Welcome to the Syrian hellhole

We have been sitting on a powder keg for a long time, on both the southern and northern fronts.

Soldiers loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad forces are deployed at al-Qadam area near Yarmouk Palestinian camp in Damascus (photo credit: REUTERS)
Soldiers loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad forces are deployed at al-Qadam area near Yarmouk Palestinian camp in Damascus
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The security establishment is calling this month “May the terrible.” No one actually knows what will happen, but the convergence of a number of “special” days in a single month does not bode well.
This month, the Palestinian “marches of return” will climax on May 15, Nakba Day. The US will inaugurate its embassy in Jerusalem this month, perhaps with President Trump in attendance, and will decide in the coming days about the future of the nuclear accord with Iran. And in mid-May, Ramadan will begin and tensions will rise on Fridays during the Muslim holy month.
The IDF and the security forces are in a high state of readiness, justifiably concerned about impending trouble.
Actually, we have been sitting on a powder keg for a long time, on both the southern and northern fronts.
The marches of return have not breached Israeli territory, but the Palestinian struggle is first of all a battle over consciousness. On that front, the Palestinians have succeeded in reawakening awareness about their cause – perhaps not in the way they expected, but still far better than the global silence and standstill vis-à-vis the Palestinian issue in recent times.
In the North, Israel and Iran are exchanging verbal blows and even engaging in the preliminaries of a possible military clash. The launch of a drone armed with explosives against Israel several weeks ago was a calculated act of aggression by the Iranians. They lured Israel into an ambush that downed an Israeli plane – a great achievement from their perspective.
At the same time, “anonymous” attacks are intensifying against military facilities in Syria where Iranians and Syrian are jointly operating. Israel, without taking direct responsibility for these actions, has repeatedly stated – in the toughest words heard in years – that the Iranian presence in Syria is a red line for it.
Welcome to the Syrian hellhole.
Is Israel being drawn into a confrontation or is it initiating one? A big question. In military terms, Israel is in the period of “the battle between battles.” It is operating in different ways and places to ensure that small threats do not escalate and lead us to all-out war. Israel does not need such wars, and is aware of this. Like any liberal-democratic state, its citizenry finds it hard to cope with injuries and casualties.
Thus, contrary to the common conception that low-intensity conflict serves the weaker side, Israel has adopted and implemented this low-intensity approach. This explains the events occurring in the Middle East and far beyond it that are intended to eliminate threats in their early stages.
The Iranian context is different.
Iran is a state, and not a paramilitary terrorist organization like Hamas or Hezbollah. It cannot tolerate military blows or, alternatively, psychological- intelligence coups such as the seizure of its nuclear archives. Iran jealously guards its prestige and national honor, and this affects its abilities to act. Therefore, unless Israel has decided to enter into a confrontation, I fear things might spiral out of control.
Iran has extensive military capabilities and wields power throughout the Middle East and beyond. Though Iran is a state, it acts like a terrorist organization and disregards international conventions and accords. In other words, it is a terrorist state.
ANY CONFRONTATION of this sort will focus on the Israeli home front. In the distant past, Israel’s military doctrine, formulated by David Ben-Gurion, called for shifting the war to enemy territory. Israel has no strategic hinterland. It is densely populated (much more so today than in the past), which makes it very vulnerable.
Its strategic facilities are located in central Israel, and any blow to them could greatly increase the number of civilian casualties.
Since 1991, the primary Arab-Palestinian threat against Israel is directed at the home front. Tens of thousands of rockets of various range are aimed at Israel from all directions, some of them precision weapons. The stockpile of weaponry is enormous. There is no doubt they will be fired at Israel in the event of a confrontation.
True, Israel’s home front defense has improved, mainly thanks to the capabilities developed by the IDF Home Front Command. However, in regard to fortifying structures and preparing shelters, we have a long way to go. The defense minister himself admitted recently that there are gaps in fortification in northern Israel and that hundreds of millions of shekels are needed to bolster civil protection.
These funds are not available and no one plans to allocate them.
However, I am also referring to the moral-psychological preparation of Israel’s residents. The confrontations of the past have shown that Israel fluctuates between high and low national resilience. Israel was in a frenzy on Monday afternoon after learning that the prime minister would deliver a special announcement on “the Iran issue.”
In the Republic of Rumors, otherwise known as Israel, this was explosive material. The rumor mill went into high gear, with social media serving as a wonderful and efficient channel for disseminating false information.
Immediate announcements from “official sources” were needed to reassure the public.
Even so, panic was stirred unnecessarily.
A government that is leading a country into a military confrontation owes explanations to its public. The government must explain where it is heading and what it aims to achieve.
In Israel’s case, it is essential to mobilize the public by speaking directly to it, and in Hebrew. When the prime minister makes his presentation in English, clearly addressing foreign audiences, he is immediately relegating the Israeli citizenry to the sidelines.
Legitimacy must first be won at home.
The battle-tested residents of Israel clearly sense that we are headed toward a new battle that is liable to develop into unexpected dimensions.
Only a public that knows and understands will be able to stand together during these types of events.
Past wars have shown that dissension within the public weakens the army’s ability to function, as in the Second Lebanon War, for example.
The home front and the battlefront are more closely linked than in the past. We might be on the brink of war.
Israel’s decision-makers should not take the Israeli public for granted. If they do, they are liable to be unpleasantly surprised.
The writer is a Zionist Union MK who serves on the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. His book on Israel’s public diplomacy, ‘Hearts and Minds: Israel and the Battle for Public Opinion,’ has just been published in the US.