In recent months, Israeli occupation forces in Syria’s Golan Heights have launched a number of attacks on either Syrian regime or allied Hezbollah military forces in the region, adding to a more sporadic stream of attacks since mid-2013.
Given that countless Israeli politicians, military leaders, intelligence officials and other strategists and spokespeople have continually stressed, since the onset of the Syrian conflict, that they saw the maintenance of the regime of Bashar Assad as preferable to any of the alternatives on offer – as I have documented in great detail at Syrian Revolution Commentary and Analysis – the recent spate of Israeli attacks raises the question of whether Israel has changed its position and now favours the defeat of Assad.
Likewise, if for much of the war Israel has pointedly done nothing of even a limited nature that could have helped the Syrian rebellion – as Noam Chomsky has shown – the question raised after the recent (January 2015) Israel-Hezbollah clash in southern Syria, combined with the greater role being played by Hezbollah in the Syrian conflict in that region bordering the Golan, is whether Israel is likely to enter the war, even on a small-scale level, ostensibly on the side of the Syrian rebels to help them defeat Hezbollah.
Geopolitics and oppression
Before continuing, I want to first underline that I reject the “geo-political anti-imperialist” line of analysis which sees the actual people’s struggles, even great struggles, liberation movements and revolutions, as nothing but proxies of great powers who deserve one’s support, or otherwise, depending on which imperialist or capitalist powers are allegedly giving some support, for their own reasons. Support for the historic Palestinian movement for national liberation and return and for the momentous struggle of the Syrian people against a tyranny which has launched one of the most violent counterrevolutionary wars in recent history, should be fundamental starting points for anyone on the left who professes to be concerned with justice and to oppose oppression. Therefore, if this article discusses “geopolitics,” it is from the point of view of understanding the rationale for the often contradictory actions of powerful capitalist states (in this case mostly Israel) and does not at all concern the level of support for the revolutionary masses.
By the same token, the question of Israel does assume a special importance in relation to Syria, both due to it being an illegal occupier of Syrian territory in the Golan, and due to its role as the historic oppressor and dispossessor of the Palestinian people, creating a huge moral dilemma for Arabic peoples if they are forced up against the wall enough to accept Israeli support. In fact, for the most part, the mutual solidarity of the ordinary Syrian and Palestinian peoples has been rather prominent throughout this 4-year struggle, and the spontaneous support to Syrian people suffering regime terror by the Palestinian refugees in Yarmouk camp, who live cheek by jowl with poor Syrians in that region and are often extended family, and the resulting genocidal 2-year siege of Yarmouk by the regime, has been a high point of this (if a low point for many of the so-called Palestinian “leaders”). Two recent articles consisting of interviews with a number of Yarmouk Palestinians are excellent reading on this issue.
Here I will argue here that these pin-prick Israeli attacks have been essentially irrelevant to the Syrian war, but that does not necessarily mean that there have been no changes, which have resulted from changes within the conflict itself. I will also argue that it is extremely unlikely that Israel will change its policy, in any major way, of not intervening in the war, but like all analysts, I have no crystal ball. Rather, by examining what Israel’s interests are, I believe the policy of non-intervention (and at base, the continued opposition to any decisive victory of the Syrian revolution) follows logically; at the same time however, an examination of how far the changes on the ground have come will help us understand what Israel may be after if it did intervene in a more significant way.
Three main issues need to be examined in terms of what may have changed on the ground.
Firstly, the continuation of the war itself, and therefore of Assad’s actual long-term loss of control of important areas of his country, reduces what precisely was always Assad’s advantage to Israel, ie, the control that a ruthless dictatorship was able to exercise gave it the ability, for 40 years, to act as guard for the Israeli occupation of Golan. Will this force Israel to look for plans B and C?
Second, while Israel, like the imperialist world as a whole, wants to see the defeat the Syrian revolution, we may look at the question of whether the armed forces arising out of the revolution in the south, near the Israeli border, have been so weakened, have their backs to the wall so hard, that on the one hand they pose no real threat of revolutionary victory, while on the other Israel may be able to opportunistically use them, in their desperation, to turn them into something they never have been, a new “South Lebanon Army”, an Israeli puppet force to keep either Nusra, or Hezbollah, away from the border.
Finally, the growing importance of Iran and Hezbollah to the very survival of Assad’s regime, which some argue has reached the point of Iranian colonisation of the regime; Israel has a different view of Iran and Hezbollah to its view of the Assad regime itself. How far has this come and how decisively would that change Israel’s view of the war?
However, this final point raises the further issue of what really is behind Israel’s furious verbal obsession with Iran, something which I will argue is also not as straightforward as is often presented.
The Israeli attacks: What do they entail?
Let’s start with the recent Israeli attacks themselves: like earlier more occasional strikes, these have largely been pinprick operations, which fall into a number of categories.
First, in some cases, a Syrian rocket lands in the occupied Golan, almost certainly accidentally as a by-product of the war within Syria, and Israel ritually fires back, and it ends. Militarily irrelevant, this never involves military intervention against regime forces in actual battle with the rebellion, but is politically useful to both Zionist and Assad regimes (though I do not argue that this is a conspiracy to deliberately give Assad points; I generally don’t think decisions are made that way).
The second category of attacks, the overwhelming majority of attacks on Syrian military, both recently and around mid-2013, have been on warehouses or other bases involved in transporting Iranian rockets via Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Israeli attack on military warehouses and other installations at Damascus International Airport and the rural Damascus suburb of Dimas in early December 2014 fell into this category.
Israel has long insisted it would act to prevent long-range rockets getting to Hezbollah in Lebanon, where it has been in conflict with Hezbollah in the past; but by definition, such attacks are therefore irrelevant to the war in Syria, and until January 2015 Israel had not attacked Hezbollah in Syria. Indeed, by wasting its cadres, arms and resources in the war in Syria, Hezbollah is precisely much less of a problem to Israel than it allegedly was in the past, even in Lebanon itself.
Indeed, often after such attacks, Israeli leaders have gone out of their way to stress that the attack had no relation to policy in Syria; for example, in May 2013, following Israeli attacks on a warehouse with rockets destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon, Israel sought to persuade Assad that the air strikes “did not aim to weaken him in the face of a more than two-year-old rebellion”. According to veteran Israeli politician Tzachi Hanegbi, a confidant of Prime Minister Netanyahu, the government “aimed to avoid an increase in tension with Syria by making clear that if there is activity, it is only against Hezbollah, not against the Syrian regime.”
One may claim he was being insincere. However, just why a roughneck regime like that of Netanyahu would feel the need to soft-talk to the Assad regime is anyone’s guess; in the circumstances, it seems best judged to be a frank statement of policy.
Likewise, after the December 2014 attack, Professor Eyal Zisser, an expert on Syria from the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, told The Jerusalem Post that “Israel’s policy is clear. It does not interfere in the war and has no interest to attack Bashar Assad and its army, or to topple the regime.” However “Israel took advantage several times in the past of Assad’s weakness and acted against arms shipments on their way from Syria to Hezbollah” .
Behind the targeted assassination of Hezbollah cadre in January
However, it is the third, and newest, kind of attack – namely Israel’s assassination of a number of prominent Hezbollah military leaders (and a prominent Iranian) inside the Syrian-held part of Golan in January 2015 – which raises most questions, especially when coming just after a spate of the other two types of attacks. Because in this case, it did not involve rockets going to Hezbollah in Lebanon, but rather, Hezbollah right there in Syria – where its only purpose is to bolster the Assad regime – was attacked.
Arguably, this does look more like an intervention against the Assadist/Hezbollah side of the Syrian war than any of the other attacks. And the fact that, for the first time, Hezbollah retaliated, and the two sides fired a few salvos at each other for a day or so, further strengthens this perception.
But while this may be indicative of a changing Israeli position (or a combination of a “searching” Israeli position and a division of Israeli opinions), a closer look at even this attack shows this is not that straightforward.
The attack itself was not on Hezbollah military units engaged in battle with Syrian rebels at the time. Militarily, it was again irrelevant. And while Hezbollah retaliating for once was big news, as expected the media scare about “impending war” blew over almost as soon as it began – once they’d each killed a couple of people, both sides made it clear they were satisfied and wanted to call it quits.
This is better called “shadow-boxing” or “political theatre” rather than fancy names like “impending war.”
But if militarily irrelevant, the reason the Israeli attack was a big deal was because some of the Hezbollah and Iranian officials were big names. In other words, it was a targeted assassination. It seems that Israel simply could not resist when its intelligence services found a bunch of them gathered in one spot within Israel’s range.
But still, why assassinate them?
Sure, it has great symbolic and bravado functions for the Zionist regime to hit people who are official public enemies. Yet the debate inside the Zionist regime and media was not by any means all supportive, perhaps surprisingly. The fact that Netanyahu is up for election in March led to plenty of criticism of the nature and timing of the attack as an election-driven stunt that put people in northern Israel in unnecessary danger. The same charges were made in relation to the December attacks.
But while no doubt relevant, factors such as cheap elections stunts rarely tell the whole story of such issues. While militarily irrelevant at the point of contact, the attack does weaken – even if only slightly – the Iranian-Hezbollah intervention to bolster Assad, because these officials were high-level intelligence and military cadre important in directing their Syrian campaign. They were not gathered in the Golan to plan an attack on the Israeli occupation, but to plan their ongoing Syrian counterrevolutionary war. Once again, does this point in the direction of a changing Zionist position on the war?
One argument might be that they *were* in fact planning an attack on the Israeli-occupied Golan, despite their main role in Syria being otherwise. A more extreme rendition of this states that Hezbollah’s primary aim remains anti-Zionist and it is using its defence of Assad as a cover to open another front against Israel from Syria.
Actually, this was essentially Israel’s claim. Netanyahu’s response to the accusation that it attacked the group (not officially claimed by Israel) was to state that Israel would do anything to defend Israel from attack etc, implying that’s what the gathering was aimed at. Plenty of starry-eyed Hezbollah-lovers on social media have made the same claim, and noted that the previous week, Nasrallah had threatened to retaliate if Israel attacks it.
On both the Zionist and pro-Hezbollah sides, this assertion would appear to be baseless propaganda, in both cases for obvious reasons. In fact, if Nasrallah’s talk about “retaliating” was serious, this would require an Israeli attack to retaliate to; a threat to retaliate is not a threat to attack. By following up on Nasrallah’s words within a few days and launching such a provocative attack on such senior Hezbollah figures, it appears as if Netanyahu’s aim was precisely to get a Hezbollah retaliation.
But if the Hezbollah meeting was not aimed at attacking Israel, we come back to the question of whether the Israeli attack was connected to the war in Syria.
The aim of Israel’s attack: torpedo the nuclear talks
In my view, the main reason of the Israeli attack was neither about an imaginary Hezbollah intention to attack, nor was it about the war in Syria (even if it gets mixed up in this), and nor was it merely a pre-election gimmick, but rather an attempt to influence more region-wide issues.
The big issue for Israel has been the ongoing nuclear talks between Iran and the six big powers, above all the US-Iran negotiations and the growing US-Iranian alignment in the region. While pre-election timing may play its role, the more direct aim was almost certainly to put a bullet through the US-Iran nuclear talks, to torpedo any possible agreement, or at least to declare to the US that Israel was not on board.
Is Israel’s view on the Syrian war changing? Some evidence against
While this conclusion doesn’t prove that Israel isn’t also changing its view on the Syrian conflict in a more anti-Assad direction, nor is it that clear that it is. As throughout the war, Israeli leaders are playing along two separate tracks that are sometimes contradictory, an internal Syrian track where the preference has mostly been for Assad, and a more regional track where Assad’s ally Iran is declared the main enemy. And so the discussion within Israel about the relative importance of these two tracks in forming the overall policy framework leads to different Zionist views on the conflict.
There are very good reasons to doubt that Israeli leaders, on the whole, are changing position on the specifically Syria track. For one thing, just before the January attack on Hezbollah, various prominent Israel officials had made quite opposite comments.
For example, on January 14, Dan Halutz, former Chief of Staff of the Israeli Army, told Israeli radio that Assad was the least harmful choice in Syria, and that western countries powers “should put their own interests and those of Israel at the forefront of their priorities” and therefore “should strengthen the Syrian regime’s steadfastness in the face of its opponents.” If they allowed Assad to fall, “they would have committed the most egregious mistake” and this:
would turn the region into a fertile ground for the jihadist groups with radical Islamic ideology, which will target Europe and Israel with their terrorist operations, in contrast to the Syrian regime which would never think of such steps if guaranteed to remain in power.
The same article also quotes Israeli military analyst, Roni Daniel, who, while discussing the current military coordination between the Syrian regime and the US-led international coalition, claimed that “Israel has demanded the coalition to expand the list of targets to include all Sunni jihadist organizations stationed in Syria” – where the undefined category “Sunni jihadist” is vague enough to mean opening up a large part of the Syrian anti-Assad rebellion to US aerial attack (which in fact is not so different to what the US has in fact done).
Several days later, Brigadier General Itai Baron, the head of the Military Intelligence and Research Division of the Israeli Defense Forces (the second most senior position within Israel’s military intelligence establishment), said that “it is just a matter of time” before Syrian “Islamist” organisations, spearheaded by al-Nusra, “begin to target us from the Golan Plateau according to their radical ideology.” If they are not doing it yet it is only because they are busy confronting the Assad regime, but their ideology “clearly states that Damascus should be seized first and then they could proceed to liberating Jerusalem.”
A few weeks earlier, in late December, the head of Israeli military intelligence, Major General Hertzi Halevi, told the Knesset that the threat of a clash between Israeli troops and militants on the Golan border was rising and could erupt any time, in parallel to the rising threat from jihadists in the Sinai in the south. The article noted that “observers in Israel do not think Israel and Hezbollah are keen to resume hostilities,” quoting Amir Rapaport, a veteran military affairs reporter, that Israel was keen to reduce tension on its Lebanese border and had “ceased attacks against Hezbollah, leaving Hezballah no excuse to attack Israel” (a statement which sounds odd in light of events several weeks later). Another military affairs reporter, Yoav Limor, also noted that Hezballah’s involvement in Syria made it less likely to attack Israel.
The fact that this spate of pro-Assad, anti-Syrian rebel and even “peace with Hezbollah” statements was followed by Israel’s attack on Hezbollah in mid-January could well suggest a split among the Zionist establishment on the question of Syria, which in reality is much more likely than a general shift in the Zionist position.
But a closer look also suggests that the majority of the more pro-Assad views are expressed by military and intelligence officials, while the more vigorously anti-Iranian statements – which can get translated into minor military acts in Syria that are against pro-Assad forces – come from the political establishment and those most concerned with public propaganda (including in light of approaching elections).
This division was even played out during the scandal of Netanyahu going to address the US Congress to campaign against the US-Iran nuclear talks without going through Obama. A less prominent side-show to this was that Mossad appeared to have “gone rogue”. According to Bloomberg, “The Israeli intelligence agency Mossad has broken ranks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, telling U.S. officials and lawmakers that a new Iran sanctions bill in the U.S. Congress would tank the Iran nuclear negotiations … Evidence of the Israeli rift surfaced Wednesday when Secretary of State John Kerry said that an unnamed Israeli intelligence official had said the new sanctions bill would be “like throwing a grenade into the process.” But an initial warning from Israeli Mossad leaders was also delivered last week in Israel to a Congressional delegation — including Corker, Graham, McCain and fellow Republican John Barrasso; Democratic Senators Joe Donnelly and Tim Kaine; and independent Angus King — according to lawmakers who were present and staff members who were briefed on the exchange.”
Finally, in terms of action, it is important to note that the sporadic pinprick Israeli strikes have not been the whole picture, just the part that creates headlines. Behind the scenes, it is important to note that Israel has pointedly given permission for Assad to carry out aerial slaughter in the supposedly demilitarised zone along the border, including throughout this very period (see for example). Of course, as an illegal occupier, Israel should have no veto over the actions of anyone in Syria, but since demilitarisation of the border region was expressly part of the 1974 ceasefire agreement that mandates each side to ask permission of the other to carry out military operations there, it is certainly significant that permission has been continually granted.
Does Assad’s loss of control make him less useful to Israel?
Nevertheless, it is worth looking at changes that have taken place. It is notable that intelligence chief Itai Baron, cited above, also added that all the outcomes of the Syrian situation are expected to be negative, explaining that the Assad regime today is controlling no more than a limited area of territory within Syria.
Let’s go back to the major reasons for Israeli preference for Assad: a powerful dictatorship was able to police the border with the Israeli-occupied Golan, making it the quietest of all “Israeli borders,” but Israel has no reason to trust either democratic-secular, Syrian nationalist, Islamist or jihadist forces in the opposition to maintain Assad’s slavish policy, and many reasons to expect the opposite. The same dictatorship regularly massacred Palestinian fighters, cadres and camps over the decades, whereas the natural alliance between Syrian people in revolt against the regime and their Palestinian neighbours and extended families in camps such as Yarmouk (under criminal starvation siege by the Assad regime for over a year) was not reassuring to the Zionist entity.
Thus, the loss of control by Assad has been continually cited as a major problem by Zionist officials who prefer Assad’s victory (my article cited at the beginning provides much evidence for this assertion). But there, of course, is precisely the problem: what has changed is that Assad has lost control of much of the border region, as well as large parts of Syria; Israel knows the regime cannot regain it easily. Certainly, as the regime tries, in vain, to regain lost ground, and the opposition fights back, but no one really wins, it is OK for Israel for the moment: as many have explained Israeli (and US) policy, both sides killing each other is not a bad situation.
Plans B and C?
However, it is also not a permanent preferable situation. If Israel decides that Assad is no longer capable of policing the border, it may need some plan B’s. While Israel has done nothing to boost the military strength of the Syrian rebels in the south and as shown above has allowed Assad to bomb in the demilitarised border zone, it is also sensible for Israel to search out potentially pliant rebel groups close to the border, by offering things such as hospital care for some wounded fighters, and some small non-lethal supplies. In one of history’s more sensationalist headlines, media reported that the UN observers in the Golan submitted to 15 members of Security Council a report on alleged contact between IDF officers and some armed Syrian fighters' evidence presented was that the UN peacekeepers once saw an IDF guy handing over two boxes to some Syrian fighters, and that two apparently not-injured Syrian people entered Israel on October 27 . End of evidence.
The main reason for these small-scale contacts is not to boost the struggle against Assad, but rather to try to see if it can enlist some border units, when it becomes necessary, as Sawhat forces against al-Nusra in the region. According to a report in Haaretz, Israel has assisted villages near the border in exchange for keeping extremist Islamist groups away from the border, though even this article slandered many FSA groups in the region as “sleeper cells” for ISIS and suggested Israel will need to get more involved in Syria to counter them. (Assertions that Israel has also aided Nusra, or coordinated with it, are of course just that – assertions, based, from what I can gather, on nothing at all).
All that said, is it possible that this may change, that at some point Israel may decide to throw its weight more decisively behind the southern wing of the FSA, to assist it against both Nusra but also against Hezbollah and hence pro-regime forces? It is a truism that there are no permanent friends or enemies in war; nevertheless, the issue is what would Israel or the southern FSA, get out of such an alliance.
For the FSA, the logic may seem simple; with the whole world betraying them, with their backs to the wall facing the regime waging unlimited war alongside thousands of Iranian, Iraqi, Lebanese and Afghan forces arrayed against them, desperation could meet Israeli opportunism; for Israel, if Assad can’t protect the border, maybe the FSA is “non-ideological” enough to be bought; and in any case, with “Syrian” army forces in the south now including large numbers from Hezbollah, Israel has a very different attitude towards them than towards the Syrian army itself. Could Israel thus use the FSA, in its desperation, and turn it into a new “South Lebanon Army”, an Israeli puppet force to keep either Nusra, or Hezbollah, away from the border?
Israel, of course, like the imperialist world as a whole, wants to see the defeat the Syrian revolution. But while the revolution has taken on armed struggle, revolution cannot be reduced to armed forces. If the revolutionary momentum has been lost and exhausted, and if the armed forces arising out of it in the south, near the Israeli border, have been so weakened, have their backs to the wall so hard, that they have no choice, then perhaps Israel could become their “saviour” and turn them into something they were not. And if so, then it makes sense to have allowed Assad to impose heavy defeats on the rebels precisely to make them more desperate and have less choice.
It therefore cannot be ruled out that Israel may opportunistically decide to intervene to try to turn the FSA into its creature by “helping” it against the current massive Assad-Hezbollah-Iran-Iraq offensive.
All this, however, is a lot of “ifs.” For the most part, the southern FSA is not, at this point, in such desperate straits. A massive army of 35,000 Free Syrian Army – Southern Front troops (consisting of 54 brigades) and several thousand Islamists have been holding out very well and advancing against the regime, with no help from Israel, and without ever showing any desire to cooperate with Israel. Compared to the north, the FSA has been doing well in this region. A strong, active, independent FSA is not what Israel needs.
The simple reality is that Israel will find hardly anyone among the rebel forces willing to become dupes for the Zionist occupiers of Golan. While some rebels with their backs to the wall may have pragmatically taken some arms offered by Israel (not that there is much evidence even for that), and while wounded troops have accepted hospitalisation in Israel, there is absolutely no evidence of any rebels on the ground or leaders in any of the internal or exile-based leaderships that have ever offered Israel the Golan – the only thing that would make them politically preferable to the Assad regime which has been so slavishly pliant on that issue. So while Assad’s loss of control makes him less useful to Israel, small-scale attempts to coopt opposition elements appears to be not much of an alternative.
What is possible, therefore, is a Plan C stashed away somewhere. If Assad is no longer capable of policing the border and no one else is willing, could Zionist leaders decide at some point to invade and seize a new “buffer zone” to “protect” the Golan Heights “buffer zone” that Israel originally stole to “protect” itself? If so, a massively provocative strike like the one in January, could have aimed precisely at getting a Hezbollah response which could act as the excuse to show that Israel needs to do this invading, occupying and “buffering.”
Since the whole thing ended almost before it began, however, it appears that if this was behind the attack, it may just be a warning of possible futures, rather than an immediate plan.
The growth of Iranian colonisation of the regime
There is also another important thing that has changed. While Iran and Hezbollah have been on Assad’s side since the outset, and Iranian (and Russian) arms and money have been key to the regime’s survival, it is only since around mid-2013 that their role became more decisive on the ground itself inside Syria. First was Hezbollah’s massive invasion in mid-2013 (the first large-scale foreign invasion in the war) to spearhead the regime’s siege, destruction, conquest and “cleansing” of the strategic Sunni town of Qusayr, near the Lebanese border. In itself, far from the Israeli-occupied southern border, this did not appear to bother Israel. But as the months went on, the mass influx of Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiite sectarian death squads and Iranian “Revolutionary” Guards, coordinated from Tehran, and the training of Alawite paramilitary formations, such as the NDF, by Iranian forces, while Syrian Sunni conscripts are kept in the barracks, has essentially led to what many see as the Iranian colonisation of the regime. Indeed many recent regime offensives appear to be little more than Hezbollah and Iranian offensives, and the execution of 13 Syrian soldiers, including officers, by Iranian Revolutionary Guards, during the current offensive against the FSA in the south, provides rather dramatic symbolism of this change (according to another report, Hezbollah officers also executed 19 Syrian troops last week near Sanamein in Daraa, for failing to “carry out orders”.
As noted above, Israeli policy on Syria has followed two contradictory tracks, a pro-Assad internal Syrian policy and an anti-Iran regional policy: Israel has always seen Assad on one hand, and Iran-Hezbollah on the other, in a different light. While the quotes above show that many serious military and intelligence officials have not fundamentally changed their views, there is little doubt that the Iranian colonisation of the regime will have changed the views of some sections of the Zionist regime, or at least shifted them along the spectrum in a more anti-Assad direction. The recent spate of small-scale clashes may reflect this, while their limited and contained nature may also reflect both the division within the regime and the hesitation among those sections which have shifted.
There is also the interesting question of “balance.” It seems somewhat ironic that during the first two years of the war the US appeared to have a stronger anti-Assad view than Israel, as it balanced between its more anti-Assad allies in the Gulf on one side and the seemingly pro-Assad Israel in the other; yet precisely since the US began to firmly shift to a more pro-Assad view, from around September 2013 with the US-Russia-Assad chemical pact and then further on with the war on ISIS, Israel began moving, at least verbally, in the opposite direction. In part this is again related to Iran: the US-Russia-Assad dealing formed a twin-track with the reopening of US-Iran negotiations with Rouhani coming to power.
But even more pragmatically, as the US is now dealing with ISIS and the “Sunni” side of Israel’s “enemies” in Syria, Israel may consider that it has less to worry about from them and so can concentrate on the strengthened pro-Iranian “enemy” forces in Syria.
Nevertheless, even if true – and my view is that it is only partially so – this still does not answer all questions. It may seem self-evident that Israel would be anti-Iran and thus shift position on Syria as Iranian influence grew there. But unless one has some great illusions in the “anti-imperialist” and “anti-Zionist” bombast of Iran’s conservative capitalist ruling class, then it is not self-evident at all. Is Iran actually a “threat” – whether military or political, reactionary or “revolutionary,” to Israel? Why would it be?
Why the Zionist bombast about Iran?
Netanyahu recently lashed out at the US and the other five powers negotiating with Iran on its nuclear program, asserting that “major powers and Iran are galloping toward an agreement that will endanger the existence of Israel”.
What a load of rubbish.
Certainly, many Arabs – especially Syrians and Iraqis! – would rightly consider the Iranian regime a deadly threat to their health and safety on an everyday basis, but this is clearly not an Israeli concern. However, the world is short of serious analysis of the Israeli stance. I mean, unless one really thinks Iran is about to develop a nuclear weapon – which is not as clear as is made out – or even if it did, that its one or two bombs would threaten the Zionist regime with its 300 nuclear warheads and advanced delivery systems – which I think is mad – then the entire Israeli pose needs analysis.
Why do Israeli leaders scream blue that they are under nuclear (or any) threat from Iran when clearly they are not? Above all, why would they be screaming that the US – ie, the very life-support for the Israeli apartheid entity as it violates every international law and human rights convention on a daily basis – is preparing a nuclear deal with Iran that would facilitate an Iranian nuclear threat to Israel? The idea makes little sense.
Some might claim that while Israel does not “fear” Iran, its furious language reflects Israel’s role as chief imperialist asset in the region, keeping war drums alive against Iran due to its “anti-imperialist” role in the region. There is of course one major hole in this argument that the western conspiracist and “anti-imperialist” left is silent on – it doesn’t sit well with the fact that US imperialism is essentially aligned to Iran across the vast expanse of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and now even Yemen; that Israel protests precisely this alignment; and that the point of this latest Netanyahu mouthful – and I would argue the point of the assassination of leading Hezbollah cadres in southern Syria in January – was precisely to try to prevent the nuclear deal between the world’s leading imperialist power and an imaginary “anti-imperialist” Iran. So much for that silly old argument.
Why then does Israel oppose the current US and EU imperialist attempt to bring Iranian capitalism – a powerful regional capitalism with ultimately the same interest in capitalist restabilisation of the region as any other local capitalist class – back into the fold of the imperialist-led regional capitalist order? Because of the threat of Iranian bombast? But this is circular: Iran’s bombast is largely a product of being locked out of the imperialist-led regional order for many years, a form of pressure to be brought back in to its “rightful” place.
True, the initial reason for being locked out was as punishment for the Iranian revolution that overthrew a US-backed tyrant and sent shock waves through the region, but the new capitalist ruling class, using reactionary “Islamist” ideology and death squads crushed the genuinely revolutionary masses in rivers of blood within a few years. Since then, European imperialism has for the most part long ago actively re-engaged with Iran, but the lock-out by the dominant US arms-oil-dollar power in the region has continued largely as a US favour to the Gulf monarchies and powerful Gulf bourgeoisies who gained in stature as imperialist props when their powerful rival the Shah of Iran fell.
Therefore, it is not hard to see why Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies are nervous about the current US-Iranian engagement. Gulf and Iranian capital (and Turkish capital) are direct regional rivals as “sub-imperialist” capitalisms, and so they now see fully reintegrating Iran as rivalry to their own enhanced status that will require some shuffling of the deck chairs. As they see it, Iranian domination or heavy influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, and US alignment with this in the interests of regional counterrevolution, has shifted things too far.
Israel, however, is not a “rival” of Iran (nor of the Gulf states). Israel as a colonial-settler state and mini-imperialist power is in the unusual position of being the absolutely dominant economic power of the region yet not being able to directly “rival” neighbouring capitalist classes in the region itself (high-tech Israeli capitalism is spread far and wide throughout the rest of the 3rd world instead): unless Israel were ever to allow a just peace settlement with the Palestinians – something which essentially defies the very nature of Zionism – then Israeli trade and investment in the region is absolutely minimal and in most parts non-existent.
Frankly, the Zionist project would be more threatened by the re-emergence of the Saudi peace plan of 2003, which gained the support of both Fatah and Hamas and every Arab state (except for Gaddafi’s Libya), than it is by a whole lot of bombast coming from distant Iran.
It is no accident that loud, rhetorically “rejectionist” voices have tended to come from regimes geographically distant enough to not have to do anything about it (Iran, Gaddafi’s Libya, Saddam’s Iraq) whereas the frontline states (Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon) have never harboured such a stance since the end of Nasserism.
Even Iran’s actual bothersome activities – the fact that it does manage to smuggle a handful of rockets to Hamas from a safe distance – are essentially carried out as one front in its pressure to be brought back into the imperialist-led system: pressure both on the US, and on the Saudi and Gulf rulers in the form of competition for regional “leadership.” We could expect a conservative capitalist ruling class to rein in such activity, as well as its bombast, if US imperialism successfully brought it back into the fold where it belongs; there seems little reason to believe, going on past record, that the US aims to make a deal with Iran to facilitate its arming of Hamas.
While Hamas is right to get arms from whoever it can (and had enough principles to break with Iran’s ally, the Assad regime, and identify with the revolution despite Iranian displeasure), these arms have not been decisive in the survival of Palestinian resistance, even militarily, and are hardly an “existential” threat to Israel let alone having any connection to the Iranian nuclear issue. While any arms are to be welcomed, for Iran they represent a minor sideshow, some political advertising, in comparison with its massive and decisive intervention as the vanguard of Syrian counterrevolution.
Is it because Israel “fears” Hezbollah?
OK, but some might say that Israel fears not Iran as such, but its proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon. Sure, Hezbollah is closer to home, and Israel has been in actual armed conflict with Hezbollah, unlike with Iran. So a strong Iran means a strong Hezbollah.
But does Israel really “fear” Hezbollah? No doubt Israel doesn’t like Hezbollah. After all, Hezbollah, back in the days when it actually was a resistance organisation (as opposed to a hired sectarian death squad for the Syrian Caligula regime), drove the Zionist occupation out of southern Lebanon in 2000. So Israel doesn’t like being humiliated in this way and no doubt holds a deep grudge. We cannot underestimate symbolic issues.
But while symbolism is important to explain an attitude, it would not explain that Israel actually “fears” an Iran-armed Hezbollah unless Israel plans to re-occupy southern Lebanon, which as far as I am aware is not the case.
And of course Israel was again defeated by Hezbollah when it made the foolish decision to try to invade Lebanon in 2006, giving Hezbollah true hero status in the Arab world with the battle of Bint Jbeil. But that invasion wasn’t aimed at reoccupying Lebanon. Hezbollah had kidnapped and killed some Israeli troops near the border of the occupied Shebaa Farms area. Israel “responded” by laying waste to the whole of Lebanon, causing epic destruction and killing some 1300 Lebanese people and displacing a million, in the usual savage Zionist fashion. It is true that the Farms are a small piece of Lebanon that Israel did not withdraw from. However, being only 22 square kilometres in size, it is now very difficult to justify, to the Lebanese people, border attacks to liberate it if the cost imposed by Israel is going to be of that magnitude.
In fact, Hezbollah leader Nasrallah himself made this point, stating after the war that “If there was even a 1 percent chance that the July 11 capturing operation would have led to a war like the one that happened, would you have done it? I would say no, absolutely not, for humanitarian, moral, social, security, military, and political reasons.” So therefore Hezbollah is unlikely to repeat such actions.
It is true that Hezbollah showed it had rockets that could hit deep into Israel, and so Israel could not get away with its mass murder scot-free. This was certainly a good thing. But despite Zionist and western media propaganda, there was simply no comparison between the massive death and destruction rained down on Lebanon by Israel and the largely psychological damage to Israel done by a bunch of Hezbollah rockets.
In other words, it would have been a pyrrhic victory at best for Hezbollah to say, “OK, we killed a couple of troops on the border, Israel destroyed the whole of Lebanon, but we got a few shots at them in Haifa too.” No, it was Israel’s megalomaniacal decision to invade to further punish Hezbollah that resulted in a defeat on the ground that revived Hezbollah’s hero status.
But again – that only means that Israel “fears” Hezbollah if it once again intends to invade Lebanon, which would seem unlikely. Even if Israel was to carry out a similarly enormous aerial “punishment,” and thus “fear” a small number of retaliatory rockets, this would only occur if Hezbollah again launched a border provocation. The argument is thus entirely circular.
Is Hezbollah interested in such conflict? Basically, the 2006 heroics have outlived their time. Hezbollah’s border with Israel has been stone-cold quiet ever since 2006 – some nine years now – perhaps not as quiet as the Assadist Syrian border with the Israeli-occupied Golan, but pretty quiet. Moreover, even as Hezbollah, under Iranian orders, plunged itself in to waste its resources, arms and cadres killing Syrian people on behalf of their murderous tormenter, Nasrallah explicitly promised Israel, via Russian minister Mikhail Bogdanov, a continuation of the quiet border:
“You can tell the Israelis that Lebanon’s southern borders are the safest place in the world because all of our attention is focused on what is happening in Syria,” said Nasrallah, confirming that Hezbollah “does not harbor any intention of taking any action against Israel,” according to Bogdanov .
Indeed, if Hezbollah’s alleged “anti-imperialist” and “anti-Zionist” stance was still to have any meaning, beyond jargon to cover its increasing degeneration into an Assadist death squad, then surely the time to have sent a few rockets, or kidnapped a few Zionists, might have been to give a little solidarity to the Palestinians during the latest Zionist round of burning Gaza to the ground in summer 2014. Any chance of that? None. It seems Hezbollah was far too busy killing Syrians.
Even as Hezbollah now expands more into southern Syria, the idea that it will use this base to confront Israel – ie to do what it has not done from Lebanon for nine years – would need some evidence. The fact that it has been Israel which has provoked Hezbollah a number of times, yet Hezbollah never even responded until the latest, most provocative Israeli attack, suggests this has remained far from Hezbollah’s aim.
If Hezbollah hadn’t responded after such a provocation, its alleged “resistance” credentials may have gone from out the window, where they currently are, into the woods, lost forever. As a friend, Mahmoud, a Yarmouk Palestinian refugee in Sydney, recently explained, few organisations or leaders have ever seen their star fall as far as have Hezbollah and Nasrallah the last four years. From the heights of stardom, among Shiite and Sunni alike, for the 2006 confrontation with Israel, to being widely hated throughout the region for being a participant in the new Nakbah of millions of Syrian (and Palestinian) Sunni, Hezbollah really needed something to give it some fresh “resistance” credentials. Perhaps Israel’s provocation came at a good time – a couple of days of shadow-boxing not only aided the political front at home for Netanyahu but also allowed Hezbollah to dust off a few old ‘resistance” stripes and fool a few gullible western leftists.
And if nothing more comes of it, it may turn out that this clash was useful theatre to allow the Assad regime claim to be fighting the Zionist occupier of Golan as it advances, alongside its international Shiite sectarian brigades, against the FSA in the south (this appears to be what Interim Defense Minister of the Syrian Opposition Coalition and former FSA chief, Salim Idriss, is suggesting here:
But if all this is so, if Hezbollah is not interested in confrontation with Israel, then why has Israel acted provocatively to Hezbollah? And if Hezbollah is not really the problem, it still brings us back to what the big deal is with Iran.
The manufactured Iranian “threat” – an essential device for Zionist ideology
What then is the great “Iranian threat” to Israel? I apologise if my explanation doesn’t dress up the Iran “revolution” regime enough or doesn’t seem based in any real concrete “threats” or anti-imperialist actions, which simply do not exist. In my view, it is an entirely manufactured threat, but the need for such a major “threat” to exist is crucial to the ideological foundations of the late Zionist state.
Israel felt so unthreatened by Iran during Iran’s much more “revolutionary” era of the 1980s, just fresh from the revolution and with the firebrand Khomeini still in power, that it armed Iran in its war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and openly advocated Iranian victory, as is extremely well-documented. But following the US destruction of Iraq in 1991, Israel began to vocally declare Iran to be its worst enemy.
According to the article ‘The Forever Threat: The Imminent Attack on Iran That Will Never Happen’, Israel has been making noises about launching an imminent attack on Iran, often “within weeks,” ever since 1994.
For example, on December 9, 1997, “a The Times of London headline screamed, “Israel steps up plans for air attacks on Iran.” The article, written by Christopher Walker, reported on the myriad “options” Israel had in confronting what it deemed “Iran’s Russian-backed missile and nuclear weapon programme.””
The article is very well worth a look, because it shows dozens of headlines from the past quarter century about Israel being ready to attack Iran any day now.
When an Israeli attack on Iran is not just generally a possibility but is “imminent” in 1994, 1997, 2000, 2003, 2006, 2009, 2012 and 2015, we start to get what the title of the article means, “the imminent threat that will never happen.”
It will never happen because there is no Iranian threat to Israel. The article claims, and gives much evidence, that Iran is not making a bomb. But even if it were, its one or two bombs may well pose a threat to other Arabs but would be no threat to a nuclear power like Israel with its hundreds of nuclear bombs and state of the art delivery systems.
Which leads to the obvious conclusion that this continually repeated “imminent” threat to attack Iran, the permanent call on Israelis and the whole region to be on tenterhooks expecting Armageddon to arrive at any time, the permanency of a state of advanced paranoia, xenophobia and existential “threat” to Israel and the Jews, may be the purpose of these declarations of a coming attack on Iran: Israel may never attack, but the daily threats that it is always around the corner are their own goal.
For many years now, Zionist ideology has been in crisis. The success of the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement; the growing questioning of Israel’s savage treatment of the Palestinians; the obvious contradiction between being a “Jewish state” and democracy; support around the world for Palestinian statehood; are all manifestations of this.
But if Israel and “the Jews” are under alleged existential threat, then Israel and its allies have something with which to homogenise Israeli and Jewish opinion about the need for a Jewish homeland. As the alleged “threat” of another Final Solution coming from the oppressed and terrorised Palestinian “terrorists” looks more and more ridiculous to most rational people, what can rescue this charade better than a powerful regional state, with a regime that itself relies heavily on bloated “anti-Zionist” rhetoric, developing a nuclear bomb with which to allegedly wipe out Israel? Israel had found itself the necessary “new Hitler.”
The Iranian regime of Ahmedinejad was particularly adept at pushing rhetoric to the limits (like Israel, to bolster Iran’s own theocratic project) and playing right into the hands of Likudnik hawks and neo-con nutjobs. While it is true that his statement that Israel will “disappear from the hand of time” was deliberately mistranslated by Zionist and imperialist hacks to Israel will “be wiped off the face of the Earth,” this mistranslation was made more believable by other Ahmedinejad moves and noises, such as his hosting of a Holocaust-denial conference to which even American KKK types were invited.
So when a Holocaust-denying leader who has allegedly called for Israel to be eviscerated is allegedly developing nuclear weapons, this is a Godsend to Israel that it can scarcely avoid making full use of. Netanyahu’s claim that the US is allowing Iran to develop a bomb as an existential threat to Israel is little more than Netanyahu utilising the rhetorical device that is existentially crucial to Zionist ideology.
In that sense, Netanyahu is not wrong that US-Iranian nuclear negotiations, and above all the possibility of a deal, is an existential threat to Israel, but in a very different way to what he claims. If US imperialism’s need to bring Iranian capitalism more fully back into the world capitalist system with its “rightful” place in the region leads to a deal that allows Iran to peacefully develop nuclear energy, then 25 years of Zionist bluster is out the window and finding a new “threat” of that magnitude and importance will not be an easy task, let alone explaining that the entire time it was all a charade.
Indeed, if this is correct that the extreme Israeli reaction to the “threat” of the nuclear talks has a largely political purpose, then it is perhaps no surprise that some of same military-intelligence bloc that, as shown above, tended to be more pro-Assad, are also often less guided by rhetoric when it comes to Iran. For example, as noted above, Brigadier General Itai Baron, head of the Military Intelligence and Research Division of the Israeli Defense Forces, expressed more concern with the “danger” coming from Syrian opposition than the regime side; but he also appears more level-headed on the question of Iran.
So, when in November 2013 Iran signed a Joint Plan of Action with six world powers in Geneva, Netanyahu called this a “historic mistake”, which enabled “the most dangerous regime in the world” to get closer to “attaining the most dangerous weapon in the world;” whereas “Israel’s senior intelligence analyst, Brigadier-General Itai Brun, told a conference near Tel Aviv that Iran has so far abided by the interim agreement and added that he was cautiously optimistic about the future of the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1,” that he believed Iran appeared genuinely interested in an agreement to end its nuclear program. The alleged defection of Mossad during Netanyahu’s recent stunt with the US Congress, explained above, also makes sense in this framework.