After day of fighting, the fog of almost-war creeps in
Hebrew media review

After day of fighting, the fog of almost-war creeps in

Papers on Sunday take in Saturday's northern battle, trying to figure out why Iran would suddenly push Israel so openly and whether Russia is really a friend

Israeli solders take positions in the Golan Heights near the border with Syria on February 10, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / JALAA MAREY)
Israeli solders take positions in the Golan Heights near the border with Syria on February 10, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / JALAA MAREY)

Israel took a giant leap toward war Saturday and papers Sunday focus not only on the intense airstrikes and downing of an F-16, but the fact that what Israel was fighting openly for the first time was its biggest bugbear of all: Iran.

Headlines in the papers call the day’s cross-border exchange a “Battle with Iran,” trying to get a handle on both the tangle of enemies and not-quite-enemies in southern Syria and whether Israel has crossed the Rubicon in terms of heading to war, with dailies going easy on the hard news and heavy on the analysis.

“Israel and Iran are now, for the first time, engaged in a full-frontal confrontation on Syrian territory. That’s the main significance of Saturday’s day of fighting in the north,” columnist Amos Harel writes in Haaretz. “Even if the current round ends quickly, in the longer term the strategic situation has changed. Israel will be forced to address a nettling combination of circumstances: Iran’s willingness to act against it, the Assad regime’s growing self-confidence and, most worrying of all, partial Russian backing for the aggressive policy adopted by the other two members of the axis.”

Iran may have been the target, but the role played by Russia is for many the most interesting one, as Moscow tries to thread a needle between propping up the Iran-allied Syrian regime of Bashar Assad and keeping Israel as close as possible.

A picture taken on February 10, 2018, shows the remains of a missile that landed in the southern Lebanese village of Kaoukaba, near the border with Syria, after Israel’s military attacked 12 Syrian and Iranian targets inside Syria (AFP PHOTO / Ali DIA)

“For now, Israel has no choice but to accept Moscow’s rules. It will continue to demonstrate that it can fly over Syrian airspace and attack targets, but will nonetheless have to exercise much more caution,” Anshel Pfeffer writes in Haaretz. “Russia, while it is not stopping the Israeli planes, despite its control over Syrian airspace, will not stop Assad’s military from trying to shoot them down either.”

In Israel Hayom, former national security adviser Yaakov Amidror comes to the same conclusion after seeing Russia’s statement on the fighting which placed the onus equally on both sides.

“By deploying their [drone] mission from an airfield also used by Russian forces, the Iranians endangered the lives of the Russians. It’s not clear that Russia is prepared to be Iran’s human shield,” he writes. “It seems they are still considering their next steps.”

But not everyone agrees it was so evenhanded. In the same paper columnist Amnon Lord calls the Russian statement “chutzpah” and in Yedioth, Yoav Primor says Russia was quite clear on who its real allies are.

“It’s like we didn’t expect this response from our ‘friends’ in Moscow. Instead of cautioning the Iranians or at least taking a neutral stance, the Kremlin did not exactly leave much room for doubt about whose side it’s on with its expression of ‘great concern’ for the strikes in Syria and its statement (or really warning) to all the sides — really Israel — to respect Syrian sovereignty,” he writes.

What’s less unclear is Iran’s role, though questions remain as to why it suddenly decided to change the rules of the game by sending a drone.

Smoke trails in the skies above Israel’s north, February 10, 2018 (Facebook video capture)

In Haaretz, Zvi Bar’el writes that the move makes little sense strategy-wise, given Tehran’s desire to keep a low profile on the Golan for now.

“One explanation is navigational error rather than a tactical decision – or worse, a strategic one to goad Israel into a response. Another, less likely, explanation is that Iran wanted to show off the capabilities of the drone, in the context of reports made public this week that Iran is working on extensive production of Mohajer 6-model drones as part of its espionage and defense array,” he writes.

Yedioth columnist Nahum Barnea puts little stock in the navigational error explanation and sees it as part of an Iranian game of chess, after years of the sides making do with battling each other more quietly.

“Israel and Iran have been fighting a merciless war for years, and the Iranians have not hesitated to kill innocent Israelis and Jews. But one rule was closely kept: avoiding an open, direct confrontation. Iran attacked with proxies, most of all Hezbollah. Israel preferred secret activities, under the radar. Yesterday, for the first time, this was broken on both sides. This is a milestone,” he writes.

Israel Hayom’s Yoav Limor notes that by sending a drone it was also sending a strong message.

“The operation testified to the Iranians’ self confidence. Despite the strikes it absorbed and despite diplomatic pressure deployed by Israel, they were not afraid to carry out an offensive operation, war-like, knowing that it would have a price,” he writes.

A picture taken at the northern Israeli Kibbutz Harduf on February 10, 2018, shows the remains of an Israel F-16 that crashed after coming under fire by Syrian air defenses. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

Yet despite not knowing exactly what the Iranians are thinking, as evidenced by the various theories and questions as to why they sent the drone, there is a general feeling that Israel and Iran may not be headed to all-out war just yet.

“The good news is that, it seems, Iran and Israel want to get past the incident and are both not interested in violence escalating,” Oded Granot writes in Israel Hayom. “The less good news is that the next battle is already in the offing.”

That good news is really good news, considering how hellish a war will apparently be when it inevitably comes, according to Yedioth’s Yossi Yehoshua, who notes that losing an F-16 did not do wonders for Israel’s policy of deterrence:

“Everything we saw in the last day isn’t even half a day’s worth of fighting in the next northern war,” he writes, “which will include dozens of fighter jets, an overcrowded air defense array and thousands of rockets a day.”

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