Israel’s March 2 election, its third in the past 11 months, is likely to lead to another hung parliament, complicating Israel’s security at a time when Israel and Iran are on a path towards confrontation in Syria, Iraq and most dangerously, Lebanon.
These were some of the worrying insights shared by award-winning Israeli commentator, author and analyst Ehud Yaari in discussions with journalists, Members of Parliament and in public forums during his current visit to Australia.
Yaari explained that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who has been formally indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, is taking advantage of a long-standing Israeli law that allows a prime minister to serve even in the event of a conviction, until the end of the appeal process.
Neither Netanyahu nor his challenger, Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, has emerged from the past two elections with a 61-seat majority. While Gantz’s party is polling one or two seats ahead of the Likud, one hope would be for Gantz to lure away religious parties from Netanyahu’s bloc, a prospect that Yaari sees as “not very likely.”
Otherwise, “Gantz needs a massive defection of Likud voters,” Yaari told journalists in Melbourne on Feb. 6. “According to our polls – it’s very strange now – about a quarter to a third of Gantz voters support Bibi’s policies, including [partial West Bank] annexation [in accordance with the recently released Trump Administration “Deal of the Century” plan]. Meanwhile, polls say [Netanyahu] has a similar number of voters who have great doubts about the wisdom of having an indicted person serving as prime minister.”
About the Trump’ Administration’s peace plan, Yaari said that one of the positive things that emerged from it was the reaction of the Israeli Arab community to its proposal that some 250,000 Israeli Arabs living along the border of a future Palestinian state be potentially annexed to that state.
“There was an uproar. [They said] no way are we going to become citizens of a Palestinian state. We were born in Israel, we are going to stay in Israel. You cannot deprive us of our identity as Israeli Arabs… in every interview, there was not one who was willing to do it. It was very telling. And the Palestinian Authority was taking it very badly, because that was a statement.”
Yaari added that the flap presented an opportunity for Israeli Jews to better understand their Arab neighbours who are overwhelmingly “exemplary” fellow citizens.
He noted that Trump advisor Jared Kushner, one of the authors of the plan, had made clear the proposal was intended to be only a starting point for negotiations, “open for improvements, modifications and alterations”, but also ushering in a new era of open Israeli relations with Sunni Arab countries.
“People mistook the Trump plan as if it was designated to reach out to the Palestinians. It was not,” Yaari said. On the contrary, he continued, the Palestinian leadership had “made it clear for the past two years that they would not even look at the plan, and certainly not discuss it.”
Rather, the Trump plan was devised “with the aim of creating a platform for negotiations between Israel and the Sunni Arab states” including the Saudis, several Gulf states, Egypt and Morocco.
In the end, however, these states “got cold feet” at an Arab League meeting on Feb. 1 following the announcement, openly criticising the plan. Yaari said this was the result of strong populist positions against the plan by Iran and Turkey, Israeli moves to begin West Bank annexations, as well as in response to the failure of the US to retaliate against Iran’s stunning missile and drone attack on the Saudi’s flagship oil processing facility at Abqaiq and Khurais in September.
Speaking further on the Iranian threat, Yaari revealed the extent of the game of cat and mouse being played out between Israel and Iran in Syria.
“Over the past three and a half years, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) has mounted very close to 1,500 raids and other attacks against the Iranians in Syria,” he said, in an attempt to stymie Iranian efforts to create a virtual land bridge from Iran, through Iraq and Syria, to Lebanon. Until now, Iran has had to use aircraft to move material into Syria, which is relatively easy to track. Should Iran succeed in securing a land bridge, arms could be easily hidden amidst the traffic of consumer merchandise that is trucked around the region.
According to Yaari, the IAF’s campaign has succeeded in reducing the Iranian military presence in Syria to 400 soldiers from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, and he holds out some hope that Russian President Vladimir Putin could eventually be persuaded to pressure the Assad regime to send the Iranian forces in Syria back home.
At the moment, he said, Russia benefits from Iranian forces, and especially their Shi’ite militia allies, in Syria as “cannon fodder” against the rebels. However, after the fall of the rebel stronghold of Idlib, which is likely to happen soon, Russia – which already gives Israel freedom to attack Iranian targets in Syria as long as it does not harm Assad – may view continued Iranian presence in Syria differently.
If Russia doesn’t act, and Yaari is somewhat pessimistic it will, a confrontation between Iran and Israel is looming “not today, and not tomorrow,” but down the road, in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, or all three, he said. A key impetus prompting Israeli action would be whether Iran succeeds in building a substantial arsenal of precision-guided missiles within range of Israel that could accurately pinpoint any target in Israel.
Today, Iran has several dozen such missiles in place, Yaari said. If that number developed into hundreds, Yaari said, Israel would be forced to pre-emptively act to destroy the threat. The worst-case scenario would be an intense war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, which currently targets Israel with 140,000 rockets. In such a case, Yaari said, Israeli defence officials estimate 300 alert sirens a day could disrupt Tel Aviv alone, and Israel’s missile defence systems would not be able to stop all of them.
The result would be catastrophic, especially for Lebanon, which would face the full wrath of the Israeli Air Force.
“There is no other way to deal with the 140,000 missiles because of where they are placed, in densely populated areas. If there is a war with Hezbollah, Israel would launch as many sorties of aircraft as fast as she can, while Hezbollah would try to launch as many missiles as it can,” he said.
For now, Yaari doesn’t see a war with Hezbollah in the offing, because “everybody realises what would happen.”