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April 30, 2018 8:37 am

Middle East Braces for a Tense May

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avatar by Yaakov Lappin /


Israeli soldiers use tear gas against Palestinian rioters on the Gaza border, March 30, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Amir Cohen. – The month of May looks set to contain an unusually large number of potential escalation points that could converge to create a highly explosive period for Israel.

The Israeli defense establishment is dealing with several potential flashpoints, including:

  • An Iranian threat to avenge a missile attack on an air base in Syria that housed several senior Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps officers.
  • A decision by the Trump administration on whether to cancel or amend the nuclear deal with Iran.
  • Weekly Hamas-led marches on the Gaza-Israel border that continue to escalate.
  • Jerusalem Day celebrations.
  • The expected move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
  • The Palestinian day of mourning over the establishment of Israel’s independence, known as Nakba (“Catastrophe”) Day.

Collectively, these incidents have the potential to escalate on various fronts at the same time, such as Gaza, eastern Jerusalem, and the disputed territories, as well as Israel’s northern border, with a Russian, Iranian, and Turkish presence ensconced in Syria.

“The month of May does indeed contain within it more than a few challenges that can change the face of the area in a manner that will obligate us to update some our current policies,” Brig. Gen. (Res) Nitzan Nuriel, former director of the Counter-Terrorism Bureau of the Prime Minister’s Office, told JNS.

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As a result, the defense establishment will need to analyze the potential developments and their scope, and on that basis, prepare options that will remain at Israel’s disposal.

“In some of the cases, these are small changes that influence the short term, and in others, the potential is more significant,” said Nuriel.

He described the moving of the US embassy to Jerusalem as an event with short-term implications that may spark violence, but which will likely be temporary “or at least will not fuel [other] violent incidents.”

Upcoming elections in Lebanon, however, could “actually create new opportunities.” And the pending decision by Donald Trump on the Iran nuclear deal “could change the rules of the game in the region.”

Dr. Ely Karmon, a senior scholar at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, said, “The next weeks will represent one of the most explosive regional situations that involve Israel. The most serious one is the attempt by Iran to take advantage of the victory of the Assad regime in its fight against the rebels, a victory in which Iran and its proxies — Hezbollah and the various Shia militias — have had a major role.”

The Russian air campaign was the decisive factor that allowed an Iranian-led victory on the ground in Syria. Now, the Iranian axis and Russia depend on one another, meaning that Russia cannot accept an all-out Israeli war on Iranian forces and proxies, cautioned Karmon.

“The political solution [in Syria] that the Russians dream of also depends, in great measure, on Iranian goodwill,” he explained. “Tehran, therefore, seems to have decided to continue its strategy” of entrenching itself in Syria, which is part of “a clear anti-Israeli strategy, threatening it from the Syrian and Lebanese borders.”

Karmon warned that Iran’s conflict with Israel is “inevitable” as long as Jerusalem remains convinced that it cannot tolerate the formation of such a severe and direct threat on its northern border, and continues to “act accordingly, mainly through its air force.”

He noted that “Israel has [adhered] to the very clear red lines made public by its military and political leaders, and seems determined to continue to do so.”

Tehran, meanwhile, must also factor in the arrival of a more anti-Iranian White House team. All of these factors are part of the buildup to Trump’s “fateful decision” on May 12 regarding the Iranian nuclear deal, as well as “the unpredictable results of his negotiation with the North Korean dictator, which could directly impact Iran,” said Karmon.

An apparent decision by Russia to provide the Assad regime with its advanced S-300 air-defense system is contributing to the instability, he added. The transfer of this military hardware risks a confrontation with Israel, although “based on a historical perspective, Israel has always found technological and operational solutions to advanced Russian weapons systems.”

Meanwhile, Karmon said, several factors make the Palestinian arena more explosive, including Hamas’ weakness in the face of the Palestinian Authority and its growing regional isolation.

“This situation could get out of control at some point on the border with Gaza, but not in a manner that could threaten Israel strategically, except in the public diplomacy arena,” he said.

However, an escalation of the situation in Gaza could trigger an Iranian move designed to extricate Iran from the Israeli challenge in Syria. Israeli-Iranian tensions remain “the most serious trigger for a direct confrontation in the short term,” stated Karmon.

Professor Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, told JNS that he expects May to be an “intensive month” with some potential for violence, but added that the chances of it leading to a major armed conflict remained low.

In this region, he said, “explosiveness is not new. I certainly see a potential for the eruption of pinpoint clashes and intensive verbal wars, but not a regional war.”

The reason for this, explained Rabi, is that “no side will emerge with gains from a regional clash or a full-scale war between Iran and Israel. Assad could lose his seat of power; the Russians would not be able to realize their achievements in Syria; Iran is unable to allow itself to get caught up in an adventure that will further destabilize the regime at home; and Israel too has no interest in such a war.

“As a result,” continued the academic, “we will see more of the same — meaning what we have had in recent months will continue into the month of May. Perhaps at a higher intensity, but not beyond that.”

Yaakov Lappin is a Research Associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. He specializes in Israel’s defense establishment, military affairs, and the Middle Eastern strategic environment.

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