Israel and Iran heading downhill fast: 9 things to know for January 21
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Israel and Iran heading downhill fast: 9 things to know for January 21

Both countries are skiing straight toward an all-out war gulch and neither seems willing to slow down

A picture taken from the Israeli side of the Golan Heights shows snow covered mountain inside Syria on January 20, 2019. (JALAA MAREY / AFP)
A picture taken from the Israeli side of the Golan Heights shows snow covered mountain inside Syria on January 20, 2019. (JALAA MAREY / AFP)

1. Snowballing violence: Things are heating up on the Israel-Syria border and nobody seems to have much patience left for any sort of strategic ambiguity.

  • In a pretty much unprecedented move, the Israeli military announced early Monday morning that it was bombing sites belonging to Iran’s expeditionary Quds Force in Syria.
  • This was less than a day after Israel allegedly carried out a daytime attack, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu all but yelling through a bullhorn ‘It was us!”
  • As some pointed out, though, while Israel almost never admits to individual strikes on targets in Syria (or elsewhere), it is not shy when it comes to retaliatory strikes, and indeed as dawn broke Monday it officially confirmed that the strikes on Iranian sites in and around Damascus were in response to the missile fire (which came in response to the daytime attack).
  • The targets, though, were not missile launchers or symbolic posts, but rather qualitative sites such as weapons storehouses and a Quds force training facility, meaning the attacks were about more than sending a message.
  • The Ynet news site calls it the “strongest and widest attack yet,” quoting the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
  • And while Israel is clear it holds Syria responsible, it also accuses Iran of having fired the missile itself.

2. Scarier than a triple black diamond: Israel is under no impression that it has gotten the last word, closing down the Mount Hermon ski resort out of apparent fear that the site may be caught in the crossfire.

  • Extraordinary video Sunday shows skiers slaloming down the slopes as an Iron Dome interceptor from a battery hidden somewhere in the area suddenly rockets skyward to down the Syrian/Iranian missile.
  • On Monday morning, Intelligence Minister Israel Katz reveals that the ski resort, which is just over the border from Syria, was the target of the missile attack.
  • The snow bunnies were apparently unperturbed: “Skiers and visitors continued to enjoy the nice snow, even though there was an Iron Dome interception above the Hermon range half an hour ago — it won’t keep us from continuing to enjoy the snow and the great weather,” ski resort manager Alon Friedman tells Walla News, seemingly hoping the missiles don’t scare away business.

3. War drums: The prognosis, though, is not great. With both sides engaged in tit for tat brinkmanship, war seems more a possibility than ever.

  • “Israel and Iran are on the cusp of all-out war,” Israel Hayom’s Yoav Limor says.
  • Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer notes on Twitter that the missile launch was evidence of Iran getting fed up with Israel always bombing it, and may be a sign of more to come.
  • Yedioth Ahronoth’s Alex Fishman writes that by firing a rocket with an almost half-ton warhead, “The Iranians, or their Syrian messengers, are signaling to Israel: Their restraint is maxed out. Every attack will bring a response against Israel. An overt war of attrition.”
  • “The new rules of the game in Syria, following the stabilization of the Assad regime, have not yet crystallized. Israel must walk a thin line in an attempt to continue to attack Iran and Hezbollah without causing a direct confrontation with Russia. This is a problem that will continue to preoccupy the new chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi, over the coming months,” Amos Harel writes in Haaretz.

4. They’ll never suspect Israel: What also has not crystallized is whether Israel is still playing its games of ambiguity about strikes or not, after Netanyahu pretty much lifted the veil last week, along with outgoing IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot. Harel notes that it doesn’t seem that the Syrians, Iranians or the Israeli public are buying it anymore, though one must ask whether they ever did.

  • “If the screen of censorship is raised and lowered again and again in accordance with the prime minister’s judgment (or political whims), it seems that maintaining it has no justification,” he writes.
  • Former Military intel honcho Amos Yadlin think Israel should go back to pretending it’s innocent.
  • Yedioth’s Yossi Yehoshua also thinks Israel may be saved by keeping things vague: “When you break ambiguity, the chances of a response go up, and the room for deniability and easing up go down. The Syrian theater is not a wasteland anymore… The missile fire on the Hermon proves that the other side is changing the makeup of its actions and a new reality will make every attack that much more complicated.”

5. Chummy with Chad: Things are changing elsewhere too. Netanyahu paid a lightning visit to Chad Sunday to reestablish ties with the Muslim-majority country, his latest diplomatic win.

  • Netanyahu topped off his visit by flying his plane over South Sudan, whose airspace is controlled by Sudan, a first for a plane heading to Israel, which normally has to skirt south toward Kenya with Sudan unwilling to open its airspace to Israel. ToI’s Raphael Ahren was on board for the view.
  • The prime minister called reforging ties with Chad “a breakthrough into the heart of the Muslim world,” which is some potentially damaging verbiage.
  • Israel Hayom’s Boaz Bismuth, who includes not one but two pictures of himself being in Chad, sings Netanyahu’s praises for Israel finally ending its long nightmare of frozen ties with Chad: “In a changing world in which coalitions are shifting and interests are trumping feelings, Netanyahu has managed to drive a stake into a place where entrance was until recently impossible because of the ‘diplomatic tsunami’ on the way.”

6. Salesmen of death: Netanyahu claimed there was no opposition — other than in Iran and among the Palestinians — to Israel and Chad rekindling their flame, but not everybody feels that way.

  • In Mali, al-Qaeda jihadists killed 10 UN peacekeepers and blamed the attack on Netanyahu visiting Chad, as well as staking a claim to defending Jerusalem.
  • The claim was quite similar to a statement made by Somalia’s al-Shabab after an attack in Kenya last week, notes Rita Katz of SITE Intelligence.

7. Lede of the day goes to The New York Times’s Vivian Yee, who writes about a meeting of the Arab League in Beirut where nobody important showed up.

  • “The eyes of the world were nowhere near Beirut, where the kings and presidents of the Arab world had been ceremoniously summoned to a summit of the Arab League over the weekend and had, in all but two cases, ceremoniously declined,” she writes.
  • “Enfeebled by regional rivalries and disagreements, the league has acquired an all-too-mockable reputation for dysfunction. Its aged leaders have been known to fall asleep during meetings. In one recent year, one leader mused that the only thing the members had in common was the Arabic language.”

8. Unsettling insult: One leader to attend was Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, though he devoted some of his time to internal matters, ordering a probe into a government minister who claimed that anti-government protesters were being led by a person who lived in the settlements, ToI’s Adam Rasgon reports.

  • The minister, former Abbas chief of staff Hussein al-Araj, did not say whether this supposed person was an Israeli mole, or a Palestinian who lived in the settlement of Kiryat Arba, but the meaning of his bizarre statement was clear.
  • “He essentially wanted to say the people of Hebron had fallen prey to an Israeli project. What he said was disparaging and belittling,” Mahzouz Shlalda says.

9. Desert landing: Monday is slated to see the opening of the Ramon airport in southern Israel, Israel’s second major international terminal, though it will only partially open at first.

  • The airport was already responsible for putting Israel on The New York Times 52 places to see this year list, and it’s being touted as a possible lifesaver for the southern resort city of Eilat.
  • Globes notes that one of the main perks may be the removal of the main airport serving Eilat now, which sits smack dab in the middle of the city on prime real estate: “The land on which the airport currently operates can house hotels with thousands of rooms, together with entertainment complexes and commercial space that will provide Eilat with a catalyst for the town and the tourist services that it currently offers.”
  • The outlet also notes that Egypt and Jordan are likely to benefit, with tourists landing in Israel and then hopping across the border to Petra or Sinai.
  • Nonetheless, Jordan is officially protesting the airport, because it is too close to the border and will violate its airspace, according to Jordan’s al-Mamlaka news outlet.
  • A Jordanian source tells the channel that the airport “does not comply with international standards.”
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