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In the War Between Wars, Israel Faces More Than a Military Threat

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visits the Bushehr nuclear power plant, in Iran, earlier this month.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visits the Bushehr nuclear power plant, in Iran, earlier this month.Credit: Official Presidential Website/Handout via REUTERS
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The public’s attention is understandably wandering to other locales, but the security situation is seething in a number of arenas around Israel. The issue of the Iranian nuclear project is becoming increasingly complicated, because it’s clear that the West still has no idea how to pressure Tehran into returning to the agreement.

A relatively large number of attacks in Syria have been attributed to Israel; in Damascus, a rare, multi-casualty explosion occurred on a military bus on Wednesday. Tension is palpable in the Palestinian Territories over hunger strikes by Palestinians in Israeli prisons. Israel is trying to keep the lid in the Gaza Strip by easing more restrictions on Hamas. And in Jerusalem, violence has erupted anew in the Old City, recalling the lead-up to the bloody clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police there in May.

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In Syria, recent weeks have seen two air attacks east of Homs and an assassination of a former member of the Syrian parliament by snipers close to the border in the Golan Heights. All these attacks were attributed to Israel. The worst incident was not linked to Israel: the killing of at least 14 Syrian soldiers when a military bus was targeted with explosive devices in Damascus. The attack may have been carried out by one of the rebel organizations associated with Al-Qaida or the Islamic State. The Syrian capital was relatively quiet over the past year, despite the surge in incidents in the Daraa district to the south of the city.

The other attacks were aimed at the Iranian presence in Syria or at local individuals connected with it. This is happening amid a studied indifference – if that – by Russia, which won’t shed a tear if Iranian interests in the country suffer a setback.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at his office in Jerusalem, August. In an interview before meeting with President Biden, PM Bennett said he opposed U.S. efforts to reinstate a nuclear agreementCredit: AMIT ELKAYAM / NYT

The focus on the “war between the wars” also reflects a projected helplessness on the part of the United States and Israel in the struggle against Iran’s nuclear project. Tehran continues to play for time. While dallying with the talks-about-returning-to-the-nuclear-talks, the Iranians are continuing to accumulate uranium enriched to high levels. Israel is cajoling the United States to intensify the sanctions against Iran, renewing the Israel Air Force’s preparations for a possible attack (or at least is leaking information about its intentions to do so) and in the meantime is occupied with the war between wars.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has already said on several occasions that he would like to inflict “death by a thousand cuts” on the Iranians. In the absence of visible progress in curbing the Iranian nuclear program, it appears that Israel is wielding increasing military might in the friction with Iran, both in Syria and in more distant arenas.

Palestinian men gather to apply for work permits in Israel, at Jabalia refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip, this month.Credit: MAHMUD HAMS / AFP

On Tuesday, the Israel Defense Forces set up roadblocks for a few hours on the Gaza Strip border and closed areas that overlook the border fence to traffic. The army didn’t elaborate, but similar measures were taken in the past in light of specific warnings about an intention to execute sniper fire or launch antitank missiles in that area of the fence. The usual suspect in these cases is Islamic Jihad.

In the backdrop are the tensions in Israeli prisons and the hunger strike being led by Islamic Jihad inmates, who are also conducting talks to end it. Hamas in Gaza is displaying restraint for the time being, and is focusing on attempts to find a bypass route that will restore the final third of the monthly aid from Qatar (to the tune of $10 million). As part of the efforts to calm the situation, Israel announced on Wednesday that it is increasing the number of permits for Gazans to 10,000 – merchants and workers – to enter Israel, which is the largest quota in more than two decades.

At the same time, the negotiating channels for a prisoner exchange deal with Hamas are buzzing with renewed intense activity. However, the many reports notwithstanding and probably a certain flexibility in Israel’s position, there is still a large gap separating the two sides. Khaled Meshal, a top Hamas official, threatened this week that his organization would kidnap Israelis if the government does not agree to include the release of “heavyweight” prisoners in a deal.

Lt. Col. (res.) Avi Kalo, who headed the captives and MIAs unit in Military Intelligence until his retirement two years ago, told Haaretz that in his view, “Hamas is implicitly threatening escalation via the captives and MIAs. It is trying to impose progress by means of taking action. Even an attempted kidnapping will be considered escalation, and Israel will respond fiercely. It recalls Hezbollah’s behavior before the Second Lebanon War, in 2006.”

All these arenas are being addressed by a new, relatively inexperienced Israeli government, which is being relentlessly challenged by the right-wing opposition. The fact that the prime minister and some of the coalition parties come from the right side of the map limits their maneuvering room to a certain extent with regard to security decisions, for fear they will come under fire for displaying weakness.

But the major question hovering over the government’s functioning relates to its essential stability, at least until the passage of the budget, which is set for next month. Bennett hasn’t yet truly tested the extent of the commitment and the seriousness of his associates on the left, and this applies in particular to the United Arab List. Every case of heightened security friction – in Gaza but also in the mixed Jewish-Arab cities inside Israel – will significantly test the partnership.

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