Hostage Deal? No. It's Iran, Stupid (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- June 10, 2024)


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.  Doesn’t Saturday’s dramatic Gaza hostage rescue put a different gloss on Israel’s troubles? Doesn’t it strengthen Israel’s creaky deterrent image against enemies like Hezbollah and especially Iran, and even strengthen Netanyahu’s creaky coalition?

A. Saturday’s impressive rescue operation was a brilliant display of special operations skills that is, unfortunately, not terribly relevant to the more conventional resources needed by the Israel Defense Forces to wind down the war with Hamas in Gaza. Or to handle growing escalation with Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Clearly, National Unity party chief Benny Gantz was not impressed. He postponed his party’s withdrawal from the Netanyahu government for barely a day in deference to the hostage rescue operation. Not that it makes a big difference to Israeli politics: after Gantz’s departure Sunday, Netanyahu will still retain the support of all 64 coalition members of Knesset. Not a single cynical one of those 64 far-rightists, messianists and ultra-Orthodox draft-dodgers has resigned despite the colossal failure of October 7, 2023 and the eight months of broadly unsuccessful warfare that have followed.

Q. So as the pink cloud of euphoria disperses after Saturday, what is most worrisome on the strategic agenda?

A. Iran, represented in Lebanon by Hezbollah. They pose a looming threat of escalation on the northern front that could soon take the form of missile barrages engulfing all of Israel, beginning with the greater Tel Aviv area.

Escalation of what was a tit-for-tat border war between Israel and Hezbollah began more or less on April 13. That was the night when Iran launched missiles and drones directly at Israel in retaliation for Israel’s April 1 assassination of senior Iranian Al-Quds Force officers in Damascus. Iran’s attack broke a decades-old taboo in the Israel-Iran conflict which had restricted Iranian aggression to proxies like Hezbollah and the Israeli response to indirect attacks. It also demonstrated to Iran that Israel, despite its troubles in Gaza, could still rely on (western) friends and (Arab) neighbors to counter Iranian aggression.

Israel retaliated with a direct attack on Iran on April 19. That leaves just one taboo as yet unviolated: attack by Hezbollah’s huge arsenal of Iranian missiles against targets all over Israel. In recent weeks, on an almost daily basis, Hezbollah has attacked objectives further and further south of the Israel-Lebanon border. Growing parts of northern Israel feel under siege. Large swaths of forest have been burned with incendiary weapons. The escalatory writing appears to be on the wall.

Q. Why? What might have changed in Iran’s calculations?

A. Until now, strategic observers in Israel and the United States assumed that an end to the war with Hamas, in the form of a major ceasefire and hostage-release agreement, would prompt Hezbollah, and behind it Iran, to enter into serious US-brokered negotiations over an agreement along the Lebanon-Israel border. This is projected to include a Hezbollah force withdrawal and return of some 60,000 Israeli refugees to their homes just south of the border.

But a hostage-release-ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas that might affect Hezbollah calculations about Israeli deterrence has yet to emerge. Not only Saturday’s dramatic Gaza hostage rescue, but the May-June direct Iran-Israel clashes may have changed all that.

Iran is now openly threatening to escalate its nuclear program to full weapon status. It is trying to set up Islamist militias along Israel’s long eastern border with Jordan, to complement its proxies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

Considering that Netanyahu government West Bank settlement expansion policies are increasingly alienating the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan with its large Palestinian population, Israel can be grateful for Jordan’s active air and air-defense support against Iran’s April 13 attack. But for how long can Israel count on Jordan? Even before April 13, Tehran threatened that if Jordan intervened “it will be the next target”. Hezbollah, too, promised to “hold [Jordan] accountable.”

Both Israel and Iran have broad regional strategic calculations, some difficult to define. Were Iran’s calculations affected by the loss of Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in the May 20 helicopter crash that also killed President Ebrahim Raisi? With his Revolutionary Guards background, Amir-Abdollahian was a key figure in coordinating among Iran’s anti-Israel proxies. If foul play was at work in the helicopter-crash deaths of Raisi and Amir-Abdollahian, it is the latter who was probably the target.

Despite Saturday’s Gaza hostage-rescue operation, Tehran and Hezbollah presumably continue to assess that Israel’s overall deterrence has been weakened since October 7, 2023. Nor is it clear whether Iran and Israel, or neither or both, were deterred or encouraged by their exchange of direct fire in April.

Q. Hold on. Why has Israeli deterrence been weakened?

A. The view from Tehran and its Axis of Resistance partners and proxies (Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Yemen’s Houthis, a host of Shi’ite and pro-Iran proxies in Iraq and Syria and those newly-forming Islamist militias in Jordan, not to mention Hamas) is presumably as follows: Israeli weakness and miscalculation invited Hamas’s attack in the south and Hezbollah’s support from the north on October 7, 2023. Israel has failed since then in its Gaza War to defeat Hamas. And it has not even tried to defeat Hezbollah.

It took years for Israel’s Islamist enemies to build these threats, while Israel did essentially nothing. As a key military critic, Major General (ret.) Itzhak Brik, wrote on Monday, “their destructive potential is like a nuclear bomb . . . . a noose of hundreds of thousands of missiles, rockets and UAVs tightening around Israel’s borders. The prime minister prefers to ignore them.”

Further, because of Palestinian civilian losses in Gaza, Israel is losing support in the United States and western Europe--especially at The Hague with its international legal institutions-- not to mention stretching the tolerance of both Cairo and Amman. Netanyahu’s scheme, together with Washington, to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia as a counter to Iran has thus far failed, at least in part thanks to Hamas’s aggression--meaning Israel’s failure at deterrence.

Is all this weakness and loss of deterrence counter-balanced by the response to Iran of April 19 on the part of Israel and its western and Arab allies? By the bold Entebbe-like operation of last Saturday? Iran has time, at least until its emergency presidential election of June 28, to contemplate the effects, if any, of recent events on Israel’s deterrent capabilities and how to counter them.

Q. Bottom line?

A. Both Israel and Iran confront hefty strategic dilemmas.

Where do both Lebanese and Israeli politics enter the picture: neither Hezbollah’s Nasrallah nor Israel’s Netanyahu operates in a local political vacuum.

Does Netanyahu understand the sensitive nature of Iran’s attempt to undermine Jordan with support for local Islamists, armed militias, and propaganda attacks? Jordan came to Israel’s aid on April 13. But Netanyahu with his pro-settler coalition is not likely to reciprocate by reining in Jewish messianic activists in the West Bank and on the Temple Mount. Hence Netanyahu may look to the Lebanon/Hezbollah arena as the place to strike a resounding deterrent blow against Iran that benefits the Hashemite Kingdom as well--an approach that could mirror Iranian/Hezbollah calculations regarding the need to deter Israel.

Back on October 7, 2023, Hamas began the war in the south by firing around 5,000 rockets in a day, many short-range, into Israel. A Hezbollah-Iran attack from the north on the Israeli rear echelon could involve that number of missiles, fired for weeks on a daily basis and at far greater range.

If and when that transpires, how long will it take for the IDF’s defensive anti-missile arsenal, supported by Israel’s remaining friends and allies who share its antipathy to Iran, to recover from the initial shock of Hezbollah attack? How bad will the damage to Israel’s infrastructure and population centers be?

Will Israel’s strategic response target just Hezbollah? Iran? Lebanon? How will this affect regional stability?

Conceivably, October 7, 2023 was just the first act.