Operation Shield and Arrow looked deceptively similar to the rounds of fighting between Israel and Gaza that happen every couple of years.
There are always some variances in the details, but broadly speaking: Palestinian terrorists shoot a bunch of rockets at Israel, and Israel responds with airstrikes. There are more rockets and more airstrikes. Egypt jumps in to negotiate a ceasefire. There’s a final rocket salvo right before it goes into effect, and the mini-war is over until next year.
Israel's enemies proven wrong
There’s good reason to believe that Israel’s enemies thought this round would be different and they would strike a much greater blow. Thanks to Israelis’ resilience, however, the enemies were proven wrong.
Israel was hit by rockets from Lebanon and Gaza in April, during Ramadan, and the leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah, both backed by Iran, met in Beirut, releasing a photo of the occasion under a picture of Iran’s former and current ayatollahs. The message, that the terrorist groups on Israel’s borders are working together under Iran’s guidance, was clear.
Days before Shield and Arrow began last week, Iranian news site Tasnim published a lengthy article predicting an “Israeli Winter,” in contrast with last decade’s “Arab Spring.” The lengthy analysis provides a litany of Iran-backed threats to Israel from Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza, Judea and Samaria, at sea and in other parts of the Middle East, and points out that Israel has made do with narrow victories. And that’s without even mentioning Iran’s own nuclear program.
“The unification of all areas of resistance and the launching of the Zionist regime is a scenario that the Israelis predicted a decade ago. Why, despite this, was no serious action taken by Israel to prevent the unity of the resistance fronts?” the Tasnim analysts wondered, expressing confidence, of course, at Israel’s impending defeat.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remarked on day one of Operation Shield and Arrow that “95% of Israel’s security problems come from Iran.
“We are dealing with an attempt by Iran to start a multi-front campaign against us. My instruction to the IDF and security branches is to be prepared for a multi-front campaign… If we need to, we can do it,” Netanyahu said at a conference for Habithonistim, a right-leaning forum of former senior defense officers.
As senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies Jonathan Schanzer wrote in Commentary, “Israeli military officials are now openly warning that Israel’s first multi-front war since the 1973 Yom Kippur War may be imminent.” That war would be “coordinated out of the Islamic Republic of Iran, but fought along Israel’s borders by Tehran’s terror proxies.”
Iran has threatened Israel on multiple fronts for years, but the boldness of its proxies and fellow travelers is more intense in 2023.
Israel has threatened for years
The mullahs’ mouthpieces at Tasnim gave some reasons for the timing in which Iran chose to try to tighten its vise around Israel. Israel is even worse placed to confront these threats than before “after the defeat of the United States in Afghanistan and Ukraine, and Israel being involved in a major internal crisis at the same time... The rapid developments in the region [are] not at all in favor of this regime.”
The article quotes Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad as saying “Iranians are sitting comfortably and watching how the Israelis destroy themselves.”
Gilad, in fact, wrote on N12 last month that Israel’s internal divisions over judicial reform, which he called “regime change,” have led Israel to be perceived as much weaker than it actually is, due to “deep divisions, intense protests, economic weakness and severe cracks in the strategic alliance with the United States.
“All this... leads Iran and Hezbollah’s leadership to rub their eyes in disbelief and wonder if perhaps Israel decided to commit suicide and weaken itself, in sharp contrast from the justified image of Israeli power that it had until now,” Gilad wrote.
Schanzer pointed out that the rockets from Gaza and Lebanon in April came days after Netanyahu fired Defense Minister Yoav Gallant for speaking out about the judicial reform process and Israelis flooded the streets in protest, with various sectors going on strike the following day. “Iran and its proxies believed they were exploiting the chaos in Israel, perhaps even hastening the demise of the Jewish state,” he wrote.
The 102-rocket attack from Palestinian Islamic Jihad at the beginning of this month that led Israel to launch Operation Shield and Arrow may have been revenge for its senior terrorist Khader Adnan killing himself by way of hunger strike, but the terrorists surely know all of the above.
After all, PIJ is even more of an Iranian proxy than Hamas. As Islamic Jihad leader Ziyad Nakhalah said in April 2023, “the weapons the Palestinians use for fighting come from Iran. The Iranians either pay for these weapons or provide them. This has been going on for 30 years.” If Iran thinks Israel is weak and now is time to hit its soft underbelly, PIJ feels the same way.
Iran's analysis proved wrong
Unfortunately for PIJ and thankfully for Israel, their analysis was off.
You almost can’t blame the Israel-hating Islamists; even here in Israel people feared that something had irreparably broken in our society. Air force pilots and military intelligence officers were supposed to be shirking their duties; masses were supposedly emigrating to Europe or the US.
Yet in the moment of truth, when the rockets rained down, Israel did not fall apart.
For Israel’s leaders, and especially the heads of the IDF and other security arms, this means that they successfully tuned out politics. Though they did not want politics to reach a pitch that they have to tune out – this was made clear by Gallant’s distress call to pause the judicial reform in March – they may have to get used to this.
“The army has to understand that the public discourse is distorted,” Shimrit Meir, former diplomatic adviser to then-prime minister Naftali Bennett tweeted. “[It needs to] pay it less attention and hold a real internal discussion while understanding that, due to the extraordinary political circumstances in recent years, most of the strategic burden is on its shoulders and it needs to take a broader view than usual.”
As for most of Israel, the solidarity that characterized society in past wars is still there, despite our internal strife. The people’s army functioned as it was supposed to; it is the very parts of the IDF that were considered a risk for reserve-dodgers that are behind the precision attacks that characterized this operation. Israelis opened their homes and their businesses to residents of the South without asking them if they were from left-voting kibbutzim or the Likud and Shas-loving cities.
The divisions exposed in Israel in the past few months are real, but they are not what Iran seems to think they are. The Islamic state’s strategists are, apparently, unaccustomed to free speech in a democracy and to a society that loves to protest as much as Israelis do, and mistook it for real weakness. The attempt at a multi-front war will have to wait, and Israel’s defense establishment has been preparing for it.