Israel's Verbal War

Israel's belligerent declarations vis-à-vis the Iranian entrenchment in Syria and the possibility of a vengeance attack by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad were irregularly harsh. What is happening behind the scenes of this verbal battle? Amir Rapaport's weekly column

Defense Minister Lieberman tours the northern border (Photo: Ariel Hermoni, IMOD)

Not for a very long time have so many belligerent declarations been heard in the manner of the verbal war Israel has been waging this last week vis-à-vis the Iranian entrenchment in Syrian territory and the possibility that the Palestinian Islamic Jihad attempt to avenge the deaths of its men in the blasting of the underground tunnel near Kibbutz Kissufim.

The declarations, made – among others – by the Israeli Minister of Defense during his visit to the northern border last Wednesday ("The IDF is deployed and ready for any scenario. We reserve a total freedom of operation. We will not enable the Iranians to consolidate their positions in Syria and to turn Syria into a frontline post opposite the State of Israel. Anyone who has failed to fully comprehend this should understand it now"), were irregularly harsh even by Avigdor Lieberman's standards.

Lieberman's visit to the north, along with IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot and other senior IDF commanders reflects the fact that this theater presents the most substantial challenge for Israel. The strange internal developments in Lebanon (including the flight of Prime Minister Hariri) have required Hezbollah's attention at the expense of the Israeli enemy, but the Iranian moves, which include the establishment of a permanent base on Syrian soil, are of tremendous significance: Iran is preparing to upscale the threat it imposes on Israel in anticipation of the possibility that its nuclear installations might be attacked. Consequently, its official presence on Syrian soil is extremely dangerous.

The greatest concern is that in the future, the Iranians might deploy in Syria their most advanced air-defense batteries and state-of-the-art surface-to-surface and shore-to-sea missiles, thereby threatening both the freedom of maritime navigation and the freedom of air traffic, which would be just the beginning of a massive missile war.

Behind the scenes of these on-record belligerent declarations, worldwide diplomatic talks are underway in an attempt to prevent the Iranian entrenchment in Lebanon. Israel has invested tremendous efforts in Washington to alert the USA of the danger (which also threatens another neighbor within the 'triangle of borders' – Jordan, and not just Israel), but the Americans are not really interested in Syria.

The party that actually dominates Syria following Bashar al-Assad's victory in the civil war is Russia, and the Russians tell each party (including Israel) whatever that party wants to be told, while doing whatever is best for Russia. At this point, the Russian interest coincides with the Iranian interest, so the Prime Minister of Russia announced this week that Iran's presence in Syria is legitimate, only two weeks after the Russian Defense Minister had visited Israel and offered a lot of cordiality and very few practical steps against the Iranian expansion.

Can the escalation in the north deteriorate from words to missiles? The threats made by all of the parties (Iran knows something about consciousness war, too) notwithstanding, none of the parties involved – least of all Israel – is truly interested in being forced into a war. The problem is, every process of escalation has its own dynamics, and wars sometimes break out owing to a misunderstanding on the enemy's part (as was the case with Operation Protective Edge in 2014). Accordingly, the situation is explosive.

Israel's Psychological War against Islamic Jihad

The processes in the other theater – opposite the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (which is financed and directed by Tehran) in the past week had the characteristics of a full-scale psychological war. This campaign broke out with a dramatic appearance by the Coordinator of Government Operations in the Territories, Maj. Gen. Yoav (Poli) Mordechai in front of the cameras on Saturday night, when he said, in the fluent Arabic taught by the intelligence units of the IDF, "Islamic Jihad is playing with fire on the backs of the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip and at the expense of the Palestinian internal reconciliation and the entire region."

The IDF has psychological warfare units ("information warfare" in the current military jargon) and it is reasonable to assume that they are an inseparable part of the effort to prevent a vengeance attack by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad pursuant to the deaths of 12 of their men in the blasting of the underground tunnel last month.

On the other hand, Islamic Jihad is under tremendous public pressure to retaliate with an attack, as well as under pressure from Hamas and Egypt – to hold their fire, so as not to undermine the fragile (and phony) Palestinian reconciliation. In Israel there are real concerns of a resounding terrorist attack or a missile fire attack, so practical steps have been taken to prevent such a development, like the arrest of the leader of Islamic Jihad in the West Bank, Tariq Ka'adan, last Monday, and the deployment of Iron Dome batteries in the central region.

At the same time, the psychological effort to "convince" the Palestinian Islamic Jihad to avoid staging a vengeance attack has been massive in its own right. The unusual generosity demonstrated by the IDF in providing information regarding the recent readiness and alert measures (including a breakdown of the deployment of Iron Dome batteries) seems like a part of the consciousness effort. The message being conveyed to Islamic Jihad is "Don't mess with us, we are ready," but in this theater, no one can guarantee that vengeance will not arrive, followed by escalation opposite the Gaza Strip.

The Next IDF Chief of Staff

One of the occurrences which have not received the attention it deserves on the part of the general public was the government meeting during which the IDF presented the plan for relocating all of the technological units of the IDF Intelligence Directorate to the south. This is a national move of historic significance, expected to peak in the next decade, but it changes the face of the city of Beersheba in advance.

The new appointments in the IDF General Staff, announced last Tuesday, have been reviewed extensively: the current Head of the IDF Intelligence Directorate, Maj. Gen. Hertzi HaLevi, will be appointed as the General Commanding IDF Southern Command; Maj. Gen. Nadav Padan will be appointed as the General Commanding IDF Central Command; Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliwa will be appointed as Head of the IDF Operations Division, and Brig. Gen. Lior Carmeli will be promoted to the rank of Major General and appointed as Head of the IDF C4I Directorate. Maj. Gen. Tamir Heiman of the Armored Corps will be appointed as Head of the IDF Intelligence Directorate, after 20 years during which no general hailing from the Armored Corps has served in that position.

This has been the last major round of appointments decided upon by IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, who will conclude his term in late 2018. This round has been interesting mainly with regard to the race for the position of the next Chief of Staff (an appointment to be decided three months before the end of Eizenkot's term, in the fall of 2018).

Two general officers who have not been included in the recent round of appointments, Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon (the current Head of the IDF Operations Division and former commander of the IDF Central Command) and the present commander of the IDF Central Command, Maj. Gen. Roni Numa, may retire from IDF service.

The present Deputy Chief of Staff, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, appears to be the favorite candidate for the position of the next Chief of Staff. Kochavi had been designated for greatness since his days as commander of the IDF Paratrooper Brigade. Before he settled in the office adjacent to that of the Chief of Staff, he had served in all of the positions required "by the book," including commander of the Gaza Division, Head of the Intelligence Directorate and commander of IDF Northern Command.

However, a past precedent may indicate that no position is guaranteed (Kochavi may speak about that with Maj. Gen. (ret.) Matan Vilnai, who was preparing for the position of Chief of Staff only to discover that he had been bypassed by Shaul Mofaz, subject to a decision by the Minister of Defense at the time, Yitzhak Mordechai).

The "Black Horses" may appear, this time, mainly from the direction of generals Eyal Zamir and Hertzi HaLevi. Zamir's chances will increase significantly if he is appointed to the position of the next Deputy Chief of Staff, as he has already served as the commander of IDF Southern Command. He is regarded as a confidant of Prime Minister Netanyahu as he had served as his military secretary in the past. The appointment of HaLevi, formerly the commander of Sayeret Matkal, could place him in the race, as thus far his resume has been missing an IDF regional command. HaLevi, a great-grandson of Rabbi Kook, is also regarded as an acceptable candidate to the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, owing to his personal background as a member of a "Jerusalem aristocracy" family (just like Netanyahu himself).

On the other hand, if the present government remains in office until the time when the next Chief of Staff is to be appointed, the chances of former Deputy Chief of Staff and commander of IDF Northern Command, Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, will be very slim indeed.

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