Israel is facing multiple emerging threats, as well as the potential for Iran to shift support from Yemen to other fronts, as it positions itself for its latest challenge to Israel in the region. These are among the issues that Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, focused on during a discussion this week with The Jerusalem Post about the region and threats to Israel.
Schanzer has been meeting with officials and experts and is looking at some of the broader trends that are impacting the region. This is important because Israel is engaged in a continuous struggle against Iran’s threats and changes in the region could be pushing those issues to the foreground in different areas.One area of interest is the “war between the wars” campaign, also called after its Hebrew acronym “mabam.” This is a conflict that is hard to define, but it basically boils down to Israel’s operations against Iran in Syria and other places during the last decade. This is an undeclared war with unclear frontlines. The campaign “just turned 10 years old and it is an interesting moment to see what happened,” says Schanzer, adding that when he has spoken to officials that many don’t agree on exactly what this conflict consists of. “There are two main schools of thought; one is that it is focused on Syria and the other is that it includes Syria and cyber and assassinations, Iran and maritime incidents.”This is what former prime minister Naftali Bennett called the “Octopus doctrine,” which means Israel is engaged in fighting many tentacles of the Iranian threat. For instance, Palestinian Islamic Jihad could be seen as one part of the octopus, and Hezbollah as another part.
There is no victory in this conflict, because this war doesn’t end on a battlefield like Waterloo, it goes on and on in different places.For instance, when Iran has supported Hamas in Gaza to threaten Israel there have been wars, but even if Israel carries out many airstrikes and appears to win, Hamas still declares victory.Much of the campaign has taken place in Syria and was made possible by the power vacuum there. As the Syrian regime lost control of the country, many groups and other countries intervened. This allowed Israel to also act against Iranian entrenchment. Schanzer notes that the conflict in Syria is subsiding and countries are normalizing ties with the Assad regime. “What made the [campaign] possible is operating under [a] fog of war... does the battlefield change now as the fog is lifting?”There are many wheels in motion: Russia is redeploying from Syria, Iran continues to enrich uranium and Hezbollah is “retrenching,” says Schanzer. In addition, Hezbollah has created an indigenous program for making precision-guided munitions, PGMs. The FDD expert has been warning about this threat for years.Now, he says, Hezbollah may be producing as many as one or two of these specific types of dangerous munitions a week. As the number of PGMs in Hezbollah’s hands grows, there are questions about Israel’s response. An incident in mid-March in which a man allegedly infiltrated northern Israel and carried out a bombing attack near Megiddo before trying to flee back north is an example of Israel’s predicament.Hezbollah has warned Israel not to start a conflict, and Middle East Monitor has said the explosion is a “new front for Israel.” Schanzer notes that Israel hasn’t responded. “Is Israel deterred or bogged down by domestic challenges; both [questions] are worth exploring.”
“People are talking about a third intifada, there is the ’87 Intifada and then the 2000 Intifada declared from above…we are looking at more along the lines of 2000.”Jonathan Schanzer, SVP for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies
A major challenge could also be emerging as Iran shifts resources from backing the Houthis in Yemen. “You need to look at Yemen, no one is looking at Yemen and that’s a big mistake,” warns Schanzer. He notes that while Iran and Saudi Arabia have signed a deal, Iran has seen support for the Houthis in Yemen, who are fighting Saudi-backed Yemen forces, as a conflict of diminishing returns. “Now the Iranians are no longer sending [support to Yemen], where is that going [to go], it’s obvious that is going to Israel’s borders, most likely to go to the West Bank, Syria etc.”
Rising threats of violence in Israel
This links into the rising threats in the West Bank. Israel has been engaged in weekly conflict against groups such as Islamic Jihad, and Lions’ Den for much of the last year. Shooting attacks are increasing. Schanzer says that Iran operates a kind of nerve center or figurative joint operations room that seeks to bring together Hamas, PIJ, Hezbollah and the IRGC in threats against Israel. He says that the uptick in incidents during the 2021 conflict in Gaza, such as fighting in mixed cities in Israel, is an example.
“It is pursuing a new strategy that was born before 2021,” he says, noting that this is part of an attempt to export violence to the West Bank. Basically, Israel increasingly concentrated on confronting Iranian threats farther away from Israel, and Iran is seeking to bring the fight to the West Bank. If Israel thought it could ignore Gaza, because it has the Iron Dome and other defenses, now the battle has moved to places like Jenin. Since March of last year, FDD has been tracking the increased attacks, and Schanzer says they now number more than 1,300.“People are talking about a third intifada, there is the ’87 Intifada and then the 2000 Intifada declared from above…we are looking at more along the lines of 2000.”Israel faces a predicament in the West Bank. If it does nothing then the violence will grow. If it goes into the Palestinian cities then it could create greater anger against Israel. “Israel is in an impossible predicament heading into Ramadan,” he says. Meanwhile, the Palestinian security forces are also teetering in their ability to confront the rising chaos. Schanzer warns that the kinds of clashes developing in places like Huwara could end up sparking a greater conflict the way Sheikh Jarrah did in 2021.