t another way to stop the developing attack, if we knew the Iranian was in the convoy.”)

By the following day, UN observers had already officially reported seeing Israeli drones cross into Syrian territory and open fire.

Did the killing of Mughniyeh – who was apparently considered a rising star in Hezbollah, in part due to his family lineage – outweigh the potential losses should the attack spark an escalation? This is a question that arises with every assassination. In the case of Mughniyeh’s father, Imad, who was assassinated in 2008, the answer is apparently yes, because of the damage it did to Hezbollah’s operational capabilities. The same is true of former Islamic Jihad leader Fathi Shikaki, killed in 1995. A counter-example is the assassination of Hezbollah’s previous leader, Abbas Moussawi, in 1992. Not only did Iran and Hezbollah respond by bombing Israel’s embassy in Argentina a month later, but the assassination gave rise to a more talented successor, Hassan Nasrallah.

According to some foreign media reports, the strike killed 12 operatives, half of them Iranian. Was it intended from the start to kill so many people?

Over the last year, Mughniyeh is known to have commanded terrorist cells that attacked Israel from the Syrian border. Did Sunday’s strike take place while the Hezbollah and Iranian officers were engaged in advanced preparations for another such attack (and thereby thwart it), or were they simply touring the border area, presenting an opportunity that Israel exploited?

Until now, Israel has taken care to remain relatively uninvolved in the Syrian civil war, intervening (according to foreign reports) only when it thought red lines were being crossed – for instance, to prevent transfers of advanced weaponry from Syria to Hezbollah. Did it consider the possibility that such a deadly strike on Hezbollah operatives (and in the end, also on at least one senior Iranian officer) could lead to escalation along the border? Just last Thursday, Nasrallah declared that the “resistance” considers itself entitled to respond to any Israeli aggression, whether in Lebanon or in Syria.

About a year ago, Nasrallah announced a new policy in the north, under which Hezbollah would attack Israeli targets in response to any Israeli action against either Hezbollah or Syria. In September, after a Hezbollah sapper was killed when a booby-trapped intelligence-gathering device exploded in south Lebanon, the Shi’ite militia responded by setting off two bombs in the Har Dov area. The bombs wounded two IDF soldiers, but the army said they just missed killing many more. Did the diplomatic-security cabinet meet after that incident to discuss the change in Hezbollah’s mode of responding – i.e., its willingness to risk killing soldiers and thereby sparking an escalation – and the consequent need to reconsider Israeli policy in the north?

How prepared is the Israeli home front if a war breaks out, given Hezbollah’s threat to launch tens of thousands of missiles and rockets at Israeli cities? Should preliminary preparations be made, despite the assessment that Hezbollah doesn’t want a full-scale war right now? How good are the IDF’s plans for fighting Hezbollah?

Ever since Sunday’s assassinations, the ruling Likud party’s political rivals have been hinting that the decision was motivated in part by political considerations. Such claims are always hard to prove. There’s no hermetic seal between policy and politics, and no leader can completely keep political considerations from leaking into his thoughts, especially during a campaign. Some straight talk from Netanyahu and Ya’alon could help dispel such claims.

The questions above are extremely relevant, because if Iran and Hezbollah carry out their threats, a new security situation will be created here that is liable to overshadow the campaign. Given this, Israel’s insistence on hiding behind a fictitious screen of ambiguity accomplishes nothing.

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