A Potential Danger on the Northern Front

The skirmishes in Syria indicate that the potential for a slide into a military campaign broader than what any of the parties intend still threatens the northern front

Photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA: Missiles flying near the international airport of Damascus, Syria, on Monday, January 21, 2019.

The missile that was fired from Syria toward Israel and Israel’s response to it seem like another localized incident, despite the potential for a broader confrontation that lies in the precedent of a ground-to-ground missile being fired at Israeli territory. The widespread assumption is that Syria and Iran are not interested in starting a war; this is based on rational assessments that such a confrontation would not serve the interests of Israel’s enemies, who are still embroiled in a war in Syria and are seeking to come to a diplomatic agreement that will end that eight-year conflict.

Israel doesn’t have any interest in broadening the Syrian front either; it is adhering to its policy of preventing the transfer of Iranian weapons from Syria to Lebanon. But the skirmishes between the Israel Defense Forces and the Syrian and Iranian forces indicate that the potential for a slide into a military campaign broader than what any of the parties intend still threatens the northern front.

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On the face of it, an Israeli response to firing on its territory, as well as its efforts to undermine the Iranian effort to empower Hezbollah, are necessary from a security perspective. However, during this period it’s difficult to separate the security needs from the influence of the circumstances in which decisions are being made.

When the prime minister is also the defense minister, and when the new chief of staff, Aviv Kochavi, tags the IDF as a “lethal army” and wants to make his mark as soon as he can, the system of checks and balances meant to characterize the military decision-making process may be dangerously biased. The fear of such a bias is reinforced by the behavior of the prime minister ahead of the decisions by the Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit on his legal cases. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s assaults on the attorney general, the prosecution, the police and the media attest not only to his panic but to his willingness and ability to harm the foundations of democracy to serve his personal interests. Netanyahu’s aggressive campaign makes clear that no institution or mechanism is immune if it does not enlist to save the leader.

One hopes that the IDF and the military moves it is planning can be shielded from the poisonous radiation emanating from the prime minister’s private campaign, but Netanyahu is able to blow holes even in that hope. Netanyahu is making the public suspect that he would even be willing to exploit the security situation for his needs, just as he prevented the collapse of the government by Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked by lying about a pending exceptional security threat. How can he be trusted when only a few weeks later he dissolved the government on his own initiative?

The suspicion that security crises might be created to serve the prime minister’s personal objectives is enough to demand Netanyahu’s removal, or that he at least appoint a defense minister who can consider Israel’s security needs in a focused and impartial manner.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.