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Friday Feature - Running Hot, Running Cold

Friday Feature

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14 Feb 2020
Friday Feature - Running Hot, Running Cold
If the proverbial alien visitor from a distant planet were to land his spaceship in Israel today and take a look around, he might be excused for not realizing that there are Knesset elections scheduled to take place in just 18 days. The signs (both literal and figurative) drawing attention to this fact are largely absent from their usual places on billboards, the sides of apartment buildings, on the airwaves, etc. Election fatigue was already a factor in the second election which took place last September, with some polls predicting a record-low turnout for the election on 2 March. However, as commentators warned, the rest of the world has NOT taken a break while Israelis try to sort out their internal political dynamics.

So although statements by political candidates and parties appear as stories in media outlets such as newspapers, radio and TV shows and news websites, they have to compete with some other stories which Israelis seem to be far more interested in. Three stories in particular that have dominated headlines with increasing urgency, crowding out the upcoming election, are the growing threat of war with Iran, the related threat of instability in Israel’s northern neighbors and the looming corona virus pandemic.

Iran, the problem which never goes away

Major General Hossein Salami, leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) issued the latest in a long string of fiery threats against Israel and the US in a televised speech Thursday, during a ceremony to mark the 40th day since the assassination by the US of IRGC Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani. "If you make the slightest error, we will hit both of you," Salami said. This threat followed an earlier statement by another IRGC officer who vowed that "The cowardly and craven assassination of commander Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis by the Americans will lead to the liberation of Jerusalem, by the grace of God."

While Israelis have grown accustomed to hearing such rhetoric, analysts warn that the clerical regime which rules Iran and the IRGC which guards it are under tremendous pressure from a variety of sources and may soon have no choice but to act on their threats or face the prospect of losing legitimacy among their core supporters. The large crowds showing up at anti-regime rallies that take place almost daily in Teheran and less often in many other Iranian cities have begun to spice up their own rhetoric, adding chants of “talk is cheap” alongside the more traditional “death to the dictator”. Additionally, blogs by opposition figures have begun to include questions about whether it’s time for Western powers to call the regime’s bluff regarding its many threats against them.

If either of those two things happen, it could easily escalate into a shooting war between Iran and the US, which Israel would inevitably get drawn into, as would Washington’s Sunni Gulf allies.

As if to accentuate this point, the Pentagon announced on Thursday that a US Navy warship had intercepted a shipment of Iranian-manufactured anti-tank and surface to air missiles being smuggled by ship, likely on their way to Iran’s Houthi allies in Yemen. It was the latest such interception US forces have made in recent months.

In order to counter the growing threat from Iran, the IDF announced this week that it is establishing a new Iran Command, specifically designed and equipped to face the possibility of a full-scale conflict with Iran and its allies in Lebanon and Syria. At the same time, the new command will need to take into account the influence Iran has over terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip.

“The challenges around us do not allow us to wait – and so, despite the complexity, the multiyear program has begun,” IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi said.

Northern border heating up

On Friday, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu responded to a journalists question about reports that an Iranian unit deployed to Syria had been the target of airstrikes from an unidentified source by saying he knew nothing about it but that "Maybe it was the Belgian air force."

The semi-sarcastic comment belied the fact that Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders have acknowledged launching “hundreds” of air strikes on Iranian targets in Syria over recent years. Iran’s occasional attempts to retaliate by launching missiles and drones at Israel have merely given Israel the pretext to launch devastating counter-attacks which were no-doubt planned months in advance, with the Air Force just waiting for an opportunity to put them into motion.

However, the threat of an Iranian military build-up in Syria, which would give the Islamic Republic a potent threat against Israel when added with the already massive number of rockets and missiles it has supplied to the Shi’ite terror militia Hezbollah in Lebanon, means the IDF can’t take anything for granted on Israel’s northern border and must constantly prepare for the possibility of hostilities there.

But this isn’t the only potential problem on Israel’s northern border.

The anti-government protests in Beirut have threatened to turn Lebanon into a failed state and/or ungoverned space, which could be very dangerous for Israel, as this would give Iran and possibly Turkey a pretext to deploy forces there under the pretext of “restoring order.” Traditional powers with influence in Lebanon include France and the US, but both of these Western powers are heavily engaged in other parts of the Middle East and the wider world, leaving little geopolitical bandwidth for yet another crisis.

In Syria, the escalating conflict between Turkish troops and forces loyal to the regime of President Bashar Assad in Idlib Province, in the northwest of the country on Turkey’s southern border, has upended an already highly unstable situation. This has had the effect of distracting the Kremlin, which has close relations with Turkey but which has been supporting the Assad regime including by lending air power to its offensive against the remnants of rebel forces holed up in Idlib. This distraction might be advantageous to Israel, coming as it does following an increase in Russia’s protests against Israeli air strikes against Iranian targets in Syria.

On the other hand, a shoot-out which occurred this week between Assad regime supporters and US forces deployed to fight the remnants of the Islamic State (IS) terror militia in eastern Syria could end up having the effect of drawing US attention back to this conflict which the Trump Administration has been trying to extract itself from over the past year. This could be a mixed blessing for Israel as it would complicate Israeli efforts to strike Iran in Syria, while also bringing its most powerful military ally back into the picture.

The Coronavirus threat

The coronavirus flu epidemic in China, which is threatening to turn into a global pandemic and which has already led to a slowdown in Chinese (and by extension, global) economic growth in the first quarter of 2020, is being closely watched in Israel. With literally tens of thousands of people entering and leaving the country daily through Ben Gurion International Airport, the government has announced that it is proceeding on the assumption that the virus will make its way to Israel sooner or later.

Preparations for that event have begun, with the government issuing orders for hospitals to begin stockpiling medical supplies and clearing public areas in large cities to possibly be used as emergency field hospitals. The public has also been advised to keep supplies of non-perishable food sufficient for several days in their homes, as well as to stock up on prescription medicines, soap and other supplies and to make personal cleanliness a priority.

The winter flu season had already been one of the worst in years in Israel before the coronavirus threat became widely known, with a shortage of vaccine shots causing widespread anger and fear among the general public. Reports about children being asked to go home from school by their teachers, who were frightened by seeing symptoms which they thought might be coronavirus, illustrate some of the problems which the government is trying to grapple with.

Elections being given little attention

With all of these other problems dominating the headlines and with political parties having already spent so much money and capital on the previous two elections, it’s no wonder that the upcoming elections have garnered far less media attention than would ordinarily be the case. Even the impending trial of incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust have failed to arouse much interest in a voting public which is simply exhausted by his legal and political saga over recent years.

The proverbial alien visitor to Israel on this overcast week in mid-February, 2020 could therefore be excused for barely, if at all, taking note of the fact that an election is soon to be held in the country which often reminds the world that it is “the only real democracy in the Middle East.” The other issues facing the electorate are simply running too hot, leaving interest in elections to run cold. 

What that could portend for the vote which will be held on 2 March is anyone’s guess, but of one thing there can be no doubt. As Israelis and their friends around the world prepare for Shabbat on Friday evening, there is certainly a great many things for them to pray about.


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