Since the beginning of the Zionist movement in 1897 through the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 to the present, Zionist and Israeli leaders have operated on the conviction that the key to the realisation of the Zionist dream was to maintain close relations with one of the great powers and rely on it to defend this dream from threats that the Jews (or Israelis after the creation of the state) could not handle alone no matter how strong their defence capacities. Since at least the 1960s, the US has been that world power. However, the US’s ways of handling international or regional crises in which Israel is directly or indirectly involved has not always been reassuring to Israel and has caused it to question the wisdom of hinging its security interests on the political will of Washington alone. The surge in tensions between the US in Iran since Washington’s targeted assassination of the Islamic Revolutionary Command Corps (IRGC) Quds Force Commander Major General Qassem Soleimani in January was a prime example of a US policy action that Israel finds quite troubling.
IRAN: AN EXISTENTIAL THREAT TO ISRAEL: After evidence of Iranian intentions to manufacture nuclear weapons began emerge in 2003, Israel regarded Iran as an existential threat. Since 1979, Iran had been under the control of an extremist theocratic regime sworn to perform the “Islamic duty” (for both Shias and Sunnis) of eradicating the “Jewish state” on behalf of the Islamic world. Accordingly, preventing Iran from obtaining the “nuclear option” became an Israeli strategic objective. At the same time, Israel regards Iran’s success in creating and supporting militant Islamic groups in Israel’s vicinity (Hizbullah in Lebanon, the Islamic Jihad and Hamas in Gaza and, more recently, the Houthi movement in Yemen), and in asserting its control over decision-making processes in Syria and Iraq, as a threat no less grave than an Iranian nuclear weapon,
Israel realised early on that it could not take on Iran on both fronts. So, as always, it attempted to drag the US into an extended confrontation against Iran in the hope that Washington would eventually overthrow the theocratic regime there or at least clip its wings by preventing it from obtaining a nuclear weapon and ceasing its support for anti-Israeli militia organisations in Israel’s vicinity. However, this strategy has not worked very well. The US only went so far in its support for Israel’s full-scale military offensives against Hizbollah in Lebanon in 2006 and against Hamas in Gaza in 2009, 2012 and 2014. When the confrontations lasted longer than Washington felt comfortable with, it began to pressure Israel into truces and ceasefire agreements before Israel could achieve its objective of terminating the perceived threats. Washington’s decision to sign the nuclear deal with Iran in 2015 marked an even greater failure in Israel’s dependency on Washington after Israel failed to persuade the US to use military force to halt Iran’s nuclear project and to dissuade former president Barack Obama from adding the US’s name to the nuclear accord with Iran alongside the names of the other permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany.
TRUMP AND AN OUTWARD CHANGE: Donald Trump’s election in 2016 rekindled the Israeli hope to propel the US to war against Iran. It certainly succeeded in getting Trump to withdraw from the nuclear accord in 2018 and ratcheting up sanctions against Tehran. But it soon became clear that the Trump administration’s policy towards Iran only differed in form from his predecessor’s. Trump preserved the principle of no direct military engagement with Iran under any circumstances. Washington refrained from military action against Iran after the strikes against the petroleum facilities in one of the US’s closest allies — Saudi Arabia — and after Iran threatened navigation in the Straits of Hormuz. Following the assassination of Soleimani, Washington refrained from provoking Iran further after Iran staged retaliatory strikes against US/anti-Islamic State group coalition bases in Iraq. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the US was “still studying” how to respond to those attacks.
If Israel had not already begun to rethink its strategy of dragging Washington into a military conflict with Iran, it certainly will have following the US Congress’s recent passage of the War Powers Resolution requiring Congressional authorisation for military action against Iran. That congressional action also delivered a moral blow to Israel because it was a sign of the diminishment in the influence of the powerful pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC, on Congress.
But Israel must also be worried by Iran’s restraint. Tehran, too, has refrained from direct strikes against the US and opted, instead, for a carefully calibrated succession of limited strikes against coalition bases in Iraq, in particular with the aim of forcing US troops to withdraw from Iraq. There are three reasons why Israel would be worried by the success of this Iranian tactic. Firstly, it serves Trump’s declared aim of reducing the US military presence overseas. Second, the US has a history of withdrawing from overseas conflicts without taking into account the dangers this might cause its allies who had fought alongside it in those wars, as occurred when it withdrew from Vietnam in the 1970s, abandoning the regime in Saigon and, much more recently, when it withdrew from northeast Syria, abandoning the Syrian Kurds, the main partner on the ground in the fight against the Islamic State group in Syria, to the threat of massacre at the hands of Turkey and its jihadist militias. The latest example comes from Afghanistan where Washington reached an agreement with the Taliban in order to bring an end to the US military presence there, even though Trump has acknowledged that the agreement could lead to the fall of Kabul to the Taliban. The third reason is that the US already practically signalled its intent to withdraw from Iraq when it announced plans to “redeploy” forces in Iraq. “Redeploy” is often a euphemism for “withdraw”.
Even if the US remains committed theoretically to the defence of Israel, the prospect of the pull-out of US forces from the Middle East has Israel worried, because this would mean that it would have to bear the brunt of managing a more self-reliant deterrent policy against adversaries and rivals, some of which (like Iran and its militia wings such as Hizbullah, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad) dream of destroying it while others (like Turkey) want to reduce it to a regional ghetto. These threats would appear more immanent to Israel in light of Russia’s currently close relations with both Iran and Turkey.
A gauge of Israeli anxiety over Washington’s policy of avoiding direct military confrontation with Iran and perhaps conceding to Iranian control in Iraq and Syria can be found in an article in Haaretz of 16 January by the Israeli military commentator Amos Harel. He writes that in light of the heightened tensions between the US and Iran following the assassination of Soleimani, “Military Intelligence thinks an opportunity has been created to accelerate the pace of attacks against Iran and its allies. And it has urged Israel to seize this opportunity despite its assessment that Iran and Hizbullah will respond militarily if any of their people are killed.”
If this leak is true, then the only explanation is that Israel may be planning to embroil the US in a broader confrontation with Iran in the Iraqi and Syrian theatres so as to prevent a possible US troop withdrawal from there. The Trump administration has been pushing to bring US troops back home from the Middle East to halt attrition of US military strength in small endless battles. However, Washington will not be able to withdraw in the event of a slide into full-scale war.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly