Analysis

Israeli politics are in chaos. Are its enemies poised to take advantage?

For Hamas and Iran, Israel’s domestic strife is a sign of the Jewish state’s imminent collapse. As they seek new avenues for confrontation, the likelihood of war is rising

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

IDF artillery fires shells at targets in Lebanon on April 25, 2022, after a rocket was fired into Israel (IDF Spokesperson)
IDF artillery fires shells at targets in Lebanon on April 25, 2022, after a rocket was fired into Israel (IDF Spokesperson)

The tide is finally turning against Israel, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah boasted on Friday. “The resistance… is confident while the Israeli enemy is scared and terrified.”

Hamas political chief Ismail Haniyeh agreed, commenting the same day, “We say that we are in an advanced position and that Israel will depart from all of Palestine.”

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi also echoed the sentiment, this time in a first-ever speech via video stream to Hamas and Islamic Jihad supporters gathered at a soccer stadium in Gaza. It was a moment meant to highlight the new amity between Gaza’s Hamas rulers and the regime in Tehran.

“The normalization of relations with regional states [such as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain] has not brought and will not bring security for the Zionist regime,” he boasted.

Everywhere one looked on Friday offered more of the same — the same assurances of Israel’s looming fall and the same celebration of the burgeoning Iran-Hamas alliance.

What put Iran and Hamas in such a good mood?

Illustrative image: Hamas supporters wave green Islamic flags during a protest to show the solidarity with Al-Aqsa Mosque, in Jebaliya City, northern Gaza Strip, April 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

A window opens

In part, it was “Quds Day,” the last Friday of Ramadan designated by the Iranian regime as a day focused on its commitment to destroying Israel.

But last Friday was no ordinary Quds Day. A week earlier, Iranian proxies in Lebanon and Syria had helped Hamas fire a rocket volley on Israeli towns from places that hadn’t launched such an attack at least since the 2006 Second Lebanon War.

And that rocket salvo was just the tip of the iceberg. As Iranian leaders see it, things are finally starting to look up for the Islamic Republic.

Iran’s great nemesis America is widely seen as abandoning the region. A visit by Chinese leader Xi Jinping to Saudi Arabia in December and by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to Beijing in February culminated on March 10 with a dramatic restoration of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran, a political shift and a dramatic step into the region by Beijing.

Iranian proxies in Syria are increasingly brazen in their attacks on US forces and allies.

Palestinians watch a pre-recorded speech by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi on “Jerusalem Day,” which is called al-Quds Day after the city’s Arabic name, at a soccer field in Gaza City, Friday, April 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

More and more states grow wary of America’s seeming inconstancy and look to improve ties with its global adversaries like China and Russia. Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, Iran’s closest Arab ally, is being brought in from the cold by fellow Arab leaders.

And at home in Iran, mass protests over economic troubles and conservative Islamic rules like hijab requirements for women are on the wane, even as the regime’s crackdowns on unveiled women continue.

Taken together, all these changes have created a new Iranian appetite for confrontation, according to Dr. Eran Lerman, a former deputy national security advisor now at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. “The fear is gone.”

The new global rivalry between the US and China and America’s refocusing for that contest is rearranging the Middle East, and Tehran is thus far the main beneficiary.

Sights on Israel

In that new reality, Israel looms large for Iranian leaders. Its destruction is no mere policy; it is seen as defining and validating the regime’s underlying ideology.

Iranians prepare to set an Israeli flag on fire next to a picture of late Iranian general Qasem Soleimani during a rally marking al-Quds (Jerusalem) day in Tehran, on April 29, 2022. (AFP)

The Islamic Republic, by its own telling, is an expansionist revolutionary movement. Its aspirations for regional hegemony go deeper than strategic interest; there is a religious and missionary element at play. For such a regime, the liberation of once-Islamic lands now held by non-Muslims is a first-order purpose. Iran has proxies in and plans for many parts of the Middle East, from Lebanon and Syria southward to Iraq and Yemen. But it is in Israel that the regime seeks its validation.

Oppressive at home and warmongering across much of the so-called “Shiite crescent” — Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen — Tehran’s path to regional hegemony is beset by frightened foes and ad hoc alliances to rein it in. Only in its war with Israel can it present its expansionist efforts as an Islamic crusade. It is the only military adventure undertaken by the regime that strengthens its legitimacy in large parts of the Arab world rather than undermines it.

The war for Palestine, in other words, is also a war to validate and secure the Islamic Republic.

As a new window of opportunity opens, as Iran feels itself no longer hemmed in by American power or Arab alliance-building, it has gone on the offensive. It is now actively recruiting proxies and allies to attack Israel on multiple fronts.

Hamas could not have fired those rockets without Iranian approval. Indeed, according to Western officials, Iran was the source of the rockets Hamas fired from Lebanon two weeks ago, and the decision to launch them was made in a meeting held in Beirut two weeks ago between Gen. Esmail Ghaani, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, Hamas leaders Haniyeh and Saleh al-Arouri, and Hezbollah’s Nasrallah.

With Israel destabilized by domestic strife and great America all but checked out of the region, a new entente is making itself felt: between an Iran liberated from fear, seemingly backed by its own superpower and eager to upgrade Palestinian capabilities against Israel, and the Hamas rulers of Gaza.

Or as the Iranian foreign ministry put it in an official tweet on Friday, “The waning existence of Israel is no longer able to deceive the world. No conspiracy will save the Zionist regime.”

Hamas’s strategy

“Hamas,” notes Lerman, “works with Iran, not for Iran.” Palestinian factions don’t take marching orders from Tehran, with the exception of the relatively small Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iranian-Israeli conflict are distinct theaters.

But Iran’s newfound thirst for confrontation encountered a Hamas eager for the help, and the result is an unprecedented synergy.

Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s leader in Gaza, has a strategy. Hamas has for years sought new levers of influence over Israel to offset its resolve and capabilities. In recent years, Sinwar believes he has found that lever.

The idea is simple: Whenever Israel initiates or is drawn into a fight on any front, new fronts must be opened up against it. An airstrike in Gaza or violation of Palestinian red lines in Jerusalem must ignite violence in the West Bank or in Arab Israeli communities. By forcing a higher cost on Israel for any conflict, Hamas gains leverage that can ensure it ends each military clash with tangible gains.

The linkage between fronts also allows Hamas to fight Israel with a minimum of direct harm to beleaguered Gazans, who are bitterly angry at Hamas whenever they perceive it as the cause of new rounds of fighting.

Palestinians watch a pre-recorded speech by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi on “Jerusalem Day,” which is called al-Quds Day after the city’s Arabic name, at a soccer field in Gaza City, Friday, April 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Sinwar’s new strategy was most successfully implemented in the May 2021 fighting between Israel and Hamas, in which the Gazan group proved it could rally Palestinian groups in Jerusalem, the West Bank and even mixed Arab-Jewish cities inside Israel into a single united front.

Over the past two weeks, Hamas, enabled by Iran, has dramatically expanded that “united front” strategy, which now includes Iran-controlled parts of Lebanon and Syria.

Algeria

It must be said: The past two weeks of fighting were far less impressive than Iranian and Hamas rhetoric suggest. They arguably revealed more fear than fervor on Iran’s part.

For two long weeks, Hamas and Iran have been boasting about a minuscule attack that the vast majority of Israelis scarcely noticed and no longer remember.

In his Quds Day speech, Nasrallah mocked Israel as “afraid of war.” A short time later, he hurriedly offered this caveat to his warlike speech: “It is clear that Lebanon does not want to go to war. Neither does Gaza nor the West Bank. But the actions of the enemy and his stupidity and crimes may lead the region to war.”

Hezbollah fighters listen to the speech of their leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah during a rally to mark Jerusalem Day, in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, April 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

That wasn’t addressed to Israelis or Hezbollah supporters. It was addressed to ordinary Lebanese who might not take kindly to being forced to serve as a new front in any future exchange of fire between Israel and Hamas.

In a similar vein, Nasrallah mocked the Israeli retaliatory strikes on Lebanese soil that followed the April 6 rocket barrage. Israel had struck “banana groves,” he quipped. But Hezbollah, breaking with long-standing practice and countless solemn vows, did not retaliate. Nasrallah claimed the “delay” in retaliation was meant to keep the enemy guessing. The enemy, for his part, understood that Nasrallah was as desperate to end the escalation as he was to take credit for it.

The very fact that Iran’s new belligerency is being implemented through Palestinian factions is perhaps the most powerful sign of Iran’s lingering fear of direct confrontation with Israeli forces.

Or as President Raisi tried to frame it in a more positive light to Gazans on Friday, “The initiative to self-determination is today in the hands of the Palestinian fighters.”

The fear of Israel remains palpable.

That, too, is part of the new Iran-Hamas synergy. Iran gave Hamas a vast new expansion of its “united front”; Hamas offered in return political cover for continued conflict and the shifting of the brunt of any Israeli response onto the Palestinians.

An Iron Dome air defense system is seen near the border with Lebanon, in northern Israel, April 7, 2023. (Ayal Margolin/Flash90)

In other words, the new alliance is inherently an admission of Israeli power.

Iran has settled on letting Palestinians do the fighting to avoid being targeted by Israeli wrath or resurfacing the Sunni fears that underlay Israeli-Sunni normalization. In piggybacking on Palestinian groups, it reveals its limitations.

In the end, Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas are pinning their hopes for Israeli collapse not on their own efforts but on Israel’s internal divides and domestic strife.

Israel, Nasrallah has repeated as a mantra for decades, is a “spider’s web,” intimidating at first glance but melting away at the slightest push.

Such rhetoric is more than bravado. It has roots in how Israel’s enemies in the region understand the Jewish state. The Iranian revolutionaries and their Hamas allies are heirs to 20th-century anti-colonial doctrines that see Israel as a European colonialist project. They don’t mean the term as an epithet but as a strategic analysis. Colonialist projects are nearly always removable, and most have been felled in the same way: by exacting a higher cost of the colonialist’s presence than their continued presence is worth to the colonialists. Or in a word: terrorism.

Haniyeh’s promise on Friday that “Israel will depart from all of Palestine” is not machismo; it is the belief that Israel is similar in nature, and thus in ultimate fate, to French Algeria, that 132-year French settlement project in Algeria wiped away by an eight-year war of terrorism in the 1950s and early 60s.

Yahya Sinwar, head of Hamas in Gaza, delivers a speech during a rally marking “Jerusalem Day,” or Al-Quds Day, at a soccer field in Gaza City, Friday, April 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

One of the lessons of Algeria, and of many other anti-colonial struggles, is that colonialist polities always seem powerful right up to the end. Even as their military power holds firm or even grows, their resolve is hollowed out from within by the combined psychological pressures of terror and the awareness of moral wrong. The French army won every battle in the Algerian Independence War, right up until the war was lost. The moment of collapse is always a surprise.

Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas have spent the past four months applying that paradigm to Israel’s chaotic political moment. It’s not hard to see why they might conclude that the prediction of Israel’s internal crumbling was coming true before their very eyes.

Instability breeds war

They are, alas, likely to be disappointed. Israelis remain a tight-knit people with high levels of solidarity and military volunteerism, with an economy more stable and fundamentally healthy than most OECD member nations, and, more to the point, with nowhere else to go. One common joke among Israelis in recent months, heard from anti-government protesters and Netanyahu supporters alike, is the sarcastic suggestion that a more thoughtful enemy might help revive Israeli unity and camaraderie by actually starting the war they keep threatening.

The danger for Israel now lies not in any actual ebbing of its strength or military prowess, but in the perception of it on the part of enemies and friends.

Protesters against the judicial overhaul in Tel Aviv, April 15, 2023. (Gitai Palti/Courtesy)

Iran’s belief that Israel is weakening is itself a potential catalyst for regional war, even if the belief is then proven incorrect on the battlefield.

Israel has spent a decade building a new anti-Iranian alliance with the conservative Sunni nations of the region. These are the regimes that survived the Arab Spring by relying on monarchic and religious justifications for their legitimacy — Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, etc. — rather than faux republicanism or Western ideas of statehood as in Syria, Libya and Egypt. The conservative Sunni states emerged unscathed from that chaos into a weakened Arab world threatened by a more assertive, nuclearizing Iran.

To respond to that threat, they went in search of allies. America is the most powerful and longstanding option, but America has become unreliable. Its regional policies have swerved dramatically with each change in administration in Washington as its foreign policy became subsumed by domestic politics. That unpredictability is as great a factor in America’s declining influence in the region as the growing presence of Russia and China.

But these causes for America’s declining influence only highlight what makes Israel so attractive as an ally. Unlike America, Israel cannot leave the region. It cannot make friends with Iran or other radical Islamist actors. It is a powerful regional player with nowhere to go and no other options for allies. In geopolitical terms, a perfect friend.

That was the theory at least.

Israeli reserve soldiers and activists protest against the Israeli government’s planned judicial overhaul, in Bnei Brak, March 16, 2023. (Flash90)

Israel is only useful to its new allies if it remains a stable, stolid, resolute presence in the region. The past four months have called Israel’s stability into question. It’s no accident that the day before the rocket barrage from Lebanon and Syria, Iran announced the appointment of its first ambassador to the UAE in eight years.

An Israel riven by domestic conflict, indecision and poor leadership will quickly find itself friendless — and surrounded by enemies eager to test its resolve.

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