Regional Storm Clouds Threaten Israel
Notwithstanding the exuberance of Israelis at the Jewish state’s joyous 70th Independence Day celebrations, which were justified in light of Israel’s extraordinary achievements and progress on both the diplomatic and defense fronts, the Jewish state will be facing major challenges over the next few months.
Until recently, largely due to the effective diplomacy of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel was in an ideal situation, receiving the support of the Trump administration as well as enjoying a unique relationship with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. This despite Putin’s determination to retain influence in Syria and his wish not to breach his cordial relations with the Iranians who, for their own reasons, have played a key role in helping him save Syrian dictator Bashar Assad from oblivion.
However, Russia’s success in propping up Assad has encouraged the Iranians to openly establish military bases in Syria while shamelessly and repeatedly proclaiming their determination to wipe Israel off the map. Israel regards this as a serious, potentially existential threat.
Until now, frequent consultations between Israel and Russia have served to avoid conflict. Israel refrained from engaging in activities intended to bring about regime change in Syria or threaten Russia’s regional interests. In turn, the Russians did not react to Israel’s repeated air strikes in Syria, undertaken to neutralize arms shipments to Hezbollah or prevent the Iranians from advancing toward its northern borders.
Unfortunately, Israel is now finding it extremely difficult to maintain these delicate balances.
Assad’s employment of chemical weapons against his own citizens has outraged the international community, which until recently had been passive while hundreds of innocent civilians were butchered weekly by Assad’s forces.
President Donald Trump, who to Israel’s dismay announced his intention to withdraw all American troops from Syria, then reversed his decision and succeeded in persuading the French and British to join him in a joint military intervention to punish the Assad regime. It was a strictly limited operation in which four major installations were destroyed with minimal casualties, because the Syrians were made aware of the potential targets and evacuated them in advance. It was not an attempt to achieve regime change. But even this limited operation was a stark contrast to former president Barack Obama’s cowardly failure to follow up on previous threats when the Syrians engaged in chemical warfare.
Meanwhile, tensions between Israel and the Iranians have escalated. The Iranians have been employing Lebanese and Palestinian surrogates to carry out their terror activity and in February dispatched a drone from one of their Syrian bases carrying explosives intended to devastate a location in Israel. Fortunately, the drone was shot down by an Israeli Apache helicopter.
Israel made it clear that Iranian bases in Syria were unacceptable and launched a retaliatory raid, targeting the major T4 air base in central Syria, in which an F-16 fighter jet was lost. In a second wave of strikes, Israel destroyed a significant percentage of Syria’s air defenses, which also caused Iranian casualties. Although no Russians were injured, the Putin government criticized Israel for the operation.
Following the Syrian chemical attack on April 9, Israel was alleged to have launched additional long-range surface-to-air missiles, which were said to have destroyed an Iranian control center and killed 14, including seven Iranians, one of whom headed a drone unit. The Russians protested and the Iranians swore to retaliate.
Against the backdrop of these tensions on the Syrian front, early this month Hamas initiated a campaign in which it enlisted thousands of Gaza residents to breach the Israeli border. Hamas gunmen and fighters hurling Molotov cocktails were interspersed with the civilian demonstrators. The IDF took defensive action, using live gunfire where necessary against those using assault weapons or trying to penetrate the border. Thousands were injured and dozens, primarily identifiable Hamas terrorists, were killed.
Despite photographic documentation of the violence, the employment of human shields, including women and children, and the repeated statements by Hamas leaders that the objective was to “return” the Palestinian refugees and destroy Israel, the UN Security Council sought to condemn the Jewish state for responding “disproportionately.” That proposed resolution was vetoed by the US.
The atmosphere throughout the region is extremely tense and Israel is girding itself for the possibility that war could erupt at any time on any front.
We are fortunate that Netanyahu heads the nation at this crucial time. But he is treading on eggshells as he faces three challenges:
1) Preparing to engage in war, if necessary, to prevent the Iranians from setting up bases in Syria that threaten Israel.
2) Confronting any attempt by Hamas to breach Gaza’s borders, which will require tough military responses while seeking to limit the casualties sought by Hamas in order to present themselves as victims and create international pressure on Israel to make concessions undermining its security.
3) Employing his diplomatic talents both to maintain the alliance with Trump and retain the fragile relationship with Putin, currently under great strain in light of Russian activity in Syria.
To deal with these challenges and avoid being dragged into the conflict between the Americans and the Russians is an extremely tough balancing act. Despite Russian reprimands and even warnings that it intends to provide the Syrians with more sophisticated air defenses, as of now Israel’s lines of communication with the Kremlin are still open, albeit tense and fragile. Efforts are being made to continue maximum coordination, but Netanyahu must exert all his diplomatic skills to achieve this.
Even though Israel is stronger and more independent than ever before, there are clear storm clouds on the horizon. Keeping the 1973 Yom Kippur War in mind, we should never allow ourselves to be overconfident.
If the Iranians respond disproportionately, war could erupt at any time. They may be waiting to see if the Americans cancel the nuclear deal before launching a full-scale military confrontation. Likewise, if Hamas intensifies its efforts, it will lead to quickly to armed escalation. In either case, Hezbollah is likely to get involved and Israel would have to decimate its bases in Lebanon.
This makes Israel’s alliance with the US critical. So far, the Americans have delivered, but Trump’s apparent determination to withdraw all American troops from Syria would be an enormous incentive for the Iranians to confront Israel.
In this context, we would need to rely on the Russians to restrain the Iranians and Hezbollah from their openly stated objective of destroying Israel. Could Netanyahu persuade Putin not to breach the uniquely good relationship with Israel and the Jews in the face of Russia’s conflicting interests and the undermining of his military aspirations in the region?
Clearly none of the parties at this stage seek an all-out conflict, but it would only take a few sparks to unleash a regional conflagration. The IDF is geared up for such an eventuality, and with the Saudis and moderate Sunnis uninvolved or even possibly supporting Israel, the Jewish state is confident it could overcome the combined forces of its potential enemies.
But the extent of casualties — especially on the home front — would be heavily influenced by the role that the US and Russia would assume under such circumstances.
It is here that Netanyahu may face unprecedented obstacles in directing military conflicts and engaging simultaneously in diplomacy at the highest levels. Critics and supporters alike cannot conceive of any other leader at this stage possessing similar capabilities, experience, and the extraordinary diplomatic skills needed to navigate the delicate balance.
Netanyahu must be allowed to focus all his energies on the crucial defense of the nation and not be obliged to spend at least half his time with defense lawyers and the constant bombardment by politicians and the media seeking to undermine him and force his resignation.
It is nothing short of criminal for the establishment to tolerate a situation whereby, in such critical times, it has created conditions for the nation to be led by a part-time prime minister who also acts as part-time foreign minister.
If there is no one who could currently lead the nation like Netanyahu, I believe that his critics should suspend their legal and political campaigns and unite at least temporarily behind him until the immediate threats confronting us have been overcome.
Isi Leibler is a veteran international Jewish leader with a distinguished record of contributions to the Jewish world and the cause of human rights.