As the tension grows to a fever pitch in southern Israel, where war seems inevitable, the very unclear intentions of the Israeli government seem to be moving in the direction of conflict on other fronts as well. The question is, with whom will the war be? With Syria, Hezbollah or Iran?
The Israeli government scored an important point in Helsinki: both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, for different reasons, seem to have given their approval to Israel’s intentions regarding the situation in Syria and Iran’s presence in the country. The Russians have become the superpower dominating the war: they are the deciders regarding the ceasefire in the south of Syria, and they give support to, or put the brakes on, the actions of the Syrian army. The central role of Russia is a decisive fact, but, at the same time, Assad and the Russians know that some of the wins have been secured only due to the presence of Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, as well as Iranian forces.
The prevailing notion in Israel is that Iran’s presence marks a clear change in the regional balance of power, and it is considered to be an existential threat. The continued Israeli air strikes against Iranian troops and against the shipment of weapons to Hezbollah from Iran have resulted from a clear intention to limit the actions of both. The attacks were always conducted after prior coordination with Russian forces, and the Russians have generally not manifested any clear opposition to them.
Moscow would like the Iranians to leave the country, but it must consider at the same time its alliance with Iran, as well as some agreements that restrict the regions in which non-Syrian forces are allowed. In Helsinki, Israel scored another important point when, on the matter of southern Syria, both presidents called for the return to the terms of the 1974 agreement, which stipulated a limit to military presence and international supervision after the 1973 war.
Thursday night, the new “Law on Nationality” was approved, which has been criticized even by right-wing politicians like Beny Begin and Israel’s president. This will be a serious blemish on the already highly problematic Israeli ethnic democracy. Even as the radical right has abandoned the most extreme provisions after criticism, this is still a law claiming to establish the “Jewish character” of the state of Israel, with a clear preference given to Jews and an attitude of discrimination against, or at best disinterest in, the other, non-Jewish Israelis, who make up 20 percent of the population.
However, while almost everyone was preoccupied with this law and the situation in the south of the country, the Parliament was passing additional laws—with the latest passed just hours before—consolidating the presence of settlers in the occupied territories, restricting the legal options available to the Palestinians and legalizing the hell of occupation. In the meantime, thousands of hectares of land situated in the vicinity of the Gaza Strip have been burned. The missiles and bombs continue to sew terror, while more than 160 Palestinians have been killed during the “March of Return,” and, for more than 100 days, the Palestinians have been launching oil-filled balloons made from condoms in order to set the fields on fire on the other side. The situation in Gaza has in no way gotten better: poverty, the lack of water and electricity, and the restrictions of a life lived constantly under siege are the order of the day.
Today, some cynical PNA representatives have lodged a protest against some of the Israeli measures which worsened the siege in response to the latest Palestinian attacks. But nothing has changed Abbas’s policy, who has decided, as a result of internal power calculations, to worsen the situation for the Palestinians in Gaza.
Everyone is trying to avoid an all-out war: both the UN representative in the region, Nikolai Vladanov, the Egyptians who have used their contacts to put pressure on Hamas, the Europeans, and many others. But it is not that simple. The internal conflicts among the Palestinians are pushing the different factions into an arms race to prove that they are more radical than the others. In this way, the cease-fire with Hamas could lead the Islamic Jihad to carry out attacks in order to show “greater loyalty to the cause.” Meanwhile, the PA is criticizing Israel, and everyone is saying they don’t want war.
Israel is saying this as well, adding that the danger is in the north and that this is the region where military efforts should be focused. But here as well, things are not that simple. The army commander, General Eizenkot, has been savagely attacked by the right for his censure of the soldier who killed an unarmed Palestinian in Hebron. While the army’s successes in the north and the killing of Palestinians, frustrating the objective of the “March of Return,” gave the general renewed popularity, in recent days, due to the situation in the south and the disagreements among factions within the right, he is again being called a “traitor” online. In a Security Cabinet meeting, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, from the ultra-right, argued that the army should shoot at the children and young people throwing incendiary balloons—but the general replied that that would be contrary to the rules and the values of the Israeli army.
The game of one-upmanship continues there as well: who is the farthest to the right? All the while, Netanyahu received Orbán as a guest on Thursday. The question of which of the competing extremisms will win hangs heavy in the air. When a bomb fell on a house in Sderot, causing four wounded, all were quick to show up at the scene: Netanyahu, Defense Minister Lieberman and many others.
It seems that the danger of a new war is becoming more and more real every hour, and the power games between the various parties could precipitate the situation. Only an internationally-led de-escalation—in which Egypt, but not only, must play a key role—can avoid dumb provocations which would offer the Israeli extremists a golden opportunity. The conflicts within the Israel right, which is already thinking about the next elections in early 2019, could lead to a radicalization of the political elite, and if that happens, the relatively moderate position of the army and the security forces will not be a strong enough obstacle to avoid new bloodshed.
Who will be the strongest? The circus of blood is preparing a brand new show in Israel—and why not, if the blood will be that of others? There would be some dead among the Israelis, but most of those killed would be Palestinians. And the situation in Gaza, already disastrous, would only become much worse in turn.