Israel’s Calm Before the Storm

Without deft diplomacy, confrontations in Syria, protests in Gaza, and tensions over the Iran nuclear deal could plunge the Middle East into chaos.

A picture taken on Nov. 16, 2017, shows Israeli Army officer Lt. Col Elad Efrati battalion commander standing next to a tank at an army position overlooking southern Lebanon in the northern Israeli town of Metula, along Israel's border with Lebanon. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on Nov. 16, 2017, shows Israeli Army officer Lt. Col Elad Efrati battalion commander standing next to a tank at an army position overlooking southern Lebanon in the northern Israeli town of Metula, along Israel's border with Lebanon. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

On the surface, Israel looks set for another pleasant spring, as I observed on a brief trip last week. The Tel Aviv cafes are full, the economy is strong, the West Bank is quiet, and the country feels safer than it has for decades behind effective air and missile defenses, the strongest military in the region, and a security barrier that seems to work remarkably well.

But appearances can deceive. On the horizon, there are a number of looming risks that could shatter the apparent calm in an instant if they are not managed carefully. Indeed, as the former head of Israeli military intelligence, Amos Yadlin, said in an interview last week, the coming month of May could prove to be the most perilous Israel has faced for decades. Unlike in May 1967, of course, Israel does not face the prospect of being invaded by any of its neighbors, and unlike in decades past its existence is not under military threat from abroad. But those realities should not lead Israelis or their friends abroad to overlook the seriousness of the threats that could explode in the coming weeks.

The first threat is the looming showdown between Israel and Iran in Syria. As Iran has consolidated its presence in Syria to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Israeli political and military leaders have made it increasingly clear that they will not tolerate the establishment of a hostile military presence so close to their borders. In the past several months, Israel has reportedly struck Iranian positions in Syria multiple times, including through airstrikes on Iranian military bases and missile factories and depots. On Feb. 10, after Israeli air defenses shot down an armed Iranian drone that had entered Israeli airspace, Israeli fighter jets reportedly struck the Syrian airfield and Iranian command and control center from which the drone had been launched. Iran, in turn, shot down an Israeli F-16 (the first such plane Israel had lost for decades), injuring both pilots, leading Israel to strike back against eight more Syrian and Iranian targets, including air defense batteries and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps positions. Israeli jets are believed to have struck a Syrian military base near Homs known as T4 on April 9, killing at least four Iranian operatives. And on Sunday night, major explosions at another Syrian military base near Homs suggested further Israeli action, this time resulting in the killing of up to two dozen Iranian nationals.

If Iran responds to Israeli strikes asymmetrically by firing missiles at Israeli cities or conducting terrorist attacks on Israeli targets abroad, the risk of escalation is high. The last Lebanon war, which was triggered in 2006 by a deadly Hezbollah cross-border attack, lasted for 34 days and killed at least 1,000 Lebanese and more than 150 Israelis. With Hezbollah having since built up a force of more than 100,000 rockets and some increasingly powerful missiles, a new conflict would be far more deadly and could pave the way for a major Israeli conflict with Iran.

The second potential time bomb is the looming deadline for the U.S. decision on whether to remain committed to the Iran nuclear deal — an already fragile arrangement that was dealt another major blow with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s allegations on April 30 that Iran is lying about its nuclear ambitions. U.S. President Donald Trump must decide by May 12 whether to issue the sanctions waivers necessary to keep the deal alive. He has said Europe must “fix” the deal — an unlikely outcome given the European view that the deal is working and the fact that it was also negotiated by Russia, China, and Iran — or the United States will pull out. The fact that Netanyahu, who just met in Tel Aviv with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, likely coordinated his remarks with the United States in advance, suggests that is exactly what Trump plans to do.

If Washington withdraws, Iran is not likely to rush for a nuclear bomb, but it may well kick out international nuclear inspectors and resume the nuclear enrichment and research and development programs it froze in 2013. If Trump kills the deal, Iranian leaders have threatened to respond by withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and resuming the production of 20 percent enriched uranium, a step toward the weapons-grade fuel needed for a nuclear bomb. If the deal collapses and Iran takes such measures, the United States and Israel could be quickly faced with the choice of allowing its program to develop unmonitored and unconstrained — which both have vowed never to do — or attacking Iran militarily, with unpredictable but deadly consequences.

The third ominous development is the conflict already taking place on Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip. Fed up with years of isolation, economic deprivation, miserable governance, and no prospects for the future, tens of thousands of desperate Palestinians in Gaza have for the past month been marching up to the fence that defines their border with Israel — and demanding the “right of return” to land they still claim as their own. Meanwhile, Israel has responded with heavy and often deadly force, killing at least 40 Palestinians and wounding many others. Israeli officials accuse Hamas and other terrorist groups of orchestrating the protests. But with protesters continuing to approach the fence — burning tires, wielding rocks and knives, and throwing Molotov cocktails — the situation could get much worse. If it escalates to Hamas rocket or tunnel attacks on Israel, it is not hard to imagine a repeat of the last Israel-Gaza war, only four years ago, which was triggered by a Hamas kidnapping on the West Bank and led to Israeli ground combat in the streets of Gaza. That war lasted for a month, killed more than 2,000 Palestinians and over 60 Israelis, and injured many more.

Even worse for Israel would be if the Gaza protests were mirrored in the West Bank, which raises the risks involved with the fourth factor in this potentially toxic mix, the planned May 14 ceremony marking the opening of the controversial relocated U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. The announcement of the embassy move last December did not cause the widespread eruption in the Middle East many had feared, but in such a tense environment today things could unfold differently. The mid-May date was chosen to commemorate Israel’s independence but also falls the day before Palestinians observe the Nakba, the catastrophe of their expulsion in 1948. The juxtaposition of Trump administration officials and dozens of members of the U.S. Congress celebrating the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital while Palestinians in Gaza are being killed by Israeli security forces could prove explosive. It could even trigger disruption on the West Bank, where it would be far more difficult to manage because of its far greater geographic size and population and the presence of hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers intermingled with Palestinians.

These ticking time bombs won’t necessarily explode in May, but any of them could, and to avoid that Israeli leaders — in close cooperation with their U.S. partners — will have to act wisely, with both resolve and caution.

In Syria, the Israeli military is justified in acting to prevent Iran from deploying advanced weaponry and personnel so close to its borders, and the Trump administration should continue to support Israel on this front. Iran should know that if it responds militarily against Israel or conducts terrorist attacks against Israeli targets, it will pay a heavy price.

At the same time, both Jerusalem and Washington also need to look for ways to avoid escalation. Not every Shiite militia in Syria poses a strategic threat to Israel, and “eliminating” Iranian influence there — which was already considerable even before the Syrian civil war began — is an impossible goal and a recipe for endless conflict. The United States and Israel should thus set realistic strategic goals and be very clear with each other, and with Iran, about what their red lines are. Trump and Netanyahu should also use whatever leverage they have with Russian President Vladimir Putin to elicit Russian assistance in limiting Iran’s military presence. Russian goals in Syria — preventing regime change, keeping Sunni extremists from power, and remaining a player in the region — have largely been achieved, and Moscow has the influence on the ground to limit Iranian expansion if Putin chooses to use it.

A second important step to avoid unnecessary escalation would be for Trump, on May 12, to declare success in his negotiations with Europe to fix the nuclear deal and continue to implement and enforce it. The negotiations with European leaders were never going to fundamentally alter an agreement that was painstakingly negotiated over two years, agreed to by seven parties including Iran, and endorsed by the U.N. Security Council. But as French President Emmanuel Macron made clear on his April 24 visit to Washington, European leaders are prepared to agree to unilateral steps — such as sanctioning Iranian ballistic missile tests, ensuring that the deal’s verification regime is fully enforced, helping contain Iranian meddling in the region, and committing to exploring possible supplementary arrangements to address the deal’s sunset clauses — that Trump could fairly claim as wins due to his negotiating tactics.

Given that even Israeli military and intelligence experts acknowledge that the deal, however imperfect, is constraining the Iranian program, this approach would buy time to see how Iranian politics develop and to explore possible follow-on arrangements after the initial restrictions expire. It would also help maintain the international support necessary to hold Iran to its commitment never to seek nuclear weapons. Blowing up the deal in May would, by contrast, isolate the United States and Israel diplomatically and ultimately increase the prospects of a military clash at a time when those risks are already excessive.

Defusing the situation in Gaza will also require deft diplomacy, but it is essential to avoid an explosion on the ground and dangerously escalating criticism of Israel from abroad. There is no doubt the protesters include provocateurs and even terrorists. But they also include civilians who are expressing legitimate grievances and whose willingness to risk their lives is a powerful sign those grievances need to be addressed. Israel needs to defend its borders, but the use of disproportionate force only risks intensifying the protests to the point that they could escalate and spin out of control. Israel also needs to work with Egypt to improve the miserable living conditions of Gaza’s population and to maintain close coordination with Palestinian security forces on the West Bank to avoid facing two internal uprisings at the same time. That scenario — a new intifada among millions of desperate Palestinians under Israeli control — is a greater threat to Israel’s future than even Hamas rocket and tunnel attacks.

Finally, both Washington and Israel will need to manage their embassy celebrations with sensitivity and caution. Jerusalem obviously operates as Israel’s capital city, and as a practical matter having the U.S. Embassy operate there makes sense. But Trump will be doing nobody any favors, including Israel, if he continues to claim this move “takes Jerusalem off the table” and fails to make clear that the city’s future status can only be negotiated by the parties themselves. At a time when Israel’s prospects for cooperation with its Arab neighbors are better than ever, allowing Iran to pose as the protector of Muslim Jerusalem, while Israel appears to be denying Palestinians their own capital there, would be a huge strategic mistake. In such an explosive environment, the last thing the region needs on May 14 is for Trump himself to show up and declare a victory that for all but his hosts would be seen as a humiliating defeat.

Israel may seem calm today, at least compared with its neighbors. But it would be complacent in the extreme to take that calm for granted. Over the course of the next month, critical decisions by Israeli leaders, together with their friends in Washington, will help determine whether it will last.

Philip H. Gordon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a former White House coordinator for the Middle East in the Obama administration, and the author of Losing the Long Game: the False Promise of Regime Change in the Middle East.