A continuing nuclear programme, support for militant groups in the region such as Hezbollah and direct military assistance for Russia in the Ukraine war — as Iran continues to flex its muscles, both in West Asia and beyond, Israel sees a “survival challenge”, say diplomatic and military officials.
“Besides the nuclear programme, their negative influence on the Middle East is prevalent,” Alon Lavi, a deputy spokesperson at Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told a group of visiting Indian journalists. “The Islamic Jihad of Gaza, Hezbollah of Lebanon, the Shia militias in Syria and the Houthis in Yemen — they all are funded by Iran. They are promoting instability across the Middle East,” Mr. Lavi said.
Of these groups, Israeli officials say, Hezbollah, which possesses more than 1,00,000 rockets, poses the strongest threat. “Hezbollah is a tough enemy. I give them a lot of respect. They have very good military equipment. They are very well-trained,” said a Brigadier General in the Israeli Defence Forces, requesting anonymity. “The next war with Hezbollah would be disastrous for both sides,” Mr. Lavi said.
Iran helped create Hezbollah in the early 1980s, after Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Over the years, Hezbollah emerged as the main resistance force against the Israeli military occupation of southern Lebanon. Israel withdrew its forces from Lebanon in 2000, but fought a month-long war with Hezbollah in 2006. Ever since, the Israeli-Lebanon border has remained largely peaceful.
If Hezbollah has already established a strong military presence along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, the Syrian civil war has brought pro-Iran forces closer to its Syria border.
Hezbollah and other Iran-trained Shia militias fought alongside the regime forces of President Bashar al-Assad under the air cover of Russia in the civil war. In recent years, Israel has carried out multiple airstrikes inside Syria, targeting Iran-backed groups and Iranian supplies. Israel’s goal is to roll back Iran’s influence from its border region with Syria. But it also meant that Israel has to maintain a sound relationship with Russia, which practically controls Syria’s airspace.
‘Border with Russia’
“Israel has a joint border with Russia,” Mr. Lavi said, explaining why Israel has taken a cautious position on the Ukraine war. Israel has refused to join the West-led sanctions on Russia and nor has it sent any weapons to Ukraine.
“Russia can make it painful for us in Syria. Until now, Russia turned a blind eye to Israel’s actions in Syria. If they don’t turn a blind eye, our freedom of activity in Syria would be more complicated. So we need the Russians. Our sympathy is with Ukraine. But policy is not only about sympathy,” said a senior Israeli diplomat, who did not wish to be named. “When Putin was really down, Iran came forward to help him. They are going to be rewarded by the Russians. That’s a concern for us.” The diplomat, however, said not everything is bleak for Israel in the region. “You look at the strategic map — there are chances and challenges. The Abraham Accords (where Israel signed normalisation agreements with four Arab countries) is a great opportunity. The maritime border agreement with Lebanon and the restoration of ties with Turkey are also positives.”
There are three superpowers in the region — Iran, Turkey and Israel, said the diplomat. “None of them are Arabs. Of these, Iran is a great challenge, while we managed to shift Turkey from a challenge to a chance.”
“We can manage the Palestinian challenge, but if Iran manages to reach the nuclear threshold status, it becomes a survival challenge for us,” he added. “Israel is determined to oppose Iran’s agendas for the region. And it’s not just Israel. Sunni Arab states are with us in dealing with Iran. If the nuclear talks fail and no other agreement replaces the JCPOA (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the 2015 nuclear deal), we should look for non-diplomatic options.”
The writer was in Jerusalem on an invitation from Israel’s Foreign Ministry