Analysis |

While Israel Maneuvers a Political Crisis, the Ground Around It Is Shaking

Almost every front is seeing dramatic developments: Iran is trying to exact revenge, Syria's airport has been incapacitated, Lebanon is threatening Israel over gas and rumors swirl around Palestinian president's health

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A view shows damage at Damascus International Airport, Syria, in this handout released by SANA on Sunday.
A view shows damage at Damascus International Airport, Syria, in this handout released by SANA on Sunday.Credit: SANA/Reuters
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Israel's coalition is now engrossed in daily, unceasing efforts to survive. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is compelled to maneuver desperately among new dangers that a host of MKs pose for him every morning: from Nir Orbach to Idit Silman (both from his own Yamina party), and from Michael Biton (Kahol Lavan) to Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi (Meretz). But the focus on the intensive political struggle, which the media is covering in minute detail, means that some strategic developments are slipping by unnoticed.

From the security aspect, the ground around Israel is burning. Among the nascent dangers, however, there are also phenomena that bear positive potential. The question is how much time, attentiveness and judicious consideration the (temporary?) leadership is managing to devote to these developments, when the government’s sheer existence is called into question anew every day.

There is hardly an arena in which dramatic events haven’t occurred in recent weeks. Iran is trying to implement a campaign of revenge in the form of kidnapping and murdering Israelis in Turkey and is ramping up the crisis with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

In Syria, the international airport in Damascus was made unusable by two aerial attacks that were attributed to Israel. In Lebanon, Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah is sounding empty threats in the wake of the start of Israeli gas prospecting in the Mediterranean, close to the maritime boundary. And among the Palestinians, rumors are rife about the state of health of the aged President Mahmoud Abbas, and the succession struggle is heating up.

A satellite image, released by Maxar Technologies, shows damage to runways at Damascus International Airport on the southeastern outskirts of Syria's capital on Friday.Credit: Satellite image 2022 Maxar Technologies / AFP

The regular travel advisories issued by the National Security Council captured most of the headlines this week. Israelis were asked to cancel trips to Turkey and afterward those already there were told to leave immediately. According to reports, some Israeli citizens received phone calls from representatives of the Mossad that included instructions for urgent escape, for fear they would be kidnapped. But only a few Israelis decided to forgo their planned trip.

Perhaps years of travel advisories about Sinai that came to nothing have lowered the level of belief in the authorities. In the end, as everyone involved in the field knows, the Iranian efforts, however incompetent, will succeed. It’s impossible to go on protecting the Levy family from Ra’anana or Ms. Cohen from Holon forever as they wander through Istanbul’s markets. Turkey is too cheap and its national carrier too efficient, for most Israelis to pass up the trip or a connecting flight.

The current Iranian terror campaign began even before the assassination of a Revolutionary Guards officer, Col. Hassan Sayyad Khodaei, on May 22 in Tehran, but was intensified in its wake. The Israeli media added a little to the melee by stubbornly insisting on depicting every dubious event that occurred subsequently on Iranian soil as part of a planned campaign of liquidations. The situation recalls to some extent the Israeli tendency to hint that every work accident that happens in Iranian facilities is the work of “our outstanding boys.”

Mourners attend the funeral ceremony of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Col. Hassan Sayyad Khodaei, who was killed in May in Tehran, Iran.Credit: Vahid Salemi /AP

The temperature is very high in parts of Iran during the summer, and in some of the country’s industry the maintenance and infrastructure standards are outdated, like in Third World countries. Accordingly, not every fire or explosion is necessarily connected with torpedoing the nuclear plan.

Still, this summer too, as in every summer, an impression of being on the brink of a confrontation flares up here, to which the Iranians respond with moves of their own. Compounding the situation is the crisis with the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), in the framework of which Iran disconnected 27 cameras in its nuclear facilities. At the moment, prospects are dim that a new nuclear accord will be signed before the U.S. congressional elections in November.

The attacks in Syria have long produced a collective yawn in Israel, but even so, the target of two of the latest ones was unusual: the airport in Damascus, and not just containers or a nearby Iranian warehouse but two takeoff runways, the connecting route between them and the control tower. In other words, distinctly civilian infrastructure was knocked out of operation in the country’s foremost site, apart from the presidential palace.

The decision on this apparently stems from operational constraints. The Iranians have turned to smuggling “precision kits” – for enhancing the navigation of Hezbollah’s rockets – in the hand luggage of passengers arriving in Damascus from Europe. The way remaining to Israel to signal that it will not accept this is by bombing the runways and rendering them inoperable for two weeks.

The limited international legitimacy of the murderous regime in Syria is likely reducing the intensity of the criticism of Israel over the attacks. One vocal objection was registered when Israel’s ambassador to Moscow was summoned for a reprimand in the Russian Foreign Ministry. (The Kremlin’s irony is unrivaled.)

Still, it needs to be asked again whether the “campaign between the wars” hasn’t lost its connection with its original aims. When the principles of the CBW were formulated, a decade or so ago, it was stipulated that the activity would have a meaningful purpose and that the risk entailed would be reduced by keeping silent (the policy of ambiguity) and by leaving time between the attacks to cool the atmosphere. Lately, though, it looks as if the original idea is being eroded by an accumulation of attacks accompanied by plenty of chatter. The impression is forming that the tactical tail is wagging the strategic dog.

However, on the positive side, Israel is taking a cautiously optimistic attitude toward the visit of U.S. President Joe Biden, set for July 13. The president’s main stop in his Middle East junket will be Saudi Arabia, but there too a possible slight advantage accrues to Israel. The package deal Biden will offer includes – along with Israeli agreement to the transfer of two Red Sea islands from Egypt to Saudi Arabia – permission for El Al to fly over the desert kingdom. Even more important, apparently, is the joint air defense system that the United States is promoting for the region’s countries, as a joint response to the threats posed by the missiles and drones of Iran and its agents.

Succession of rumors

Over a week ago, the latest rumor about the death of Mahmoud Abbas spread in the territories. To refute it, his staff uploaded a clip of a speech he delivered, but somehow that only reinforced the doubts. Opponents of the regime and ordinary conspirators claimed that the clip was edited oddly and that it did not contain credible proof of the date on which it was shot. In response to questions, the Israeli defense establishment immediately stated, reassuringly: The rais is alive.

Still, the Palestinian leader, who this year will turn 87, is apparently not in the peak of health. His lunch breaks are getting longer and he has reduced his public profile. Although there were false alarms in the past, the West Bank is behaving similarly this time, too. The atmosphere between the Palestinian Authority’s security branches and the armed, grassroots militants from other organizations but also from Fatah, is escalating. And the would-be successors are already perched on the starting line.

One person who seems to have shortened the route to the appointment as the next leader is Hussein al-Sheikh. The PA’s civil affairs minister, who has been considered an Abbas crony for years, was officially appointed secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee in late May.

Secretary general of the Executive Committee of the PLO, Hussein al-Sheikh in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on Monday.Credit: Nasser Nasser/AP

The conventional wisdom in the territories is that this increases his prospects of succeeding Abbas, even if as the head of a troika of leaders which will reflect the different power centers in Fatah and the PA. For Israel, that would be a convenient arrangement. Like other ranking Palestinians, a-Sheikh employs militant rhetoric publicly, but behind the scenes he has been a partner to civilian and security coordination between the PA and Israel.

Hamas, which has apparently identified al-Sheikh as a leading candidate, has lately stepped up its attacks on him. Suspicions of corruption are being mentioned, along with an old episode of sexual harassment, and of course accusations that he is a collaborator with Israel. In the meantime, weekly reminders are being recorded of the PA’s weakness. In Nablus, many armed individuals clashed with the PA’s security units. In Jenin the PA’s control remains diminished and armed gangs are continuing to run wild. Even in the election to the student union in Bir Zeit University, Hamas won a clear victory over Fatah.

Following the end of Ramadan, and the falloff in the preoccupation with Jerusalem, there has also been a decline in the number of attempted terrorist attacks in the West Bank and inside the Green Line. The Israeli army continues to reinforce the seam-line area – this week a brigade headquarters was established there to coordinate between the forces – but has moved to a regimen of routine arrests. Ahead of Biden’s visit, the army is lowering its profile of activity slightly. For the Palestinians, that is less than small consolation.

In the preparatory visit of Biden’s staff in the region this week, the PA’s hope of getting an American promise to renew the peace process was disappointed. At the moment, only small Israeli good-will gestures are on the agenda, such as granting permits to enter Israel to another 20,000 workers from the West Bank, who until now have been crossing the Green Line illegally.

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