Analysis

Fighting on All Fronts, Netanyahu Could Leave Israel Exposed

Fighting for his political life, Netanyahu juggles tensions in north and south ■ Netanyahu's threats against Iran and Syria could backfire ■ In Gaza, while Israelis philosophize about the gravity of the situation, a crisis is liable to erupt imminently

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shows a map of the Middle East during a panel discussion at the Munich Security Conference on February 18, 2018 in Munich, southern Germany
MARC MUELLER/AFP

Just like in the arena of criminal proceedings, where a critical mass of investigations is threatening the survival of the main suspect, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also facing dangers on the security front. The problem lies not in the fodder of conspiracy theories, namely that Netanyahu will ignite a war in the north of Israel or in Gaza in order to evade the noose of investigations. Netanyahu knows full well that wars tend to become messy and that it’s doubtful that they would grant him more than a temporary reprieve from his legal problems. Moreover, he has shown no appetite for such adventures in the past.

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Cabinet ministers, including Netanyahu’s political rivals, praise the high level of concentration the prime minister has demonstrated in recent discussions of security and diplomatic issues. But one may ask what the incessant deluge of bad news in the criminal arena will do to his attention and to the time he has left to devote to important issues. At the same time, it seems that Netanyahu will find it difficult to take steps he deems essential since these will be overshadowed by doubts, even if his considerations are germane to the issues at hand.

The risk of an outbreak of hostilities has grown in recent weeks on the northern front – opposite Iran, Syria and to some extent Hezbollah – as well as on the Gaza border. Since February 10, which saw the downing of an Iranian drone and an Israeli F-16, there have been no further incidents in the north, but one should not underestimate the risk levels reached on that Saturday morning.

For a long time Israel has managed to foil Iranian plans to arm Hezbollah with more accurate weapons systems. In his speech earlier this week at the Munich Security Conference Netanyahu revealed for the first time that Iran’s intent is to upgrade Hezbollah rockets so they have the capability of hitting within a 10-meter radius around a target. Israel’s successes have angered its rivals – and presumably Moscow. A Western observer who has had ties with the Assad regime for many years estimated this week that the massive anti-aircraft barrage fired by Syria, which led to the downing of the F-16, was carried out with the knowledge of Russian advisers working alongside the Syrian army’s anti-aircraft network.

This week Israel’s leaders repeated their threats, saying they would hit Shi’ite militias and, if needed, Syrian and Iranian targets, if these militias and the Iranians continue to entrench themselves in Syria. The New York Times published a story and a detailed map showing the large number of Syrian bases which have an Iranian presence. The Assad regime dismisses these claims, saying that the number of militia fighters has declined lately and that in any case, they are concentrated in the center and north of the country in order to participate in important battles against rebels, in comparison to which the Golan Heights is considered only a secondary front.

Iranian presence in Syria

The frequent warnings emanating from Jerusalem are reminiscent of Netanyahu’s 2009-2013 government. Closely backed by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Netanyahu kept issuing military threats against Iran, despite sweeping opposition by the heads of all of Israel’s security branches. One could argue that Israel’s preparations for attacking Iran drove the Obama administration to impose stringent international sanctions on the Islamic Republic (although Netanyahu, for his own reasons, never took credit for this). These, in turn, led to partial Iranian concessions and the signing of the Vienna nuclear accord, which ostensibly postponed the Iranian nuclear threat by ten years.

During a heated dispute at the time, Mossad head Meir Dagan argued against Netanyahu and Barak’s attempts to instruct the defense establishment to prepare for an attack within a specified period. One argument Dagan used was that even if an attack never took place, the preparations would immediately be recognized in the international arena, alerting the Iranians. Under such circumstances, claimed Dagan, unnecessary sensitivities could lead to an explosion, like a self-fulfilling prophecy. These circumstances may repeat themselves again with regard to Iran’s entrenchment in Syria.

At the present, the person falling in line with Netanyahu is Avigdor Lieberman. The defense minister is using the Iranian threat as the basis of his argument in the dispute with the Israel Defense Forces over the need to change the multi-year Gideon Plan, which increased the defense budget and is so beloved by IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot.

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, left, with Israel Defense Forces deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, during a tour of the Israel-Gaza border, Feb. 20, 2018.
Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry

Eisenkot created the plan on what he saw as a window of opportunity had opened after the Iran deal and the deferment of the nuclear threat. However, Lieberman claims that the new threat that has developed with Iran’s presence in Syria is one reason for changing the plan.

In the meantime, Netanyahu and Lieberman’s promises to change the plan and increase the defense budget, which the army is not keen on, are stuck in a committee headed by the head of the National Security Council, Meir Ben-Shabbat. Discussions in this committee have stalled and the defense establishment has not yet presented the financial needs that derive from this new threat, nor the required response to it.

Across the fence

Unusually high tension is expected on Friday along the border with the Gaza Strip. Last Saturday, four Israeli soldiers were wounded by a bomb hidden in a flag draped over the border fence. Those who placed the explosives, apparently members of a Salafi organization, exploited the lack of caution with which the soldiers approached the area.

Palestinian protesters are seen as Israeli soldiers take cover behind a sand hill during clashes near the border between Israel and Central Gaza Strip October 15, 2015.
\ REUTERS

The army concluded that the flag and the bomb were set up a day earlier, under cover of the protest demonstration which Hamas organizes near the fence every Friday. Consequently, the coordinator of government activities in the territories, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, issued a warning that the army would take “extremely harsh measures against rioters” if they get anywhere near the fence this Friday.

One of the Palestinian demonstrators wounded by Israeli fire near the border fence last Friday died of his wounds on Wednesday. This Friday, the army will presumably come equipped with crowd control gear as well, but any sizable clash is liable to lead to additional casualties on the Palestinian side.

Meanwhile, for more than a week now, talks between various Palestinian parties have been taking place in Cairo with Egyptian mediation, in an effort to once again extricate the Palestinian reconciliation wagon from the mud in which it is mired. So far, no progress in the talks has been reported, but the effort Egyptian intelligence is investing in them is evident.

This may explain Lieberman’s continued hard line against Hamas in Gaza, on the assumption that the organization is close to breaking and will be forced to accept Egyptian dictates. It also explains his refusal to adopt the warnings of the relevant defense agencies – the IDF, COGAT, the Shin Bet security service – about the danger of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Lieberman is even demanding that Hamas return the Israeli civilians and the bodies of the slain soldiers held in Gaza as a condition for any real progress.

The Israeli defense officials who have been warning about the distress in the Strip expect international intervention to save the Gazans. Mordechai recently wrote that the enclave needs something like a Marshall Plan. But for now, the defense establishment doesn’t seem to have any organized plan of its own for rescuing Gaza from its woes. While Israelis are philosophizing about the gravity of the situation and talking about long-term solutions based on hypothetical international aid, a crisis is liable to erupt imminently and it will require swift intervention.

Israel is acting as if it has all the time in the world. But if and when an epidemic breaks out in Gaza, the problem is liable to become incomparably more urgent.