Don’t Stand So Close To Me

Iran’s growing presence in Syria has forced Israel’s security establishment to plan for the worst.

A picture taken on April 14, 2018 shows an Israeli military vehicle deployed in the Golan Heights near the border with Syria.
A picture taken on April 14, 2018 shows an Israeli military vehicle deployed in the Golan Heights near the border with Syria. (JALAA MAREY/AFP/Getty Images)

Israelis gathered last week to celebrate the 70th anniversary of their independence. Independence Day has a singularly festive rhythm and protocol — including an air show. This year, more than a few spectators averred that the Israeli air force planes overhead were rehearsing for a showdown against Iranian forces entrenched across the Syrian border.

Iran is a constant source of grief for Israeli strategic planners. They share the objective of blocking Iran — whose supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, considers Israel “a cancerous tumor”— from ever exacting its wrath against the Jewish state. But the strategy for achieving this goal has not always been straightforward.

Two schools of thought governed the Iran debate during my years in government. One advocated for Israel taking a back seat, which would compel members of the international community to step up and assume primary responsibility for this global menace. The other countered that Israel had no choice but to take the wheel — otherwise, the world might conclude that Israel was indifferent to the prospect of a nuclear Iran and show little independent resolve to constrain the Islamic Republic. (Evidence suggests that the threat of Israeli action to thwart Tehran’s nuclear ambitions helped induce others to isolate Iran.)

Jerusalem continues to dance the Iran two-step today. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is building itself a permanent infrastructure just across Israel’s northern border in the Golan Heights. On Feb. 10, Iran launched a drone laden with explosives into northern Israel, which Israel quickly shot down. The event was heralded by the military brass as “the first time [Israel] saw Iran do something against Israel — not by proxy.” But when the air base from which the drone was dispatched came under missile attack two months later, Israel equivocated. Soon after New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman reported being told by a senior Israel Defense Forces officer that this was “the first time we attacked live Iranian targets,” the paper updated the story to reflect Israel’s refusal to either “confirm or deny” the incident.

Then, last week, after Khamenei’s advisor Ali Akbar Velayati threatened that “Israel’s crime” would “not remain without response,” the IDF released satellite images of Iran’s drone deployment in Syria. Israel also decided to scale back its participation in this week’s Red Flag air force exercises in Alaska, signaling that its fighter jets might be needed closer to home. The combined effect of these measures is a carefully crafted message from Israel to Iran: We don’t want an escalation, but we know where you are — and we have the means available to make sure that you behave.

It appears that Tehran is taking these Israeli warnings seriously, if the placating rhetoric of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is any indication. Zarif told CBS this weekend that he does “not believe that we are headed towards regional war.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, keeping up the heat, used the backdrop of a visit later that day to the IDF General Staff to let the world know he doesn’t trust Zarif and that Iran’s military chiefs are actually displaying the country’s true, belligerent colors. Recent cargo shipments from Iran to Syria have lent additional credence to Netanyahu’s suspicions. From the perspective of Israel’s leaders, they now see their own mission as guaranteeing that the burden of proof remains on Iran.

How Israel contends with this challenge will depend on the Security Cabinet — composed of Netanyahu and 11 other ministers — which will likely accelerate the pace of its consultations if the situation worsens dramatically. Their discussions are certain to be informed by Israel’s abiding credo to “defend itself by itself.” Although echoed repeatedly by presidents of the United States, this imperative has never been more acute, with America now angling to vacate the Syrian theater and leave Israel to its own devices.

After former U.S. President Barack Obama punted on his commitment to hold Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime accountable for its use of chemical weapons — and the subsequent breakdown of a deal brokered by the United States and Russia for the dismantling of Syria’s chemical stockpiles — President Donald Trump now wants out entirely. “We’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now,” he told an Ohio rally in late March. The White House also pushed back against French President Emmanuel Macron’s claim that he had “convinced” Trump to stay in Syria for the long haul. Now, Trump says he wants to deny Iran an “open season to the Mediterranean,” but that he “want[s] to come home.” Either way, the statements issued by Trump, Macron, and British Prime Minister Theresa May following their combined April 14 strike on Syria left no doubt that the Iranian presence in the country is not their foremost concern.

Iran is Netanyahu’s signature issue. And he has the wind at his back. His Likud party continues to ride high in the polls. More importantly, on the narrow question of an Iranian beachhead on Israel’s border, Netanyahu is channeling the prevailing consensus.

When the Iran nuclear deal was signed in 2015, Israelis were overwhelmingly opposed to the agreement. Since then, however, a number of former and current Israeli security professionals have begun accentuating the deal’s positives (while not ignoring its flaws). But when it comes to Iran’s exploits in Syria and Lebanon, there is no silver lining. Tehran’s sponsorship of Assad’s brutal dictatorship and of Hezbollah’s terror campaign against Israel represents a tangible danger to Israel’s national security.

All this amounts to a green light for Netanyahu to do almost anything he deems necessary for the sake of deterring Iran in Syria. When he huddles with his advisors, they will assess the erosion of Israel’s deconfliction channel with Russia. Moscow’s unprecedented public accusation of Israeli responsibility for the April 9 attack on Syria’s T-4 airfield, and reports of an imminent Russian delivery of sophisticated S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems both signal that Israel’s latitude to rap Iran’s knuckles in Syria could be severely curtailed. When they consider this together with America’s withdrawal from the scene — pinned on Trump’s dubious hopes that “increased engagement from our friends [in the region]” will fill the vacuum — decision-makers in Jerusalem are likely to conclude that their window to break Iran’s malignant siege of Israel’s north may be closing.

On a strategic level, Israeli officials will likely calculate that their operational flexibility could be further restricted if rumors of a new and updated Iran deal prove to be true. Media accounts of Trump’s meetings with Macron in Washington this week suggest that such an agreement might be in the offing. Israel’s government will be cautious about rocking that boat if it lifts anchor for fear of jeopardizing its relationship with a sympathetic White House.

There is also a political calculus. Netanyahu and his ministers can count on broad popular support if they are perceived to be defending Israel against Iranian incursions. As a bonus, they will justifiably expect Israelis to rally around the effort, which will deflect attention from other, more divisive issues. At the moment, controversial legislation on topics such as religious conversion, military draft exemptions, and curbs on the authority of the courts feature prominently on the agenda for the Knesset’s summer session, which begins this week, and any discord on these issues could spell disaster for the health of Netanyahu’s fragile coalition. There’s also the matter of ongoing police investigations into Netanyahu’s alleged financial improprieties, which he’d prefer to remove from the headlines.

Considerations on the other side of the ledger will also occupy Israeli leaders. They will have no choice but to brace for almost certain Iranian retaliation. If Israel does lash out at Iranian assets, Hezbollah’s arsenal — upgraded since 2006 — will likely be unleashed against Israeli population centers. If the past offers any clues, Iranian agents will also try to strike at soft Israeli and Jewish civilian targets— embassies, tourist buses, Jewish community centers — around the world. Casualty tolls could impact Netanyahu’s domestic mandate to pursue Iran.

Israel’s policy stewards will also have to consider the vicissitudes of international opinion and how the world reacts to whatever action Israel takes. With Iran and its proxies crying foul, Israel will have to keep convincing its friends that its cause is defensive and legitimate. If the IDF is pressed into service against Iranian targets in Syria, Israel will have to work hard to maintain the high ground, with its diplomats pressing the case that Iran, and not Israel, is the aggressor.

Finally, the Security Cabinet will be on constant guard to ensure that any conflict in Syria does not trigger a larger war that is in nobody’s interest. The volatility of the Middle East today cannot be overstated. Iranian-backed militias are pivoting away from operations against the Islamic State and toward attacks on Western forces, Lebanon’s first parliamentary election in nine years is scheduled for May 6, Trump must decide before May 12 whether or not to reimpose suspended sanctions on Iran, and the United States is set to inaugurate its new Jerusalem embassy on May 14. The next few weeks could see major regional upheavals.

It will be unfortunate — but not surprising — if things get much worse before they get better.

Shalom Lipner is a nonresident senior fellow of the Middle East program at the Atlantic Council. From 1990 to 2016, he served seven consecutive Israeli premiers at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. Twitter: @ShalomLipner

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