On Friday, Israeli aircraft bombed targets in Syria in order to prevent the transfer of what PM Netanyahu called “advanced weapons” from Iran to Hezbollah forces in Lebanon. This has occurred on numerous prior occasions, and there has been no response from Syria or Russia, and no confirmation or denial by Israel. Russia and Israel have developed protocols to avoid accidental confrontations between Israeli and Russian forces over Syria; and Syria was satisfied to pretend that these incidents had not occurred.
This time, things were different. The Syrians fired anti-aircraft missiles, probably from an S-200 battery (also called SA-5). These are large, powerful missiles which could cause significant damage on the ground if they miss their targets. Israeli fighter-bombers have the capability of avoiding such missiles, but apparently one of them looked like it would land in a populated area, so Israel intercepted and destroyed it with an Arrow anti-missile missile – the first use of the Arrow system under battlefield conditions.
Detonations were heard in the Jerusalem area, and possibly for this reason or because of the first use of the Arrow, Israel broke precedent and publically took responsibility for the strike. Russia then called in Israeli Ambassador Gary Koren, for ‘consultations’, the first time Russia has taken such a step. The Syrian regime also protested to the UN for the first time.
So what is going on? There are several possibilities. One is that the Israeli strike was close to or even hit Russian assets in Syria. Another is that the Russian protest was due to the fact that Israel took credit for the attack, which would send the message that Russia was not capable of protecting its client, Syria. Syria, of course, could not be silent after Israel admitted having bombed its territory.
Frankly, nobody cares what Assad says or thinks, but there is a great deal of concern in Israel over the Russian protest. Israel cannot afford to allow the free entry of what it considers “game-changing” weapons into Lebanon. But it is already deterred from striking such weapons on Lebanese territory by Hezbollah’s massive rocket arsenal. So it has interdicted Iranian shipments in Syria and even Sudan. Iran has been shipping weapons to Syria by commercial air carrier, which are then sent overland to Hezbollah. One of Israel’s quarrels with the Iran deal was that it removed sanctions from Iranian airlines that were involved in this activity.
If the Russians want to prevent Israel from hitting Syria, they probably can do so. They have recently installed more advanced anti-aircraft missiles (the S-300 and S-400 systems) in Syria, whose range covers most of Israel. I don’t know what countermeasures the IAF may have against these systems, but if it does have the ability to defeat them, it’s reasonable that it would not want to tip its hand, saving its tricks for emergencies such as an imminent nuclear breakthrough in Iran. In any case, Israel does not want to directly challenge Russia, which has become the most important power in the Middle East with the retirement of the US from the field.
Since 2006, the Iran-controlled threat to Israel from Hezbollah has become greater and greater, insofar as the UN simply laughed at its responsibility to prevent the rearmament of Hezbollah under UNSC resolution 1701. With the implementation of the Iran deal in 2016, Iran and therefore Hezbollah were able to take giant steps. Iran stepped up the flow of weapons to Hezbollah, as well as proceeding with its own development of missile technology in the face of pretenses of protest from the impotent West.
The Iran deal brought much closer a regional war between Israel and Hezbollah, with the possible participation of Hamas and Iran. The Russian intervention in Syria has had a mixed effect, protecting Assad and freeing up Hezbollah, but possibly restraining their activities outside Syria. I say “possibly,” because Putin’s full intentions are anything but transparent.
So one would think that Israel’s government would be focused practically full-time on countering this threat: strengthening home-front defenses that will be sorely tried by Hezbollah’s rockets, and building up its offensive forces that will need to strike quickly and with massive force against Lebanon (there is no longer a distinction between Hezbollah and Lebanon) and to “cut off the head of the snake” in Tehran.
One would think that Prime Minister Netanyahu would be spending at least 80% of his time pulling together the various resources that are essential to meet this threat, probably the gravest facing the country since 1967.
One would think that the Defense Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, would be sitting with his General Staff on almost a daily basis, making sure they had what they need. One would even think that Israel had a Defense Minister that had some military experience, rather than one chosen – yet again – for the seats in the Knesset his party would bring to the coalition.
One would think these things, but one would be wrong about all of them.
The Prime Minister, who spends a great deal of time being investigated by the police for petty scandals, is now embroiled in an imbroglio about replacing the existing Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA) with a new public corporation. Just today he announced that he had changed his mind about a compromise that he had finally reached with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon on Thursday, and that if Kahlon didn’t go along with him, he would call for new elections. New elections! Just what we need, massive political paralysis for interminable months of campaign and coalition horse-trading, while the home-front doesn’t get reinforced and the generals spend their time thinking about their own chances to someday be Prime Minister.
Just for irony, the left-wing Histadrut labor organization has come down on the same side as Netanyahu and has declared a strike of public employees today in solidarity with the IBA workers, so the post office is closed and the data processing department that collects taxes is not working.
I am not entirely blaming Netanyahu, although he should have known to be squeaky-clean, given the propensity of the opposition to use the police and prosecutor’s office as a weapon. And maybe he should let his Communications Ministry deal with the question of the Broadcasting Authority (Netanyahu himself was Communications Minister as well as PM until a month ago, when he temporarily placed it in the hands of a political ally, Tzachi Hanegbi).
Lieberman, the alleged Defense Minister, is also out on a limb, having climbed a tree when he threatened to remove IDF sanction from a pre-military program unless a rabbi who had made negative comments about women serving in the IDF isn’t fired. The rabbis and religious politicians closed ranks against him, and now nobody will come down from their high moral perches.
It’s almost funny. But as the great Milton Berle (and other comedians) used to say, “But seriously, folks…”