Analysis

Unlike Syria, Israel's Alleged Strikes in Iraq Could Ruffle U.S. Feathers

And how would the idea of a strategic U.S.-Israel partnership impact that theater of war?

Israeli Air Force F-35 flies during an aerial demonstration at a graduation ceremony for Israeli air force pilots at Hatzerim air base in southern Israel, December 26, 2018.
Amir Cohen/Reuters

A new development, that for now is happening mostly under the radar of Israeli news consumers, concerns a series of recent attacks in Iraq attributed to Israel, on targets connected to the Iranian armament effort.

Since thus far this has amounted to some mysterious explosions occurring in weapons depots at fairly obscure sites, somewhere in western Iraq, they are not arousing unusual attention. After all, in recent years hundreds of attacks in Syria have been attributed to the Israeli air force, attacks directed at the attempts to transfer precision missiles to Hezbollah in Lebanon and subsequently against Iran’s move to establish its military presence in Syria itself. These attacks put Israel on the brink of a broader conflict with Iran but from the moment this pessimistic scenario did not come to pass, it seems the public has remained pretty much indifferent.

However, it seems that something more important is happening here. If the reports are correct, Israel has begun to act systematically to interfere with the more distant part of the land corridor under Iranian control, which has begun gradually to establish itself in the last two years, from the Iranian border to Syrian territory. Israel is not prepared to take a risk and wait for the arrival of the missiles in Syria, but rather is hitting the shipments while they are still in Iraqi territory.

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Apparently this is being done in mysterious attacks, which share a “low signature” approach (relatively quiet activity, without leaving signs that testify with certainty to the identity of those responsible for the attack). In the meantime, the government of Iraq is not relating to the incidents.

However, another question arises. Unlike Syria, Iraq is still a territory in which the Americans take great interest. A large number of attacks could be interpreted as a challenge to the security control of the government in Baghdad, which is maneuvering between the United States and Iran. On most of the strategic issues, Washington and Jerusalem are coordinated to a considerable extent – and the coordination is also evident at the military level.

At least in Syria, it appears that the United States has never had a problem with the Israeli activity. However, in the first reported attack in Iraq, the Americans hastened to state to the media that it wasn’t their work (and thereby pointed a finger at Israel as the immediate suspect).

This also raises a question apparently now being examined concerning the signing of a document that will establish a strategic defense agreement between the two countries. In the defense establishment in Israel there is long-standing opposition to a binding agreement, out of concern that this would limit Israel’s freedom ot action and initiative and would obligate prior coordination of far-reaching moves. Positing an American condition for advance agreement on their part would be relevant in fateful moves like attacking nuclear sites in Iran but ostensibly could also be expanded into areas in which there is a more limited conflict with an American interest, such as an attack in Iraq.

Alongside the defense agreement, in recent weeks several ideas have been bruited with regard to buttressing the relationship between America and Israel, the undisguised aim of which is Trump administration aid to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his election campaign. There has been talk, in part, of the possibility of convening a conference with leaders from the region, as a reinforcement of Trump’s peace plan and indirectly of the prime minister’s international standing. It is doubtful this will happen in the four and half weeks that remain.

What, nevertheless, might be on the agenda? It would be possible, for example, to lift the last restrictions on the movement of released spy Jonathan Pollard and allow him to come to Israel. This is a move that could strengthen Netanyahu a bit among voters for the far right – and these days, it appears that every vote counts from his perspective. Trump has related that he decided to recognize Israel’s sovereignty in the Golan Heights five minutes after the idea was presented to him, and only a moment before the last election in Israel. Another instant gesture on Trump’s part could also be possible in the current round.