Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, seen at the signing ceremony for the EastMed Pipeline Agreement in Athens, Greece on January 2, 2020. Photo: Nikos Libertast / SOOC

On January 3, the United States assassinated Qassem Soleimani, an Iranian major general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard and the de facto commander of Iranian efforts of expansion throughout the Middle East.

American drones targeted his convoy near Baghdad International Airport killing him instantly. Iran responded with a pre-dawn missile attack on an American base in Iraq Wednesday, and tensions appear to have eased since. 

“He was a monster. He is no longer a monster. He’s dead,” President Donald Trump declared in the aftermath of the killing. 

Most Israelis wholeheartedly agree with Trump’s statement. The force run by Soleimani is named the Quds Force, which – translated into English – is “the Jerusalem force,” giving some idea of its professed ultimate goal. 

For Israelis, Soleimani has long been seen as their major foe, a man with a comprehensive plan to surround the country with threats on all sides before eventually destroying it.

The top Middle East correspondent in the country, Ehud Ya’ari, expressed the feelings of many on the Friday evening news when he called Soleimani “the most dangerous enemy for the State of Israel since the War of Independence” and compared him to Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi who was the chief architect of the Holocaust.

According to reports, Israel has more than once asked the United States government for permission to assassinate the Iranian general  spanning from the Obama administration to Trump — but were denied each time.

No time for gloating

Cutting short his visit to Greece, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave his full support to the actions of President Trump saying he “deserves all the credit for acting swiftly, forcefully and decisively.”

And yet the Netanyahu government has avoided gloating.

The Israeli premier has instructed government officials not to comment on developments. In private, Netanyahu was far more guarded and concerned.

According to Ynet news, in a cabinet meeting immediately following the assassination, Netanyahu cautioned that “the assassination of Soleimani isn’t an Israeli event but an American event. We were not involved and should not be dragged into it.”

There is little enthusiasm for a conflict with Iran at a time when Israel is politically unstable and has not been able to pass a much-needed defense budget aimed at countering an evolving Iranian threat. 

The beleaguered Netanyahu faces his third straight election in March and is certainly happy that the assassination has changed the focus of the news cycle from his recent and unpopular request for immunity from prosecution. 

However, his actions are unusually sober. Were Israel to come under direct Iranian attack could potentially hurt his reputation as a master of security and foreign policy, rendering it apparent that Israel has become less safe under his tutelage.

Threats across border

Israel has serious strategic reasons to avoid provoking Iran. The Iranian proxies on its borders include Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza and most dangerously of all Hezbollah in Lebanon. Soleimani had close ties with all of them and was viewed by many members as a hero.

“On this sad occasion, Hamas condemns the US bullying that creates disputes and upheavals in the region, just to serve the interests of the Israeli occupation,” the Islamist militant group said after Soleimani’s killing.

Israel has previously been the target of terror attacks attributed to Iran, including the bombing of its embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992. It also fought a costly war against Hezbollah in 2006 and endures near-constant rocket fire from Iran’s proxies in the Gaza Strip.

In the aftermath of Soleimani’s killing, Israel was named by Iran as a possible venue for retaliation. “If Trump retaliates to Iran’s revenge, we will strike Haifa, Tel Aviv and wipe out Israel,” said Mohsen Rezaei, a former chief of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps who currently serves as Expediency Council Secretary.

Although concerned about provoking Iran, the Israeli government wishes to maintain deterrence against them. This is a difficult tightrope to walk as captured in a statement by Foreign Minister Israel Katz who said:

“There is a possibility – the chances are not high, but it exists – that the Iranians could harm Israel and drag us into this. It must be clear to them that we will respond with great force to any attack.”

Nuclear name drop

In what may have been a related attempt to simultaneously shore up deterrence and avoid rattling sabers, Netanyahu mentioned Israeli nuclear capabilities in an off the cuff manner during the public and televised portion of a cabinet meeting on Sunday.

The prime minister seemed to accidentally refer to Israel as a “nuclear power” while discussing a newly signed deal with Greece and Cyprus for the construction of the EastMed natural gas pipeline to Europe.

He quickly corrected himself to say Israel was an “energy power” before flashing a knowing smile. This may have been his sly way of reminding Iran that Israel maintains a nuclear capability, which according to most reports, Iran has not developed yet.

The Israeli government is undoubtedly pleased at the assassination of Soleimani and hopes that this action, alongside a perceived rise in resistance to the Iranian presence throughout the Middle East will curtail Tehran’s ability to threaten its security. However, it is loath to get involved in an all-out war with Iran in order to further President Trump’s inscrutable Middle Eastern agenda.

While the president is quite popular in Israel, his decision to withdraw US troops from Syria and his signaling of a possible détente with Iran have earned the distrust of many in the defense and foreign policy establishments. The Netanyahu government hope that by keeping their head down while boosting deterrence, they can avoid participating in a regional war of no interest to them.

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