Analysis

Iran-Israel Flare-up Inches Closer Just as U.S. Turns Back on Mideast

A military front may not be limited to Israel's north

Iran's President Hassan Rohani arrives for a press conference in Tehran, Iran, Monday, Oct. 14, 2019.
AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi

Sooner or later, things will get messy. Iranian efforts to smuggle precision weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, to deploy military bases in Syria and to place advanced weapons systems in Syria and Iraq did not stop even after a massive campaign of air strikes, attributed to Israel. Tehran has signaled on several occasions that it still has a score to settle with Israel over earlier strikes. Following the exchange of blows between the two sides in late August and early September, Iran has laid down a new equation, according to which every new Israeli attack will be met with a swift military response.

A possible conclusion is that the next round of clashes between the two sides is imminent. This could be a result of pre-emptive Israeli action against an Iranian retaliatory attack or a deliberate IDF strike against growing Iranian power in the region or the smuggling of weapons to Hezbollah. The backdrop for all this is the growing assessment that the instability in various arenas around Israel (Syria, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip) could last for a long time and that these arenas have an affect on each other, more than was the case in the past.

High tensions in the north could deteriorate into military strife in the south. According to military intelligence, the Hamas government is striving for stability and is concerned about a war, but Islamic Jihad is a free agent with its own considerations, unconcerned about possible damage to Gaza in case of a slide into another military confrontation.

In the background, one cannot ignore the political context within Israel. All the key players in the coalition negotiations – President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz – talk in gloomy tones about a real change in Israel’s security, hinting that citizens are not fully aware of the gravity of the situation.

Netanyahu, in a video clip he released just before handing back to Rivlin his mandate for forming a government, tried to accuse Gantz of ignoring the danger. He claimed that his rival persisted in his refusal to seriously discuss the formation of a unity government, “even though I earlier acceded to his request to meet the army chief of staff, who presented him with the array of threats and challenges facing Israel.” Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi spoke in cooler tones in a meeting between top army brass and Netanyahu, saying that “decision making is done professionally, in a considered and judicious manner, based on what is good for Israel.” We’ll have to wait and see.

Trump’s fiasco

The rising tension between Israel and Iran is developing against the backdrop of a most significant regional development, the continued American withdrawal from the Middle East. Each week brings its tidings, mostly coming directly from the mouth of President Donald Trump. In recent days the dimensions of the fiasco that ensued after his decision to remove his forces from the path of Turkish forces invading Kurdish areas in northeastern Syria have become apparent to everyone except his blind followers. This move played into the hands of the Russians, the Turks, the Assad regime, the Islamic State and to some extent Iran. The Kurds were badly affected, and Israel certainly gained nothing.

Meanwhile, Trump has explained his balking (partly understandable) at the continued American investment in an endless war in this region, permitting the two sides to continue fighting over “the sands they have over there,” announcing that he was persuaded to leave a small number of troops in southern Syria at the request of Jordan and Israel.

Typically, it turned out that the president made this last decision after meeting Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and a retired general who is now a commentator on the right-wing Fox News network. The two presented him with a map showing oil fields in the area. When everything in life is perceived as a real estate deal, one can cast away the Kurds as a no-longer needed tool, despite the sacrifices they made in fighting the Islamic State. One can also, in the same breath, dispatch additional American troops to defend the Saudis, who are willing to pay for the reinforced protection.

On the backdrop of Trump’s mismanagement, Iran’s regional standing looks quite stable. The U.S. president is not concealing his wish to return to the negotiating table and talk about a nuclear accord with new conditions, a year and a half after he decided to walk away from the previous accord. The Iranians also want to resume negotiations, but not immediately and only from a position of strength. Meanwhile, they allow themselves to violate, slowly but surely, commitments they made in the earlier agreement.

The new economic sanctions Trump imposed are harsh, but have not brought the Iranian economy to its knees, in contrast to some earlier forecasts. The smuggling and military entrenchment in the area continue, as mentioned above. Iran faces other difficulties, however, in countries lying within their sphere of influence. The wave of violent demonstrations in Iraq has subsided, but it’s likely not completely over. These demonstrations were accompanied by some anti-Iranian sentiments.

The mass protests in Lebanon have been described in Israel mainly as a happening, reminiscent of the “cottage cheese protests” which took place here a few years ago, but these too included expressions of hostility towards Iranian involvement in Lebanon and the growing power of Hezbollah. There’s a reason the Shi’ite organization dispatched motorcycle convoys across Beirut this week, as a threatening gesture addressed at demonstrators. Continued protests in Lebanon and Iraq could act as a restraining factor when the Iranians consider whether to foment a military conflict with Israel.

Earlier this week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi led a delegation of Congress members on a visit to Jordan, in which they discussed developments in Syria with King Abdullah and his advisers. As is customary, they also discussed the (non-existent) peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. Despite the crisis atmosphere engendered by the American withdrawal, and despite the short distance between Amman and Jerusalem, Pelosi did not come this way. Did Netanyahu refrain from inviting the senior American politician, Trump’s current nemesis, not wanting to embarrass the president, or did Pelosi choose to skip meeting Netanyahu? In any case, this is another indication of the depth of the rupture between Likud and the Democrats. Even if Netanyahu and Trump are no longer in power in a year or two, the damage caused over the last years will still be strongly felt.