Pressure Mounts on Iran, but Drums of War Have Not Yet Sounded

Trump seems to stand by promise not to engage in more pointless Mideast wars ■ The dangerous competition between Hamas, Islamic Jihad in Gaza ■ What will the next Independence Day look like?

Amos Harel
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FILE PHOTO: A staff member removes the Iranian flag from the stage after a group picture with foreign ministers and representatives during Iran nuclear talks, Vienna, Austria, July 14, 2015.
FILE PHOTO: A staff member removes the Iranian flag from the stage after a group picture with foreign ministers and representatives during Iran nuclear talks, Vienna, Austria, July 14, 2015. Credit: \ Carlos Barria/ REUTERS
Amos Harel

The temperature in the Middle East is slowly rising, but insofar as it’s possible to predict, we aren’t on the brink of war between America and Iran. U.S. President Donald Trump promised his voters to refrain from additional unnecessary wars in the Middle East, and that seems to be one campaign promise he wants to keep.

In Syria, too, Trump took an aggressive rhetorical line when he threatened the Assad regime over its use of chemical weapons against civilians two years ago. He even carried out his threat with a cruise missile attack. But there it ended.

Trump likes splashy but time-limited gestures. He apparently has no desire for a lengthy, expensive military confrontation the end of which no one can foresee. And Iran’s leadership is also sophisticated enough not to be dragged into such a clash.

>> By threatening nuclear deal, Iran is playing right into Trump’s hands | Analysis ■  Iran dialing back on nuclear deal could be first step towards armed conflict with West | Analysis ■ How the war between America and Iran will start | Opinion

However, exactly a year after Trump announced the departure of the United States from the nuclear deal with Iran, at the recommendation of his good friend Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Tehran is starting to feel the pressure. The intensifying American sanctions are weighing heavily on Iran’s economy and their impact is expected to increase following the lapse of the American waivers that allowed eight countries to continue buying Iranian oil for the past year.

While Israel was marking Memorial Day and Independence Day, Iran announced that in another two months, it will stop complying with certain obligations imposed by the deal, including the export of enriched uranium and heavy water. This isn’t yet a withdrawal from the deal. But according to Israeli defense sources, the Iranians are getting close to violating the agreement, to which five other world powers are still signatories.

The Americans immediately responded to Iran’s announcement with their own announcement of increased sanctions on Iran’s steel industry. At the same time, the United States sent an aircraft carrier to the Middle East, following intelligence warnings about an Iranian plan to attack Saudi oil facilities. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also paid a hasty visit to Iraq, forcing him to cancel a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the last minute.

The U.S. administration has informed Israel in advance of most of its actions concerning Iran, and the level of coordination between Washington and Jerusalem remains high. The Trump administration also maintains coordination, to some degree, with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

And the American moves against Iran aren’t limited to Tehran’s nuclear activity. Last month Pompeo visited Lebanon and warned its government that Israel might take military action if Hezbollah, with Iranian assistance, continued building underground precision-guided missile factories. In Iraq, the Americans are seeking to ensure that the new government, which has closer ties to Iran than its predecessor, won’t rescind its permission for an American troop presence on Iraqi territory. Washington is also worried by the increased activities of pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias in western Iraq, where long-range missiles that could be used to threaten Israel have been deployed.

Israel’s assessment over the past several months has been that while the Iranians are under pressure, they would prefer not to withdraw from the nuclear deal before the U.S. presidential election in November 2020 — in hopes that the Democrats will win and Trump will have to leave the White House after a single term. But the magnitude of the pressure generated by the sanctions has now led Iran to recalculate its steps.

Tehran’s latest moves, along with American and Saudi fears of Iranian terrorism aimed at the oil industry, have greatly increased regional tensions, and this is also worrying for Israel. But so far, these developments don’t seem to be harbingers of war.

Following the Gaza violence

After the round of fighting between Israel and forces in the Gaza Strip earlier this week, Ziad al-Nakhalah — the new secretary general of Islamic Jihad, the Palestinian organization most dependent on Iran — evaluated the balance of deterrence with Israel. In an interview with the Lebanese station Al Mayadeen, he asserted that his organization had been just “hours” away from launching rockets at Tel Aviv when the cease-fire was declared early Monday.

He added that he had no contact with the Iranians during the two days of fighting, but confirmed that the organization maintains “constant basic contact” with Tehran.

Throughout the fighting, Nakhalah said, there was full cooperation between Islamic Jihad and Hamas, for which he thanked Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’ leader in Gaza. He added that Israel is trying to set the various Palestinian militias at odds with one another and to disarm them, and he warned that any attempt to force disarmament on Gaza would lead to war this summer.

 Palestinian family break their fast next to their house that was destroyed during the two-day escalation, in Rafah the southern Gaza Strip on May 8, 2019.
Palestinian family break their fast next to their house that was destroyed during the two-day escalation, Rafah, Gaza Strip, May 8, 2019.Credit: AFP

His statements echoed an assessment that is beginning to be heard among Israeli defense officials as well: If efforts to achieve a long-term cease-fire fail, a large-scale conflict is liable to break out between Israel and Gaza in the coming months.

Nakhalah, who usually resides in Lebanon and Syria, was in Cairo together with Sinwar for talks with Egyptian intelligence officials about a long-term cease-fire when the latest fighting broke out last Friday. In the past, when the Egyptians invited Palestinian militia leaders for talks, their presence in Cairo was considered a guarantee that the Palestinians wouldn’t dare start fighting with Israel. But that’s no longer true.

This time, it took Egyptian intelligence a few days to arrange a cease-fire, even though it was hosting Sinwar, Nakhalah and other senior Palestinian figures.

Israeli intelligence says that Hamas and Islamic Jihad have a competitive relationship in Gaza, in which the smaller, more radical organization periodically drags Gaza’s ruling party, Hamas, into escalating the situation. This happens even though Sinwar and Ismail Haniyeh, the head of the Hamas political bureau, are primarily worried about Gaza’s economic crisis and deteriorating infrastructure, which they fear will lead to Hamas’ losing control over the territory and perhaps even cause Gazans to rise up against it.

Joint operations room

But this assumption may need to be reexamined, especially given that both organizations were launching their rockets at Israel from a joint operations room.

During the weeks of tension that preceded Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012, Israel similarly failed to identify the level of cooperation between Hamas and Islamic Jihad in time. The defense establishment thought Hamas was being dragged in, but in fact, the organization was happy to let Islamic Jihad off the leash prior to clashing with Israel itself.

The weekly demonstrations along the Gaza border will resume on Friday, but the Palestinians have promised the Egyptians that they will be relatively peaceful. Egyptian intelligence will send representatives to Gaza to monitor events.

Palestinian police officers loyal to Hamas march during a graduation ceremony in Gaza City April 29, 2019.
Palestinian police officers loyal to Hamas march during a graduation ceremony in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, April 29, 2019. Credit: \ IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/ REUTERS

Early next week, the monthly installment of cash from Qatar is expected to reach Gaza after a delay of several weeks. On Monday Qatar promised to send $180 million to Gaza (apparently in six monthly payments of $30 million), and this is expected to help calm the situation. The fact that the money wasn’t delivered as planned before the start of Ramadan, at a time when Gaza is still recovering from the damage from the last round of fighting, increased tensions there.

Israel isn’t comfortable approving the payment of protection money to Hamas in exchange for quiet, but that’s the reality. If the Qatari cash doesn’t arrive soon, Gaza will again begin burning.

Between 'Hatikvah' and faith

As usual in Israel, the situation can quickly switch from the brink of war to the routine of apathy and back again. Sunday afternoon, under a hail of rockets fired at the south, the army and security cabinet considered postponing Memorial Day and Independence Day for a few weeks (since these aren’t religious holidays, more flexibility is possible). But Monday morning, without any official Israeli announcement, a cease-fire began.

Israelis learned of it only when the Home Front Command removed restrictions for communities near Gaza. Nobody in the government volunteered to give the public an explanation for the two days of fighting, during which four Israeli civilians were killed.

The next evening, as if nothing had happened, the country began marking the two main dates on its secular national calendar. Israeli society constantly undergoes a kind of collective memory wipe that brings it back to square zero, until the next time, which accordingly comes as a shocking surprise.

It’s good that we were spared an intolerable situation in which residents of the south would celebrate the national holidays under fire and children would have trouble distinguishing between Memorial Day sirens and rocket alerts. Nevertheless, the oaths of fealty to residents of the south uttered during the Independence Day torch-lighting ceremony, whose former ponderous pomposity was replaced with a screeching tone reminiscent of reality shows, sounded empty.

FILE PHOTO: Ultra-orthodox soldiers praying, Israel, 2000.
FILE PHOTO: Ultra-orthodox soldiers praying, Israel, 2000.Credit: \ Alex Levac

The worthy choice of this year’s torch-lighters was to some degree overshadowed by the fawning tone of the ceremony, which centered on the imperial couple, as if the state and its elected leader were identical. After watching the televised proceedings intermittently, it was impossible not to wonder how this ceremony will look next year. It will apparently have the same list of dignitaries, but it may be preceded by legislation of an immunity law allowing the Knesset to override Supreme Court decisions and an unprecedented constitutional.

Precisely because of this, it’s worth paying attention to some positive developments. The conscription law now being discussed as part of the negotiations to form a fifth Netanyahu government won’t resolve the issue of ultra-Orthodox conscription or assuage feelings of injustice among those who bear the main burden of military service. But we shouldn’t ignore the strides that have nevertheless been made in integrating the ultra-Orthodox into the army, after the top brass belatedly threw its weight behind the effort.

This is evident in the growing practice of holding Memorial Day ceremonies in the ultra-Orthodox community. On the eve of this Memorial Day, a first-of-its-kind ceremony took place in Jerusalem’s Hechal Shlomo to commemorate ultra-Orthodox soldiers killed during their service, including some from the ultra-Orthodox Netzah Yehuda battalion. Several hundred soldiers, bereaved relatives and senior officers attended.

A secular friend who attended the ceremony wrote the following to me on his return: “The ceremony, which took place with no gender segregation, to me symbolizes the institutionalization of ultra-Orthodox military service in special frameworks. Today, the ultra-Orthodox frameworks number around 1,800 soldiers a year and a little over 6,000 overall, on a variety of tracks.

“This past year saw the attack on the Givat Assaf settlement outpost and the deaths of three soldiers from the Netzah Yehuda battalion and symbolizes ultra-Orthodox bereavement. Since that battalion was established more than 20 years ago, 12 soldiers from Netzah Yehuda and other ultra-Orthodox tracks have been killed.

“Prior to the ceremony, the Netzah Yehuda association produced clips of video interviews that described the personalities of the fallen; it also produced a short memorial booklet. The event, which was organized in coordination with the defense establishment, reflects the growing legitimacy of service in ultra-Orthodox tracks.

“The ceremony sought to connect the fallen from Netzah Yehuda in its current incarnation with the fallen from the Nahal Haredi unit as it existed in the 1960s. It mentioned 18 members of the battalion killed during the Six-Day War, the War of Attrition and the Yom Kippur War.

“The audience included relatives of David Eliyahu Fuerst, who was killed in the Naot Hakikar disaster, when a rockslide crushed the Nahal unit’s dining room in 1970. Fuerst’s nephew said the bereaved mother from Bnei Brak had waited 48 years for there to be an ultra-Orthodox memorial ceremony for the IDF soldiers fallen, but didn’t live to see it.

“It was clear the ceremony had been carefully planned to combine a state IDF memorial ceremony with religious elements. Religious homilies were given and sections of the Mishnah were recited, and at the end, family members lit a candle in memory of each of the fallen. The Kaddish prayer was said in the Sefard tradition and Rabbi Bar Haim of the Netzah Yehuda association read the 83rd Psalm, which is traditionally associated with going out to battle and a prayer for returning safely.

“The rabbis who spoke were very careful to diverge from the view that serving in Nahal Haredi is a lesser choice [than Torah study]; they described it as an act of great devotion and as guarding the nation’s body, which is equivalent to guarding its soul, the task entrusted to those who learn Torah. MK Yaakov Margi of Shas described the Netzah Yehuda battalion as a clear expression of partnership that goes beyond all the divisions and differences of identity in Israeli society. In the transitional passages between the rabbis who spoke and the officers and family members, they sang ultra-Orthodox hymns and various songs from the general repertoire of IDF ceremonies.

“The ceremony ended with the singing of ‘Hatikva’ and then of ‘I believe with perfect faith [in the coming of the Messiah].’ It was a symbolic moment of transition in ultra-Orthodox service, from a separatist project to a permanent, long-term development that shows the IDF is capable, in conjunction with ultra-Orthodox partners, of accepting behavior that’s a bit different, even in a field as sensitive as that of remembrance and commemoration.”