Israel, Iran, and the U.S. – What you Need to Know

What Happened?

U.S. President Donald Trump issued an order to assassinate Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, who had been involved in terror against Americans and others for many years, “making him one of Israel and the US’s most sought-after targets.” Recent reports confirmed that Israeli intel helped confirm the details of Soleimani’s whereabouts. In response, Iran threatened American bases in the Middle East as well as Tel Aviv, and attacked U.S. military bases in Iraq, with no casualties being reported. Trump then addressed the nation and announced that further economic sanctions would be placed on Iran. 

On the heels of these events, Iran admitted to accidentally shooting down a Ukranian passenger jet (after days of denying this), killing 176 people. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani issued an apology: “The Islamic Republic of Iran deeply regrets this disastrous mistake. My thoughts and prayers go to all the mourning families.” But, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif still pointed a finger at the U.S.: “Human error at a time of crisis caused by US adventurism led to disaster.”

Why Does This Matter?

  1. Israeli security – While Soleimani’s killing was carried out by the U.S., it’s no secret that what happens between the U.S. and Iran impacts Israel, too. Israel has been included in Iran’s response threats, vowing to turn Tel Aviv and Haifa “to dust” were the U.S. to further attack Iranian targets, and the world has been watching to see if Israel will get involved. Israeli security officials say to rest assured that an Iranian attack on Israel is unlikely, but why is Israel so caught up in this episode that’s seemingly between the U.S. and Iran? See below for more about this.

    Iran, while geographically closer to Israel than the U.S., isn’t exactly in Israel’s backyard. But it does have a foothold in Israel’s neighboring territories: Lebanon, through Hezbollah, and Gaza, through Hamas. Hezbollah is a terrorist organization that has operated in Lebanon as an Iranian proxy since 1982; it opposes the West and seeks Israel’s ultimate demise. Soleimani reportedly played a commanding role in the 2006 Second Lebanon War between Israel and Hezbollah. The group’s leader, Hassan Nassrallah, has vowed revenge on America for Soleimani’s death (Israel was surprisingly left out for now, but it’s hard to imagine it will be left out of the fray for long). Hamas, on the other hand, is “caught between Gaza calm and Iranian support,” according to a Haaretz analysis. Hamas (and Jihadist Islam) receives tremendous funding from Iran, and needs to incur its favor, but is dependent on Egypt as well, with whom it is currently in talks which aim at reaching a long-term quiet in the strip. Hamas, therefore finds itself in a tight spot.
  2. Targeted killing (or, according to some, liquidation) – This attack raised the question of what international law allows in this arena. The U.S. government maintains that there is a “valid and ongoing non-international armed conflict (NIAC) between the United States, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and associate forces, which consequently permits the USG to engage in at-will targeting of enemy belligerents.” It also holds that targeted killing is acceptable for self-defense. Arguments have been made against both of these claims, making the method of targeted assassinations a contested issue.

    In Israel’s case, intelligence forces have often relied on the method of targeted killings, essentially using military intelligence to keep tabs on terrorists and periodically eliminate them. Ronen Bergman, in his colossal Rise and Kill Firstweighs the pros and cons of this method, which are not straightforward (pro: hitting the exact person necessary for self-defense, con: emboldening more radical replacements). He explains about Israel: “Because of Israel’s tiny dimensions, the attempts by the Arab states to destroy it even before it was established, their continued threats to do so, and the perpetual menace of Arab terrorism, the country evolved a highly effective military and arguably the best intelligence community in the world. They, in turn, have developed the most robust, streamlined assassination machine in history.” Meir Dagan, former head of the Mossad, explains a different aspect: “Assassinations have an effect on morale, as well as a practical effect.” He cites important figures like Napoleon, Roosevelt and Churchill, and then concludes: “there’s a difference between a replacement with guts and some lifeless character.”
  3. The Israel-U.S.-Iran Relationship  Israel and the U.S. are close allies, and share Iran as a common enemy. The U.S. and Iran have been engaged in a sort of “shadow war” since the 1980’s with the Iranian bombing of the U.S. embassy, or perhaps even the 1950’s, when the U.S. helped stage a coup to overthrow the prime minister and put the Shah in power, which eventually led to the 1979 Iranian revolution. After this revolution, Iran severed all diplomatic ties with Israel (which had been shaky yet existent until that point), and the relationship turned more hostile with the First Gulf War in 1990. Today, Iran recognizes the close ties between Israel and the U.S. At rallies, extremists chant “death to America” and “death to Israel” and burn both countries’ flags. Israel and the U.S. work closely with one another and share intel to prevent Iranian terrorism and nuclear power. So, when the U.S. attacks Iran in an instance such as this, Iran includes Israel, the “little Satan”, (the U.S. is the “great Satan”) in its revenge threats, as Israel is a closer by, smaller, target than the U.S.

Diversity of Perspectives Within Israel

After the assassination, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement in support of the U.S.’s actions: “President Trump deserves all the credit for acting swiftly, forcefully and decisively.” Some have argued that Netanyahu is distancing himself from the event, and avoiding getting Israel involved in this story. Nonetheless, he issued a strong statement to Iran: “We’re standing steadfast against those who seek our lives. We’re standing with determination and with force. Whoever tries to attack us will receive a crushing blow in return.” 

Head of Israel’s center-left Kahol Lavan party, Benny Gantz, issued a similarly approving statement: “I applaud President Donald Trump for his decision to assassinate Qassem Soleimani and for his bold leadership at large. This is the appropriate response to anyone responsible for the murder of countless innocent people and for undermining global stability.”

On the ground, Israelis are feeling resilient. The Times of Israel reported that Tel Aviv residents are “not afraid” of Iran’s threats toward Israel. The Israel Democracy Institute released a poll that found that the majority of Israelis believe that Israel is prepared for war. And, although Trump’s international approval ratings are generally quite low, 71% of Israelis support him.

While most in Israel have hailed the U.S.’s move, Haaretz reporter Chemi Shalev calls it naive. He writes:, “in the collective memory of Israel, the link between cause and effect has been severed. Targeted assassinations… are deemed, almost by definition, not only as eminently justified but as uniquely effective, no matter what.” He recalls past targeted killings that brought more harm than good, such as in 1996 when Israel killed the Hamas engineer of the suicide vest, Yahya Ayyash, which resulted in four suicide bombings that killed 59 Israelis.