What’s Next in the Iran/Israel confrontation?

By Jeff Saperstein

“We do not need to ask permission to do what we see is in our best interest.“

—Yair Lapid, leading opponent to Netanyahu in the next election, demonstrating unity of this crucial issue.

The long-running covert war between Iran/Hezbollah and Israel has now become an overt conflict, testing red lines and encroachments. Iran has embarked on a strategic “long game” of dominating the Arab Middle East and creating a corridor of influence and control over Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, working to empower and direct its local proxies, primarily Hezbollah. Israel has drawn its red lines of not allowing Iran and Hezbollah to build a sophisticated powerbase in Syria and to keep the Syrian Golan Heights demilitarized.

Israel has already flown hundreds of sorties against Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon, and is directly threatening Iranian assets in Syria.

It appears a major war is on the horizon. No one knows how this will now turn out, but here are several considerations:

Israel is the strongest military power in the Middle East and is now acting with confidence it can enforce its own red lines and rules. Israel can handle its adversaries; however, it is not a Superpower and cannot act alone without acquiescence from Russia and support from the US. How Russia and the US play their respective roles will be the most important determination for whether a new status quo can be agreed to, or if escalating armed conflict, with possible large devastation, will create a new reality.

Israel looks to the US as its anchor relationship. The commitment of the US administration in this confrontation is not yet clear: what will be the grand bargain, if any at all? Israel needs US diplomatic and military support for its actions against Iran and Hezbollah, and to be a counterweight to Russia. Israeli calculations will change as to how far it can go to enforce its interests, depending on US and Russian involvement.

Israel is ready to confront Iran and Hezbollah without international sanctification or constraints. Forget “proportional response” as a criterion. Multilateral influence from Europe and international castigation from a biased UN will have little influence on Israel’s choices and the degree of harsh response to provocations. Israel has made clear it will focus on deterrence and protecting its civilian population, and will maintain air supremacy with devastating impact on adversaries.

Russia is a key player in this drama. This is not the Cold War. Israel and Russia have common interests and are coordinating. Russia fears and fights Islamic terror and may not want to see Iran as a Hegemon in the Middle East, since Tehran has its own designs for influence, particularly in Syria.

While Arab countries are mostly impotent to stop Iran, Israel has cards to play that can help Russia. If Russia wants a stable regime as a partner in Syria, it cannot have that while Iran/Hezbollah pose threats to Israel from Syrian territory. Israel may also support Russian interests in a bargain that may triangulate with the US, depending on how much the US wants to engage in actively constraining Iran and Hezbollah.

So what is new given these observations?

Israel feels more unconstrained to confront Iran openly and directly, not just on the nuclear deal, but to combat Iran’s military adventures in Israel’s immediate proximity. Confronting Iran/Hezbollah seems to have united the Israeli leadership and public to address this as an existential crisis.

Israel is now engaging in “RealPolitic” in balancing Russian and American interests, and seeing how each will employ their influence and military power. If the US disengages, Russia will win. If the US decides to play offense against Iran and Hezbollah, with reliance on Israel’s military to do the heavy lifting, then together the US and Israel may reverse the Iranian advances in the Middle East.

Israel is a Cyber Superpower with the most advanced weaponry in the region. After years of development, Jerusalem has many resources for actions against Iran and Hezbollah. They have intelligence and capabilities that have yet to be unleashed.

Israel has never had a more supportive US Administration. In December, 2017, the US and Israel signed an MOU for the development and deployment of military task forces to confront Iran and Hezbollah—in effect, to play offense, and not just defense.

So the combined power of the US and Israel is being closely coordinated. What will be the real impact be of these efforts, now and in the future?

In effect, Israel has a much freer hand to determine its own objectives and to enact them: both on the Palestinian/Arab regional peace effort and the confrontation with Iran/Hezbollah. How wise and emboldened Israel’s leadership will be to seize the moment to reward the US in overt and covert ways is yet to be determined.

How committed is the US to stay the course and not allow Russia to dictate the rules of the game in Syria and the Middle East is also yet to be determined.

Reciprocity should be the guiding principle for the US/Israel relationship moving forward. The Trump Administration has provided Israel with diplomatic favors in the wake of the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, defending Israel at the UN, and challenging Palestinian behavior about peace negotiations. Israel needs to now deliver for the US.

Each side should clarify what is most important to each other. I suspect that as the US looks to partners to aggressively pursue the war on terror and to constrain Iran, Israel will be the paramount player to consistently and effectively contribute in covert and overt ways that will make US influence and prestige stronger. Israel can leverage the US military, without US boots on the ground, and should do so. Israel needs the US to publicly demonstrate that it is ready to deliver diplomatic and military support (in material, intelligence, and cyber, but not troops) to Israel in its efforts to confront Iran and Hezbollah. The Europeans may be feckless, but if the US and Israel succeed in defeating Iranian transgressions in the Middle East, they will follow.

NSF member Jeff Saperstein is a Marin-based Career Coach and University lecturer, and leads groups to Israel. He has contributed past guest columns to the NSF.