Opinion

Iran May Exploit Israel's Political Instability: How Trump Must Deter Tehran

Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas may well see Israel's current political uncertainty as an opportunity to attack. This is how Trump should warn Tehran off – and it includes responding to Iran's attacks on Saudi Arabia

US President Donald Trump waves as he departs the White House on September 16, 2019 in Washington, DC.
AFP

Political transitions can be challenging times for democracies. When major decisions are called for, caretaker governments often find their powers limited, either legally or politically. When national security is at stake, the results can even be dangerous, as adversaries may sense opportunities to gain advantage.

That is the situation that Israel finds itself in after its second election in five months, with the likelihood of weeks of coalition wrangling still ahead.

As Israel’s closest ally, the United States must also deal with the implications of such a transition, while respecting Israeli democratic processes and giving them time to play out.

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But with numerous regional challenges brewing, the United States and Israel must find a way to navigate this extended period of instability in Israeli politics.

First, the good news: the nuts and bolts of U.S.-Israel security cooperation continue apace with no interruption. Most of these activities are carried out by professionals in the two nations’ militaries and intelligence services.

For example, in August U.S. Army special forces visited Israel to take part in Noble Rose, a joint exercise with Israeli Navy Shayetet 13 commandos simulating a response to a hijacked vessel. The schedule of such exercises, set long in advance, is unaffected by political developments.

Meanwhile, on a virtually daily basis, intelligence is shared between the two countries to assist efforts to deter Iran, Hezbollah, and other malign regional actors, and to enforce economic sanctions against Iran. The fact that such activities can continue unfettered at the height of the political season in either country is a sign of the strength and maturity of the partnership.

But some other matters are necessarily put on hold.

Take President Donald Trump’s peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians, long in the works and perpetually delayed.

Had Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu succeeded in forming a government in May after the previous election, the plan would probably have been presented in June.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greeting Senior White House adviser Jared Kushner and then-Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt in Jerusalem, May 30, 2019.
HANDOUT/REUTERS

At the time, Trump bristled at the unforeseen complication in rolling out his plan, but he quickly understood that doing so during an Israeli election campaign was a recipe for the plan’s immediate rejection, first and foremost by Netanyahu himself, who could not be seen agreeing to concessions while chasing right-wing votes.

The reasons to hold off on presenting it now are different, but no less compelling.

It may take weeks for the coalition sorting to be completed, with a wide range of possible outcomes and more than one possible prime minister. A third election cannot be ruled out. The administration should understand that its plan, no matter how favorable to Israel, will not supersede Israeli politicians pursuing the government they believe most serves their country’s interests.

Special Envoy Jason Greenblatt’s arrival in Israel this week before all the votes were counted makes plenty of sense as a farewell visit (he has already announced his impending departure from the administration) or to learn the views of Kachol Lavan leader Benny Gantz (he already knows Netanyahu's views), but little sense as a preparatory step to releasing the plan anytime soon.

Gantz will have little incentive to change his coalition negotiating strategy, even if the plan is favorable to Israel, as he can argue that he, as prime minister, could secure the same offer from Trump, or that he will want to recommend different terms.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei greets Iraqi Shiite politician and militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr, Qasem Soleimani, Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force commander and IRGC chief Hossein Salami in Tehran. Sept 10, 2019
AFP

Finally, on the pressing issue of responding to Iran’s aggressive moves in the region, the two governments must find a way to continue their work.

There will be no change in the Israeli approach, as there is no difference in the positions of the two main political blocs. Israel will continue to strike Iranian targets in Syria as needed to prevent the consolidation of Iranian military threats in the north.

To the extent that these strikes are supported by U.S. intelligence and the provision of U.S. weaponry as part of Israel’s military assistance package, there will be no interruption of those activities.

But Israel and the United States must be on guard against the possibility that Iran or its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah (or the Palestinian extremist group, Hamas, in Gaza, for that matter) will misread the political transition in Israel as a moment of uncertainty and division, leading them to miscalculate.

Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah youth scouts mark the thirteenth day of Muharram. Banner reads (in Hebrew): 'Hi Zionists...If you attack us we will strike deep into your hearts.' Nabatieh, southern Lebanon, September 13, 2019
AFP

Israel undoubtedly is sending such messages through whatever channels it can, but it may need to continue to act, with U.S. support, to demonstrate firmness during the transition.

The United States may face a similar decision if Iran is proven to be responsible for the recent attack on the Abqaiq oil processing facility in Saudi Arabia. Trump has signaled clearly that he wants to avoid an escalation, and his caution is warranted.

But as Israeli leaders would tell him, in a moment of perceived uncertainty, a non-response to aggressive action by an adversary can whet their appetite for upping the ante, which can be its own form of escalation.

If the evidence points to Iran, a U.S.-led response - whether a limited military strike, covert action, or additional sanctions backed by allies and partners - might also signal to Iran and its proxies that they should not seek this moment to raise tensions elsewhere in the region, including on Israel’s borders.

Daniel B. Shapiro is Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. He served as U.S. Ambassador to Israel from 2011 to 2017. Twitter: @DanielBShapiro