Israel Tries to Reduce Tension Amid Preparations for Iranian Retaliation

Netanyahu, defense chief refrain from calling Iran by name in speeches at IDF ceremony ■ Officers discuss need to prevent unnecessary fear among public

A military vehicle is seen on the Israeli side of the border with Lebanon, near Metula, February 8, 2018.
Gil Eliahu

While Israel is making preparations along its northern borders in expectation of an Iranian retaliation for attacks in Syria attributed to Israel, senior Israeli leaders and military figures tried to reduce tensions Monday.

Over the past few days, top Israel Defense Forces officers have discussed the need to ensure that the messages the military is sending do not cause unnecessary fear among the public.

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Without mentioning Iran by name, Netanyahu said at a ceremony marking 70 years since the founding of the IDF that the establishment of Israel “has not led to a cessation of the desire to attack us.

What it has brought is the ability to make war against our enemies. Whoever hurts us, we will hurt them. The enemies who threaten us with destruction should know that they will encounter an iron wall,” Netanyahu said.

While Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman also avoided mentioning Iran, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot did call the Islamic Republic by name, saying that one of the challenges facing the IDF today is “the attempts by Iran to extend its hold close to our borders.”

According to the military, the recent elections in Lebanon served as a brake on any possible Iranian response to the attacks in Syria that have been attributed to Israel, in which Iranian targets were hit and forces were killed. Now that the elections are over, Israeli officials feel an Iranian response is now more likely to occur.

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Defense officials are examining the scenario of rocket and missile attacks on Israeli military sites in the north, and Israel’s air defense systems are prepared for such a scenario. Hezbollah, which strengthened its power in the Lebanese parliamentary elections, could play a central role in the Iranian response, and it is possible Hezbollah will operate behind the scenes while Iranian-backed militias in Syria carry out the actual attacks.  

In the past few weeks, senior Israeli officials have made explicit statements about Iran. Lieberman told the Russian newspaper Kommersant in an interview published Thursday that Israel won’t be interfering with Syria’s internal affairs, but said that what cannot be tolerated is “Iran’s attempts to turn Syria into a forward position against Israel. Every attempt by Iran to establish itself in Syria will be frustrated. It would be very wise of Assad not to interfere.”

The week before, Lieberman told the Jerusalem Post Conference 2018 that Israel has only three problems — “Iran, Iran, Iran” — and noted that Tehran is attempting to destabilize the entire region by supporting and creating proxies around the Jewish state, such as Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and Hamas. He said Iran is trying to turn Syria into a forward base against Israel, and vowed that “we will prevent it at any cost.”