Israel’s struggle against Iran has been taking place for many years on two parallel tracks, with complex connections between the two. Israel strived to block Iran’s nuclear program along with taking action to halt the supply of Iranian weapons to pro-Iranian groups in Lebanon, in Gaza and as of late in Syria.
The campaign against nuclear armaments was led by the political echelon. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formulated policies and security agencies carried them out. At a critical juncture – the dispute, lasting from 2009 to 2012, over whether to bomb nuclear facilities – defense establishment leaders dug in and resisted the implementation of the offensive designs of Netanyahu and his defense minister at the time, Ehud Barak.
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In the campaign being waged closer to our borders, the military brass are espousing an aggressive stance, adopted almost unhesitatingly by the prime minister and the cabinet. In recent weeks, these two campaigns are merging, and are expected to combine even more closely in the weeks ahead, as can be seen in the Mossad’s operation to steal the Iranian nuclear archive; Netanyahu’s pressure on the U.S. to abandon the nuclear accord; the series of air strikes attributed to Israel against Iranian targets in Syria; and concerns that an Iranian retaliation would ensure another round of fighting that will bring the two sides closer to war.
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Netanyahu’s prop-laden news conference this week apparently had several aims. On a strategic level, the prime minister obviously wants to provide President Donald Trump with more ammunition ahead of his anticipated May 12 withdrawal from the Iran nuclear accord; it seems the steps taken by the two leaders are well coordinated.
Netanyahu has no illusions about the position of the other five signatory powers. Nevertheless, presenting authorized intelligence material attesting to a pattern of deception exercised by Iran in concealing its military nuclear program in the past could assist in undermining future Iranian declarations.
One cannot ignore the political dimension of these considerations. Netanyahu approved a risky operation that ended well; it’s reasonable that he reap the obvious rewards. But his declaration, like always with Netanyahu on the Iranian issue, was also addressed to history. He has been warning about Iran and its nuclear program for more than two decades.
It’s not hard to see that for him, the uncovering of this archive is definitive proof that he was right all along and that he did the right thing when addressing the U.S. Congress in 2015, speaking out against signing the accord, a futile move that garnered much criticism in Israel and the international community.
Political circles in Israel pin great hopes on the ability of American secession from the accord to rattle the Iranian economy, which is already in crisis. The plummeting of the Iranian rial (to the extent that trade in foreign currency was halted for a few days), a few protest rallies in Iranian cities and the deepening rift between the conservative camp and the relatively moderate one, the symbolic video clip showing soccer fans shouting the Shah’s name – all of these encourage those who believe that new sanctions will lead to a widespread wave of protests, like the one the authorities ultimately quelled at the end of the “Green Revolution” in 2009.
In this context, a brief comment in an article published by the outgoing head of Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi, in the military magazine Maarachot is of interest. He wrote that “in an era in which most people get their news from the internet, cyber operations directed at people’s minds can overthrow states or prevent wars. Despite futuristic analysis relating to toppling regimes through the internet, this situation already exists.”
The IDF viewed the nuclear accord positively. To the prime minister’s chagrin, it refuses to completely dismiss the accord even now, finding itself busier with events close to the border. In a document he wrote in 2009 while serving as the head of Northern Command, current Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot put an emphasis on preparing the army for confrontation with enemies along Israel’s borders.
The multi-year Gideon plan, launched right after the nuclear accord was signed, was based on the idea that this agreement afforded the IDF a window of opportunity to close some gaps in contending with threats closer to home. At the same time, recent years have been characterized by the “war between wars,” aimed mainly at preventing organizations like Hezbollah from acquiring sophisticated, precision weapons.
The nature of this campaign has changed in recent months. It seems Hezbollah and Iran have reduced the extent of arms smuggling from Syria to Lebanon, possibly due to damage inflicted by air strikes against arms convoys. Israeli efforts in the north, according to Syrian media reports, have changed to focusing on striking Iranian military targets.
Israel is cautious, enabling operations to remain below the threshold of war even though it knows it might be subjected to retaliation at some point. The IDF’s greatest achievement, said former air force commander Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel in an interview with Haaretz last August, is that it managed these operations without dragging Israel into a war.
So far five strikes against Syrian sites associated with Iran have been attributed to Israel: a large facility for producing weapons was bombed last September, a Shi’ite militia base was hit in December, two strikes were directed against Iranians at the Syrian T4 airbase near Homs, and this week a large shipment of missiles was hit south of Aleppo.
The February strike was in retaliation for the Iranian drone that was intercepted near Beit She’an. That operation may have embarrassed Iranian leaders, not all of whom may have known in advance about the drone operation. In April, the target was different. According to some media reports, Israel foiled the construction of an Iranian compound, an air base within the Syrian one, that was supposed to have been protected by anti-aircraft missiles.
In the mental battle waged between Eisenkot and his officers against General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force responsible for overseas operations, it seems Israel has upped the ante significantly.
One opinion at the highest level of the defense establishment is that retreating from confrontation at this point would be a repeat of what the source called Israel’s mistakes in Lebanon over recent decades. In 1996, after Operation Grapes of Wrath, Israel restricted its operations somewhat to ensure quiet along the border. This allowed Hezbollah to develop into a more serious military challenge, sniping at the army’s heels until it left Lebanon four years later.
In 2006, after the Second Lebanon War, the organization advanced even more in its capabilities, partly because Israel never insisted on abiding by the clause in Security Council Resolution 1701 that forbade smuggling weapons to Hezbollah. The result is that Hezbollah’s rocket and missile arsenal grew tenfold, now numbering around 100,000. It can now reach any target in Israel.
“We can’t allow such a monster to rise up again in Syria, under an Iranian umbrella,” says a defense establishment source. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Israel will prevent this “at any cost.” Does this cost include a war with Iran in Syria? Despite the forceful winds blowing from Jerusalem, the army believes there is still wide scope for maneuvering, with determined action possible without sliding into a war.
Developments also depend on changes on the nuclear weapons track. Israel’s aggressive stance is explained partly by a claim that Iran is waiting for Trump’s decision about the accord, making it think twice for now before responding to strikes in Syria. If the U.S. does abandon the agreement by the May 12 deadline, circumstances will change, obviously requiring a reevaluation by Tehran of its policies in Syria.
Surprisingly, there is currently no political debate concerning the possible implications of Israel’s moves in Syria. Israel has set a very high bar – the prevention of any Iranian presence in Syria, even very far from Israel’s border. The way things look now, Israel’s actions have led Iran to increase its efforts by sending more men and weapons to Syria.
If the goal was to drive a wedge between moderates and conservatives in Tehran, based on Soleimani’s ambitions and the dispute over the vast sums of money spent by the regime on its proxies abroad, there is no evidence so far that this has worked. In contrast to earlier rounds, Israel is now facing Iran directly. Iran is at a disadvantage in Syria, but at a later stage and in case of escalation it can always employ Hezbollah.
In a new and fascinating biography of David Ben Gurion by Tom Segev, “A State at all Costs”, Segev describes an exchange between Ben Gurion and chief of staff Moshe Dayan ahead of the 1956 Sinai campaign. “Dayan asked what state of alertness the army should be placed on. Ben Gurion replied that this was a tough question, but said that plans should take into account a sudden war and the ability to mobilize at the shortest notice all the forces required. The army should be trained.
“Dayan wasn’t convinced, but concluded from his conversation with Ben Gurion that there was no reason not to embark on a pattern of escalation. There is no need for Israeli provocations, he explained to his people. It would be enough to respond harshly to any aggression by Egypt. ‘This policy could bring tensions to a boil.’ However, he didn’t rule out the option of initiating a war.”