On Tuesday an explosive device that was planted along the Israeli-Syrian border wounded four Israeli soldiers, one of them seriously. Early Wednesday morning Israeli planes struck back—notably, not against Hizballah but against Syrian military targets, killing one Syrian soldier and wounding seven.
Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu said the Syrian targets that were hit “not only enabled the attack on our troops, they cooperated with it. Our policy is very clear—we strike at those who strike at us.”
A former chief of military intelligence said:
The execution of [Tuesday’s] attack was professional. There is no doubt that the Syrians knew about it—they may even have carried it out for Hizballah. Something like this, if it proves true, is a game changer….It’s a game changer because, while there has been a string of attacks along the Syrian and Lebanese borders involving Hizballah and global-jihad elements, and while Syria has long been part of the Iran-Syria-Hizballah axis, Israel’s operative assumption has been that Syria’s Assad regime has its hands full with the country’s civil war and no desire to open another front with Israel.
Although Tuesday’s attack was probably carried out on the ground by Hizballah operatives, direct Syrian facilitation appears to be a new development and part of a threatening trend.
The incident comes—ironically—against the backdrop of the opening of yet another round of nuclear talks with Iran.
That Israel takes a dim view of the talks was made explicit this week by Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, who said that “the U.S. at a certain stage began negotiating with them, and unfortunately in the Persian bazaar the Iranians were better. [Therefore] we [Israelis] have to look out for ourselves.”
White House officials reportedly reacted with shock and outrage. Yaalon had already taken an enfant terrible posture by dismissing the U.S.-orchestrated Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as pointless and even calling Secretary of State John Kerry’s role in them “messianic” and “obsessive,” a choice of words for which Yaalon later apologized.
But if Washington was upset by Yaalon’s latest words on Iran, it could hardly take comfort from a report in Haaretz on Wednesday that Netanyahu and Yaalon had ordered the Israeli army to prepare for a possible strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities in 2014.
Given that Yaalon, as strategic affairs minister in Netanyahu’s previous government, opposed a strike on Iran but now publicly acknowledges that he has changed his mind, and that the third member of Israel’s top political-security echelon, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, is a known Iran hawk, the report carries plausibility.
It also carries plausibility because of a recent, marked escalation against Israel by Iran’s proxies. On March 5, the Israeli navy intercepted an Iranian arms ship carrying Syrian-manufactured rockets to the Iranian-sponsored Islamic Jihad terror group in Gaza. On March 12 Islamic Jihad fired dozens of rockets at Israel from Gaza. And incidents along the northern border reached a new peak on Tuesday with apparent direct Syrian involvement.
Unlike the Western diplomats launching yet another round of talks in Vienna this week with a brutal regime, Israel does not have the luxury of living in a fantasy world. Jerusalem is well aware that Iran is capable of accurately taking the measure of a weak, bumbling U.S. president and his allies and feels emboldened.
Jerusalem is also well aware that if Iran had the bomb, the current difficult situation of attacks by Iran’s proxies and allies would turn into a nightmare. Yaalon’s words may be grating, but Israelis are getting subjected to even less pleasant sounds.