Analysis |

No Way to Defend Against Iranian Attack When Every Israeli in Turkey Is a Target

Between multiplying fronts abroad and the political minefield at home, Israel's government must exercise restraint to ensure the country isn't dragged into an avoidable conflict

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
Bystanders watch a cruise ship in Istanbul, in June.
Bystanders watch a cruise ship in Istanbul, in June.Credit: YASIN AKGUL - AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Behind the scenes, Israeli and Turkish intelligence agencies have been devoting immense efforts in recent weeks to prevent a terror attack against Israeli citizens in Istanbul. These attempts, which have already chalked up some successes, are particularly difficult this time because Iran’s Revolutionary Guards apparently have no specific target. According to briefings by Israeli defense officials over the last weekend, there is an impression that the Iranians are so desperate for some achievement that any target is now legitimate in their view. Thus, the protective umbrella cannot focus only on diplomats, or even on businessmen, but must include almost every Israeli now in Turkey.

Against the backdrop of increasingly urgent warnings by the defense establishment, thousands of Israelis cut short their trips to Turkey or have cancelled scheduled trips in recent days. Thousands of others decided nonetheless to fly to Turkey or to continue their trips there, either due to skepticism about the warnings, concern about losing money or out of sheer laziness. This raises the question: What are the limits of the state’s responsibility for their welfare after they’ve been warned? It seems that no other country devotes such insane efforts to protecting its rank-and-file citizens while overseas as Israel does.

This issue came up almost a decade ago in response to warnings by intelligence agencies (most of which did not materialize) regarding trips by Israelis to the Sinai Peninsula, at a time in which ISIS operated a particularly murderous branch in the area. There was a suggestion at the time to deny the status of terror victims, which involves substantial financial support by the state, to anyone who ignored severe warnings by the National Security Council’s counter-terrorism bureau. The idea was floated that the state would ask insurance companies to substantially raise their rates for obstinate travelers deciding to go to Sinai despite the warnings. Ultimately, these suggestions were not implemented, and the authorities have no such sanctions, not even these days.

Such cat-and-mouse games with members of Iran’s al-Quds Force and their local helpers in the streets of Istanbul began a long time ago. But it seems that the Iranian efforts greatly intensified after last month’s assassination, attributed to Israel, of Col. Hassan Khodaei from the Revolutionary Guards. Since then, a string of other incidents has taken place, including the killing of Revolutionary Guards officers, Iranian engineers and scientists across the country. Even though Israel’s links to these mysterious events were for the most part marginal or non-existent (something known to the Iranians), the extensive publicity apparently hiked the pressure on the Iranian regime to retaliate. The regime is worried about other problems now, such as the economic hardships which led to protests against the rising costs of basic goods and the new crisis with the International Atomic Energy Agency, which erupted following the disconnection of 27 surveillance cameras set up by the agency on sites connected to Iran’s nuclear program.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaking at the Knesset.Credit: Emil Salman

Tension in the territories

In the meantime, there was a resumption of tension in the occupied territories as well. In recent months, following the wave of terror attacks which began at the end of March, the IDF has intensified its detention operations in the Jenin area. As part of these operations, a Golani reconnaissance force entered Jenin on Friday, exchanging fire with armed Palestinians, including three young men traveling in a car. The three were killed, and weapons were found in their car. One of the men was identified as a Hamas activist, and the two others were apparently associated with this organization. Following this incident, Palestinian groups issued threats of revenge.

That came on Saturday from the Gaza Strip, close to 3 A.M., with a rocket fired in the direction of Ashkelon. It was intercepted by an Iron Dome battery. The IDF responded a few hours later with an aerial attack which hit a Hamas post in the center of the Gaza Strip, as well as three workshops producing war matériel and three observation posts along the border with Israel.

As with the rocket fire, these attacks caused no casualties. Despite Israel’s belligerent rhetoric, it seems that this was not a coincidence. The steps taken were measured, in an attempt to avoid further escalation. There was no announcement taking responsibility for the rocket fire, but in the past, when Islamic Jihad activists were killed in Jenin, it was mainly that organization or other rogue groups associated with it who responded with fire from the Gaza Strip, often with the Hamas government turning a blind eye turned or giving explicit permission to do so.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, President Isaac Herzog, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The rocket fire, the first in two months, came two days after media reports in which senior IDF officers had described the recent year as one of the quietest in many years. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who is anxious to display achievements, rushed to utilize this in order to praise himself lavishly on social media. This was a confluence of interests: The IDF wishes to present last May’s Operation Guardian of the Walls as a great achievement which restored Israeli deterrence. Bennett wants to quickly appropriate the calm to himself, showing that his time in office is a more secure period than that of his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, whose last military act was to embark on last May’s operation.

These events receive a tailwind from the “Just-not-Bibi” camp, which is concerned about Netanyahu’s possible return to power. In this framework, silly claims are being touted, such as the explanation that sharp military reprisals by the government to the launching of balloon-attached incendiary devices are what deters Hamas. In practice, Bennett, supported by the army and the Shin Bet security service, is adopting a generous policy towards Gaza. It’s true that for now, the embarrassing spectacle of transferring money from Qatar in cash-filled suitcases has stopped, but most of the money is simply being transferred through banks.

At the same time, Israel has allowed Hamas to continue with extensive projects to rehabilitate civilian infrastructure in the Gaza Strip, also allowing a record number of laborers (12,000) into Israel. This is the best year Hamas has had in a long time. It’s no wonder the organization is not keen on another war, making do for now with attempts to encourage attacks in the West Bank. It would be best if the clear concerns of what Netanyahu’s return would do to Israel’s democracy did not blind us and impede a sober analysis of the security situation.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Knesset, in June.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

A time for caution

This is a period of great sensitivity, and aggressive steps in Iran, Turkey, the occupied territories and Syria (in which two massive attacks on the international airport in Damascus were attributed to Israel) need to be taken with caution. The person dealing with this is a prime minister with his back to the wall, with a coalition under threat of an imminent collapse, with him and his senior partner occupied with the question of which camp will deliver the coup de grace, since this will determine which one of them will lead the caretaker government until a new election is held. Bennett’s bureau is almost empty. Most key officials there have left, after internal squabbles poisoned the atmosphere there.

In these twilight days, what was true for the final stages of the Netanyahu government (which in September 2019 almost ignited a war in the Gaza Strip, one week before the second round of elections) should be true for the final stages of the Bennett-Lapid government. Too many critical issues are in the balance now. The prime minister and his alternate must demonstrate responsibility and caution so as not to embroil Israel in an unnecessary escalation, whether from some desperate hope for salvation or because their heads are immersed in a political tangle.

A heavier responsibility now rests on the shoulders of the professional echelons, the heads of the defense establishment. They cannot be dragged into unnecessary adventures only because someone wishes to keep their coalition alive until President Joe Biden’s visit next month, or to please a wavering backbencher.

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