Why Is Israel Threatening Iran? (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- May 30, 2023)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. Last week, Defense Minister Yoav Galant, IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi and IDF Head of Intelligence Aharon Haliva all went out of their way publicly to threaten and warn Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah. What lies behind this? Is war on the horizon?

A. The Israeli intelligence establishment has detected signs that Israel’s militant Islamist enemies and neighbors--Iran, Hezbollah and Gaza-based Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad--assess that Israel has been weakened by a combination of domestic and global factors. Accordingly, so the Israeli assessment goes, the Iran-led Islamists are more likely to engage in aggression against an ostensibly declining country whose right to exist they deny.

To right the balance of power, Iran and its proxies must be persuaded that Israel is as strong as ever. In other words, the security establishment assesses that Israel’s deterrent image must be sharpened in order to allay the danger of aggression that could lead to a major regional war. This explains last week’s warnings.

Q. What exactly did the Israeli security leadership warn of? Is Iran’s reported progress in producing near-weapons-grade uranium and burying its nuclear installations deep underground a factor here?

A. Those are clearly key factors in the Israeli assessment. Last week Halevi reiterated this and coupled it with a warning: “Iran has made more uranium enrichment progress than ever. . . . Negative developments are liable to catalyze action. We have the capability and that is significant and important.” Galant added that Israel was preparing for “a complex objective.”

Haliva, alluding to the misjudgment that led to Israel’s 2006 war, directed his warning to the leader of Israel’s northern neighbor, Hezbollah, a virtual arm of Iran’s military: “Nasrullah is close to [again] making a mistake that could deteriorate into a big conflict.” Here, incidentally, a number of those who last week issued deterrent warnings referred to unprovoked Hezbollah attacks on Israel in recent months: a saboteur with an explosive charge who penetrated south of the border as far as Megiddo, around 55 km. inside Israel, and the firing of several dozen rockets into northern Israel, ostensibly not by Hezbollah but clearly with its forbearance.

Megiddo, incidentally, is the biblical Armageddon, scene of the ultimate battle between good and evil. Was Hezbollah sending Israel some sort of a primeval message?

Note that these high-level Israeli warnings did not resonate well with the economy. Overnight, we witnessed further devaluation of an Israeli shekel already hurt by the demoralizing effect of the Netanyahu government’s anti-democratic ‘judicial reform’ program.

Q. Still, is there any substance to the assessment associated with Iran and its proxies to the effect that Israel has been weakened? Put differently, what are the characteristics of this ostensibly ‘weakened’ Israel?

A. This is complicated. Yes, Israeli democracy is threatened by the ‘judicial reform’ schemes of the Netanyahu coalition with their fascist implications. That threat resonates heavily with Israelis and with other democracies. But do Islamist, non-democratic Iran and Hamas care? The fact that Israel is democratic can hardly, in their eyes, be a component of Israeli deterrence.

And the threat by reserve pilots not to serve at time of war? The pilots had cited concern lest a no-longer-independent Israeli judicial system fail to be perceived internationally as a guarantor that Israel will investigate and prosecute any alleged war crimes by itself. The pilots had expressed fear that this would lead to indictments in The Hague. Yet all reserve pilots served faithfully in the recent five-day conflict with PIJ in Gaza, which involved at least one incident of questionable civilian deaths that will almost certainly be investigated by the global legal community.

And yes, the United States is under President Biden taking its distance from both the Netanyahu government and the Middle East in general. But if Iran and Hezbollah are ‘reading’ Washington accurately, they must know that in a warlike conflict between Israel and Iran the US will rally behind Israel.

And yes, Iran appears to be surrounding Israel with well-armed Islamist enemies in Lebanon, Syria and Gaza. But history teaches us that Israel fights back best when it is surrounded, as in 1948 and 1967, and worst when it wages a ‘war by choice’ as in 1982 and in most aspects of its conflict with the Palestinians.

Still, in Israeli intelligence circles there is a clear impression that Iran and its proxies believe they perceive Israeli weakness.

Q. Where do Israel’s new friends in the Persian Gulf enter the picture?

A. Despite last week’s threats against Iran and its proxies by the most senior Israeli security officials, there are no indications of near-term military activity against Iran--beyond the decade-long ‘campaign between wars’ in Syria (Halevi, last week: “Iran is using Syria as a potential battlefield against Israel. We are not unaware of that.”) Rather, the objective appears to have been to shore up Israel’s deterrent image, precisely in order to prevent war. Beyond that, reassurance to Israel’s Persian Gulf allies the UAE, Bahrain and even Saudi Arabia to the effect that they can still depend on Israel to deter Iran, may have been a secondary objective.

That dovetails with US activity to firm up the Israel-Gulf Arab alignment, albeit without much by way of direct American involvement beyond possible new cutting-edge arms supply to Riyadh and a non-military nuclear deal. It also dovetails with a growing perception that PM Netanyahu has decided to back off from judicial reform for the time being. He appears to be seeking to dispel any impression of domestic disarray, enable deterrence to be restored, and reassure Israel’s allies in the Gulf and in Washington.

Last week’s warnings to Iran and Hezbollah helped pave the way for two senior Israeli officials, Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer and National Security Adviser Tzachi HaNegbi, to visit Washington this week to discuss measures against Iran and ways to edge closer to Saudi Arabia.

Q. Bottom line?

A. Lest we forget, Israel and Iran are already at war. They are engaged in proxy fights in Syria and Gaza, cyber wars everywhere, and intelligence, drone and sabotage warfare above and inside both Iran and Israel. Israel’s warnings are intended to prevent escalation into new dimensions such as direct Israel-Hezbollah fighting in northern Israel and Lebanon.

Senior Iranians, meanwhile, continue to threaten Israel’s destruction. Fereydoun Abbasi, former head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, recently said that if UN nuclear sanctions are reimposed, Iran “will destroy Israel”. Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrullah added his own threat to attack Israel if Iran is attacked.

Does Iran even seek escalation at a time when Iranian society is hurting, its economy is limping, its military nuclear program is far from completion, and it is mending fences with the Gulf Arab monarchies? More likely, escalation will be triggered accidentally by, say, ill-considered action by Hezbollah or PIJ leaders, or inadvertently through ill-considered bluster and anti-Palestinian decisions by the likes of Israel’s Finance Minister Smotrich or National Security Minister Ben Gvir.

But escalation will almost certainly come. Unless Iran’s leadership and Islamic revolutionary ideology change radically and unexpectedly, which is not likely, the Israel-Iran clash can only get worse.

By the same token, full-fledged normalization with Saudi Arabia is not likely in the near future because the Saudi royal family insists on seeing progress toward a two-state solution. Israel’s government is far too pro-settler and anti-Palestinian--far too entrenched in swallowing up the West Bank regardless of the consequences for Israel’s democratic and Jewish future--to make the necessary concessions. And the PLO is too corrupt and anarchic to challenge Israel to serious negotiations.

Ultimately, normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia will be far more about Palestine than about Iran. The Netanyahu government’s move this week to restore a messianic settler presence at Homesh in the northern West Bank--evacuated in 2005--is a move in precisely the wrong direction: for Israel, for Israeli-Saudi ties, and for Netanyahu’s standing in Washington.