For more than two months, since the incident in which Hezbollah fired anti-tank missiles on the Israel-Lebanon border near Moshav Avivim, reports of Israeli attacks on targets associated with Iran in the northern sector have minimized in scope.
Last week, parallel with the assassination of an Islamic Jihad commander in Gaza, an (apparently fruitless) attempt to kill another senior member of the group, Akram Ajouri, was reported from Damascus. In the early hours of Wednesday, Israel had already resumed its assault with full force: The Air Force bombed more than 20 Iranian and Syrian targets in and around Damascus.
This is how the last few days unfolded: At the start of the week, according to Arab media sources, a convoy of vehicles belonging to a Shi'ite militia operated by Iran was attacked in eastern Syria. The Iranian reaction came in the form of four rockets fired Tuesday morning from southern Damascus at the northern Golan Heights, which were successfully intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system. And toward dawn on Wednesday, Israel made its own move with a broad attack by the Air Force.
The raid was not designed to frustrate some imminent Iranian attack. It was part of a long-term effort by Israel to prevent Iran from establishing a military presence on its border. The targets that were bombed include military bases and command centers belonging to Iran and to Shi'ite militias, as well as the Syrian military compounds hosting them. The Israel Air Force also destroyed some surface-to-air missile batteries that had been firing at Israeli jets.
This broad campaign, which began about two years ago, has known its ups and downs.
Israel struck Iranian facilities and means of war several times; in some instances members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps were killed. These efforts forced General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Guards' elite Quds Force, to change pace and the deployment of forces and arms in Syria from time to time. But Soleimani never deviated from his purpose. It could even be that because of the lull in Israeli action in the last two months, it has been easier for Tehran to maneuver in Syria.
Set against this backdrop, the statement by brand-new Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, that the nocturnal raid on Syria teaches that "the rules have changed: anybody shooting at Israel during the day won't sleep at night," is unclear.
In practice, there have been more than ten incidents of rocket fire from Syria in recent years; Israel reacted to all and in some cases, notably the "House of Cards" operation in May 2018, seems to have attacked a large number of targets. Anyone who chooses to ignore this reality has either forgotten (quite recent) history or is trying to rewrite it.
Bennett also stated that "The message to the leaders of Iran is simple: You aren't immune any more. Everywhere you send your tentacles, we will lop them off," while a senior security source also hinted that Iranians may have been killed in the recent strikes in Syria.
It may be that Israel's considerations in pouncing hard on Iranians in Syria and publically threatening Tehran's leadership are related to the travails the Islamic Republic has found itself in over the recent weeks. Along with massive demonstrations in Iraq and Lebanon, Western intelligence organizations have already described protests in Iran over rising gas prices as the most violent and expansive since the Islamic Revolution 40 years ago. On Tuesday, Amnesty reported that more than 100 Iranians were killed in clashes with the government.
Yet it is doubtful whether the choice to publicly jab the Iranians will prove wise. Iran, and especially Soleimani, excels at cultivating long-term grudges. As a spanking new defense minister, Bennett is building himself a new public profile that other ministers could only dream of, even if only for a limited period of time (assuming new elections are held, by May or June 2020 Israel will have another defense minister).
Bennett would do well not to be too bowled over by the warm embrace of the media or the intense, close tie with the top echelons of Israel's defense establishment. Avigdor Lieberman, who stepped down from the job a year ago, crashed and burned because of his hasty vow – as he took the seat – regarding the fate of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh.
Lieberman has only recently rebounded from that. The automatic adulation any new defense minister receives tends to wane after the first military glitch, or, heaven forbid, the first military funeral.
Meanwhile, a bigger political game is being played in the background over the future of the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. IDF spokesman Hidai Zilberman told reporters on Wednesday morning that the action in Syria had been urgent and was categorically necessary. Israeli officials also claim that the pressure to move quickly against the Iranians came from the bottom up, meaning from the professional echelon.
The army is focused on its purview, which is handling security threats. But it's difficult to ignore the added value for Netanyahu, who is fighting for his political life, from dictating a security-oriented agenda during the final days of the stillborn mandate that Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz received to form a coalition.
Recently there has been talk about an Iranian attempt to dictate a "deterrent equation" vis-à-vis Israel, according to which, any attack on a target associated with Tehran or its allies in the region will result in an immediate strike on Israeli targets. That is what Soleimani was trying to establish by firing on the Golan on Tuesday. The Israeli attacks on Wednesday toward the morning hours send the opposite message: First of all, Israel is not Saudi Arabia, and will not shrug off aggression against it, as happened after Iran's massive attack on Saudi Arabia's oil facilities in mid-September. Secondly, Soleimani should reconsider his project to build up and establish presence on the Israel-Syria border, because Israel sees that as crossing a line in the sand and will continue to react strongly against it.
Israel probably hopes that delivering these messages, on the backdrop of Iran's internal crisis, will be received better in Tehran. Yet at the same time, the usual traps lurk for the political establishment and army brass: A combination of preening over achievements, arrogance, and excessive optimism about the future. The bottom line is that Israel seems to have become involved in a dangerous regional situation in which a wrong turn could escalate tensions with Iran and its envoys – possibly to the brink of direct war.
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