Analysis

It's Tempting to Connect the Dots, but Iran-Israel War Doesn't Seem Imminent

Revolutionary Guards claim that it thwarted an Israeli assassination attempt is questionable, but Israel-Iran tension is increasing

Qassem Soleimani (center) attends a meeting of Revolutionary Guards members with Khamenei in Tehran, in photo released by supreme leader's official website, October 2, 2019.
Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP

It’s very tempting to connect all the dots into one straight and sure line: The prime minister calls for national unity and hints at an expected escalation with Iran; the president describes “an economic-security need that we haven’t known for many years;” Iran claims that it thwarted an assassination attempt against Gen. Qassem Soleimani and in the background there are again assessments about war getting closer, certainly with Yom Kippur around the corner.

Still, it’s doubtful that these things are connected to one another so simply and clearly. Indeed there is increasing tension between Israel and Iran, but it’s been building up over time and isn’t necessarily related to the assassination attempt, which no one knows when or if it happened, and who might be behind it.

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At the same time, President Reuven Rivlin is continuing his efforts to persuade Likud and Kahol Lavan to agree on an outline for a unity government. Rivlin is using the security argument to achieve this, but he isn’t referring to an immediate military development; he’s focusing on the Israel Defense Force’s budgetary problems and its links with a difficulty in implementing its multiyear plan. The situation in the Middle East is particularly complicated, but there are no clear signs on the horizon pointing to an immediate war that would upend all political calculations.

The announcement by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards on Thursday was unusual. This wasn’t an anonymous leak, but an official declaration by the head of the group’s intelligence division, claiming that Iran had uncovered an Israeli-Arab plot against Soleimani. The announcement included several details: It claimed that the Iranians had succeeded in intercepting a killer cell, which sought to plant 500 kilograms of explosives under a prayer site built in memory of Soleimani’s father, during a religious ceremony.

Broadly speaking, the plan is reminiscent of Operation Bramble Bush, the Israeli attempt on the life of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein which was disrupted by a training accident that killed five soldiers in 1992, known as the Tze’elim Bet disaster. Still, it’s hard to assess the reliability of the claims. There are plenty of people who would like to see Soleimani dead, including the Saudis. According to reports, Soleimani has escaped death at least twice – during the Second Lebanon War in 2006 and in an operation attributed to Israel and the United States in which Hezbollah chief of general staff Imad Mughniyeh was killed in Damascus in 2008.

The announcement, as well as an unusual and detailed interview aired with the general this week on a website associated with the Iranian leader, appear to be part of an attempt to continue to build a myth around Soleimani. In the background, the Iranians do indeed have accounts to close with Israel. Dozens of attacks against Iranian targets in Syria have been attributed to Israel, most recently in Iraq and one case in Lebanon as well. So far, Iran’s attempts at revenge have been thwarted.

Meanwhile, however, Iran has had a convincing success in its attack on the Saudi oil facilities in mid-September, a feat for which it paid no diplomatic price. On the contrary, the U.S. administration has stepped up its courtship attempts to achieve direct negotiations between the two countries; France is trying to mediate between the parties and Saudi Arabia has avoided any military reprisals. Iran’s operational success could tempt it to try something similar against Israel, perhaps from Iraqi territory, as the head of Military Intelligence’s research division, Brig. Gen. Dror Shalom, has warned in an interview with Israel Hayom.

All these factors require special vigilance in Israel, with possible developments on the nuclear front in the background. Between the lines of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech in the Knesset on Thursday, one could detect his disappointment with the recent moves by President Donald Trump, who has made a dramatic U-turn in recent months in his attitude toward the Iranians.

The Middle East is very far from being a stable region. Robert Malley, who served in the Clinton and Obama administrations and is president and CEO of the International Crisis Group, said in an article in Foreign Affairs magazine this week that conditions are riper for a regional war than they have been at any other time in recent years. These are harsh words, but they do not translate into an immediate risk of war that would involve Israel.

In the background, talks on a possible unity government are being held. When Rivlin spoke about to a serious economic-security challenge he was referring to an increasing concern among top IDF officers. It’s not enough that the multiyear plan formulated by Chief of General Staff Aviv Kochavi is far from being implemented, the funding for the last year of his predecessor Gadi Eisenkot’s plan, known as Gideon, has a budget shortfall. The gaps are estimated at 10 billion to 15 billion shekels for next year. Under a scenario of a narrow government (which doesn’t look very relevant), meeting the demands of smaller parties joining the government could make it impossible to close this funding gap.

That’s why Netanyahu hinted in his address that he can’t figure out how to overcome these financial gaps and that a unity government would have to raise taxes. Will these remarks by Rivlin and Netanyahu, along with the increasing tension with Iran, suffice to persuade Kahol Lavan to accept Netanyahu as a governing partner? If it depended solely on Benny Gantz, it might have happened. The former chief of staff’s body language conveys a clear lack of enthusiasm for the possibility that somehow he might still be named prime minister. But his party co-leaders are vehemently opposed to the idea for now. It seems as if the economic distress being conveyed by Kochavi, with Rivlin’s help, hasn't spurred any change in their positions.