Israel has expanded its military operations in the Middle East from Palestine to Lebanon, Syria and as of last month, Iraq, allegedly carrying out multiple attacks on Iranian allies and assets. In a departure from traditional ambiguity, the Israeli government has boasted about its responsibility for the bombings and, with an utter sense of impunity, threatened more such attacks anytime, anywhere in the region.
The bombast, timing, scope, and rhythm of the bombings suggest there is more to the pre-emptive attacks than immediate security consideration. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is sending a message to his own public at home ahead of the September 17 elections as well as to Iran and the United States.
The message to the Israelis
Netanyahu’s decision to launch a cross-regional bombings spree three weeks before national elections was a carefully calculated political move aimed at guaranteeing his survival as prime minister and a free man.
The vote is important not only for Israel’s future but also for Netanyahu’s own fate. If he loses this election and, as expected, is indicted on corruption charges, he will certainly go to prison like his predecessor, Ehud Olmert.
But as several generals-cum-politicians are running against him on September 17, the incumbent prime minister, who promised to annex the West Bank settlements to prove his right-wing credentials, needs to prove his military credentials as well, preferably without plunging the country into war.
So Netanyahu, the seasoned politician, took a calculated risk of bombing Iranian targets while assuming that Iran is not interested in fighting a major war – certainly not while Tehran is trying to save the nuclear deal with the help of Europe and others.
He also assumed that when the time comes, any tit-for-tat with Hezbollah would be limited. Indeed, the tit-for-tap last Sunday came to an end before it had even begun, with both parties moving towards immediate de-escalation.
Paradoxically, these avowed enemies have thus far proven more predictable in their confrontations than most allies are in their cooperation, including the US and Israel.
The message to the Iranians
Israel’s expansion of its military operations against Iranian assets to include Iraq cannot be mistaken for anything other than putting Tehran on notice: Israel will be watching, weighing and wielding its superior power like never before, until and unless Iran stops projecting power and building allies and assets close to its borders.
Over the past two years, the Israeli army has allegedly carried out hundreds of attacks against Iranian targets in Syria, soliciting little or no real response from Damascus or Tehran, other than the occasional condemnation and threat of retaliation.
Israel delivered a similar message by attacking Hezbollah positions in Syria and Lebanon, which was considered a major escalation and a violation of previous agreements reached after their 2006 war.
But Israeli security establishment no longer views the group as a Lebanese resistance movement – a title it held since its inception as a byproduct of the 1982 Israeli invasion and occupation of Lebanon.
With Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah threatening regional war if Iran is attacked, and abetting Iranian projection of force and influence across the region from Syria, Yemen and Iraq, the Lebanese armed group has come to be considered an asset or client of the ayatollahs in Tehran.
Paradoxically, the more Hezbollah has become overstretched and preoccupied with other conflicts in the region, the less time and energy it has had for confronting Israel.
The message to Trump
The timing of the most recent elaborate campaign of bombings on three fronts during the two-day G7 conference in Biarritz, France could hardly be a coincidence.
Netanyahu was angered by the French invitation of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to the summit and dismayed by French President Emmanuel Macron’s attempts to mediate between Tehran and Washington and arrange for a meeting between President Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
Netanyahu has realised by now that Trump’s love for shock, controversy and publicity and his willingness to meet US enemies like Kim Jong Un mean that it is quite possible for him to agree to France’s mediation and commit to a meeting with Iranian leaders.
That is why Netanyahu tried vociferously to reach the American president in Biarritz to dissuade him from meeting Zarif or acquiescing to the French proposals to lift secondary sanctions on Iran. Apparently, the US president was too busy or perhaps unwilling to talk.
Trump may be impressionable, but he does not like to be told what do.
At any rate, bombs speak louder than words, and Netanyahu knew that even if he could not get Trump on the phone, the attacks on Iraq, Syria and Lebanon would be heard loud and clear in Biarritz.
Well, the G7 ignored the Israeli escalation, neither condemning it nor justifying it. The Trump administration, predictably, defended Israel’s right to “defend itself”, but the president remained open to the idea of direct talks with Iran as he insists on the need to withdraw the US military from the region’s hotspots.
Well, that is until he changes his mind.
Saving the Middle East
Meanwhile, Israeli and Iranian leaders and their allies are turning the Middle East into an open theatre of war, acting like pyromaniacs, who, as I wrote last week, unless stopped, may end up burning down the whole region.
Together, Israel and Iran constitute the gravest menace to the future of the region. Supporting one or the other will not bring victory or avert war – it would only accelerate the march towards an all-out conflict, and implicate other regional and global powers.
Israel and Iran may have succeeded over the past four decades in maintaining distance, fighting only by proxy, but deepening tensions amid the spree of Israeli attacks and biting sanctions against Tehran may pave the way towards a whole new regional confrontation with unforeseen consequences.
The main reason why Israel and Hezbollah avoided war since 2006 is their – especially Israel’s – determination to prepare well enough to be able to win decisively and at minimum cost. This may be nearer than we think, as Israel perfects its anti-missile defences, notably its iron dome system.
That is why France and its European partners need to step up their efforts to reach a diplomatic breakthrough between the US and Iran – one that ensures short as well as long-term regional security.
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