IDF intel chief warns Iran could draw Israel deeper into Syria conflict

Emboldened by nuclear deal, Iran ‘fired a Shiite arrow that is splitting the Sunni Middle East,’ says Herzl Halevi; also warns of uptick in violence in West Bank, Gaza

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

IDF Southern Command chief Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)
IDF Southern Command chief Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

Outgoing Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi on Sunday accused Iran of bringing instability to the Middle East in its quest for hegemony, a trend that he said would shape the region this year.

Halevi implied that this effort by Iran was making it more likely that Israel would have to change its policy of limited involvement in the Syrian civil war raging to its north.

“The entrenchment of Iran threatens to upset the equilibrium and the efforts of the world to stabilize Syria. Iran has fired a Shiite arrow that is splitting the Sunni Middle East,” he told a conference in Jerusalem.

As an example, Halevi pointed to the clashes that Israel had with Iran and Syria last month after an Iranian drone penetrated Israeli airspace.

The remains of an Iranian drone that was shot down by the Israeli Air Force after it penetrated Israeli airspace on February 10, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

“That unmanned aerial vehicle was not meant to defend the regime of [Syrian dictator Bashar Assad], but was sent into Israeli territory with intentions that were not positive,” he said.

Halevi said the Islamic Republic’s disruptive activities in the Middle East have only increased since the 2015 nuclear deal was signed, as has the country’s ballistic missile program.

The Military Intelligence chief said Iran’s interventions across the Middle East have left it open to potential regime change back at home, as evident by the mass protests there earlier this year.

An Iranian woman waving a white scarf — an apparent reference to so-called ‘White Wednesday’ protests against mandatory clothing rules for women, December 27, 2017, in Tehran, Iran. (Screen capture: YouTube)

“This is the best opportunity since the signing of the [nuclear] deal for a change in its behavior. This change can’t come from meeting rooms, but from a crisis — economic, political or something else. So long as the world maintains a unified front, the chance of this change increases,” he said.

Looking closer to home, the Military Intelligence chief also warned of growing restlessness and frustration among Palestinians, which could lead to violence in the coming months, as the United States’s planned move of its embassy to Jerusalem coincides with “Nakba Day,” which marks Israel’s founding as a “catastrophe” for the Palestinians, and the beginning of the month of Ramadan, a time period that regularly sees terror attacks and large protests against Israel.

“The potential flareup will be less powerful, though the attempts to calm things have been weak,” Halevi said.

“During this period, it is more important than ever in the fight against terror to distinguish between civilians and terrorist operatives, and to preserve the security apparatus [with the Palestinian Authority] for the day after Abu Mazen,” the general said, referring to the ailing, elderly PA President Mahmoud Abbas by his nom de guerre.

Regarding the Gaza Strip, the intelligence officer said the Hamas terrorist group, which rules the coastal enclave, was “running into the arms of Iran” and calling for more violent action along the security fence, which would “only make the situation worse.”

Illustrative: Palestinian protesters clash with Israeli soldiers near the border fence east of Gaza City on December 22, 2017. (AFP/Mohammed Abed)

Hamas called for residents of the Strip to approach the border en masse this Friday as part of protests for “Land Day,” which marks the widespread expropriation of Arab land in the Galilee by the Israeli government in 1976.

The Military Intelligence chief, who will finish his tenure this week, also tried to assure the state of Lebanon that Israel has no plans to attack the country itself, only the Iran-backed Hezbollah terrorist group that operates in its borders.

In this April 1996 photo, two fighters from the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah stand near Katyusha rockets in the southern village of Ein Qana, Lebanon. (AP Photo/Mohammed Zaatari)

“Hezbollah is continuing to arm itself with strategic weapons from Iran,” he said, using the military’s term for precision guided missiles and other advanced weaponry.

“The Lebanese leadership claims that it is protecting Lebanon from Israeli aggression, but Israel has no aggressive intentions toward Lebanon. The differences between us and Lebanon are tiny and easily overcome. The state of Lebanon needs to consider its economy, which is one of the largest in the region, and not the interests of Iran and Hezbollah,” Halevi said.

The general also discussed the recent squabbles between the Mossad and IDF intelligence following Israel’s confirmation last week that it bombed a secret Syrian nuclear reactor in the Deir Ezzor region in September 2007, something that had long been known but never formally recognized.

“It’s wrong to take a successful outcome and turn it into a failure,” he said.

The Syrian al-Kibar nuclear reactor before, left, and after, right, it was destroyed by Israel, on September 6, 2007. (Israel Defense Forces)

After the censor declassified the operation, former heads of the Mossad and Military Intelligence fought with one another over who was responsible for the years it took before Israel located Syria’s nuclear reactor and who deserved credit for discovering it.

Halevi praised the cooperation between the IDF, Mossad and Shin Bet security service, which he said has improved in recent years.

The Military Intelligence chief also supported the censor’s decision to declassify the 2007 operation, saying that since Israel is a democracy “our default should be to publicize, unless there is a strong security justification to act otherwise.

“In this case, we felt that as the years went by, this justification no longer existed,” he said.

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