First published by the Middle East Eye on 29/8/2019
It’s election season again in Israel, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is flexing his military muscles. The second election this year is set for 17 September, after the previous one failed to produce a governing coalition.
Recent polls show the two main parties, Likud and the Blue and White alliance, running neck-and-neck at around 30 seats each in the 120-seat Knesset. Such an outcome would make it difficult for either party to form a governing coalition.
At the same time, Netanyahu’s own political career remains under a cloud of allegations of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Is he now looking to boost his popularity through aggression against Palestinians and neighbouring Arab countries, or is there an increased threat level that merits Israel’s latest actions?
Security versus electoral games
Some would argue that the recent attacks on targets in Gaza, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are related to Israel’s security, rather than electoral games. They would claim that Netanyahu is right to continue to degrade Iran’s military power, wherever it is, and that in Gaza, Israel is acting in self-defence against Hamas’s periodic rocket attacks.
Yet, it is Israel’s on-going siege, now in its 13th year, that has resulted in the continuous suffering of two million people living in the open-air prison that is Gaza. Israel has failed to implement agreements to loosen the siege, which would bring an end to the Great March of Return protest movement.
It is difficult to see from publicly available information what new threat against Israel arose to justify these attacks
That frustration, coupled with Israel’s deadly attacks on peaceful protesters, might explain the lack of quiet between Israel and Gaza. There has been little change in the dynamics between Israel and Iran-backed Hamas that would justify the recent – or any further – attacks.
Meanwhile, last month, for the first time in recent years, Israel attacked what it claimed to be Iranian targets in Iraq. Although Iraq initially kept these attacks under wraps, the silence was broken after Israel attacked a base of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), the umbrella grouping of Iraq’s mostly Shia militias. The PMF blamed Israel and the US, claiming the latter had allowed four Israeli drones to enter the region to carry out missions on Iraqi territory.
In an unusual step, the US denied responsibility for the recent attacks, vowing to cooperate with Iraqi investigations. It is difficult to see from publicly available information what new threat against Israel arose to justify these attacks as well.
‘Kill him first’
Following the attacks on Iraq, Israel last week targeted what it claimed was a group of members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force and Lebanon’s allied Shia Hezbollah movement at Aqraba, near Damascus. Israel said it had aborted an Iranian drone attack against areas in the country’s north.
After the Israeli strike, Netanyahu noted on Twitter: “Iran has no immunity anywhere. Our forces operate in every sector against the Iranian aggression. If someone rises up to kill you, kill him first.”
While the Syrian defence ministry confirmed the Israeli attacks, it said that many of the incoming missiles had been intercepted. A senior Revolutionary Guards commander denied that Iranian targets had been hit, saying its military advisory centres “have not been harmed”.
Analysts have speculated on Arabic TV channels that if Iran was planning to attack Israel, it could have been in retaliation for Israel’s attacks on its Iraqi bases.
Israel has regularly attacked Syria, claiming to be targeting Iranian bases to deter it from entrenching its presence in the country, and thus – as Netanyahu claims – enhancing Israel’s security. But if the media speculation is correct, it might have been Israel’s own actions in Iraq that were behind Iran’s alleged attack plan for northern Israel.
Drones over Beirut
Shortly after its attack on Syria, Israel sent two drones deep into Lebanese territory, reaching the Hezbollah-dominated suburb of Dahyeh in Beirut. Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah confirmed the attacks, which caused damage to property, but no casualties.
Nasrallah described the incident as a “suicide mission”, warning that “Hezbollah will not allow such an aggression. The time when Israeli aircraft come and bombard parts of Lebanon is over.” The reality here too, is that there has been little sign of an increased threat from Lebanon.
Israel’s attacks on neighbouring countries may now reportedly extend to Yemen. Sources from the Kuwaiti newspaper al-Jarida claim that Israel plans to “attack targets of Houthi rebels and Hezbollah in Yemen”, near the sensitive Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, which separates the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aden, according to a report in the Jerusalem Post.
Yet, this perceived threat is not specifically directed at Israel; it therefore requires a multinational rather than a unilateral response.
Middle Eastern superpower
The recent attacks, alongside Israel’s involvement in patrolling the Strait of Hormuz as part of a protection force for oil tankers, show how Israel is brazenly acting as the Middle East’s only superpower, emboldened by unending support from the US administration.
While there has been little evidence of a raised threat to Israel’s security that would merit these actions, it clearly sees an opportunity to deter its main enemy, Iran, while also demonstrating to its newfound “allies” in the Arab world that they are right to view Iran – and not Israel – as the real threat to their thrones.
His actions may come back to haunt him if any of Israel’s neighbours opt to retaliate against its continued violations
As for Netanyahu, his reputation as the “king of the Middle East” has been enhanced, which could help his chances of nudging a few more Israeli voters towards him. But his actions may come back to haunt him if any of Israel’s neighbours opt to retaliate against its continued violations, potentially triggering a regional war.
The reality though is that Israel’s neighbours are so comparatively weak that Netanyahu can sleep safe in the knowledge that this will not happen any time soon – and certainly not before next month’s election.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.