2023, like all years, has been eventful for Israel. What makes the difference is the intensity and unprecedented nature of those events. The shadow of Iran is growing.
Even without Israel, the geo-political situation in the Middle East is strategic, complicated and potentially dangerous. Yet things become hot and spicy when the Jewish state is added to the mix.
Like every year, the calendar year 2023 has been eventful in Israel. The difference is that the challenges, external and internal, have been unprecedented.
For starters, the returning premiership of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, has been confronted by serious internal opposition from Day One. Mass protests have been staged for weeks and months. Part of the problem is that Israel had gone from a left-leaning government under Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid to a conservative government in coalition with Itamar Ben-Gvir of Otzma Yehudit and Bezalel Smotrich of the Religious Zionist Party. Both leaders and their parties are considered ‘far-right,’ which is anathema to the Left. Also, Netanyahu’s long tenure in office means the longer he serves, the more enemies he makes. Does Israel have ‘Bibi fatigue?’
The trip wire for these protests has been Netanyahu’s proposed ‘judicial reform’ legislation. This topic has been visited in earlier articles but in summary, Israel’s fifteen-member, left-of-centre, supreme court holds an absolute veto over any and all legislation that comes out of the Israeli parliament, The Knesset. Since Israel does not have a written constitution, only – basic laws – the justices are making their decisions on the basis of a nebulous concept called ‘reasonableness.’ If, in the court’s opinion, the legislation is not ‘reasonable,’ it will be struck down, even if it enjoys widespread parliamentary support. This means that court decisions can be politically expedient, arbitrary, and sometimes contradictory. This kind of unfettered power is out of kilter with normal ‘checks and balances’ in good democratic governance.
While the media likes to paint the protests as grassroots, as if to make them more legitimate, the fingerprints of powerful labour unions, coupled with foreign meddling, are everywhere. Some of the protestors sincerely think the status quo with the court should remain. Others are using this topic to protest a bigger threat: the rise of the religious right. The fear is those ( secular ) freedoms are endangered by Netanyahu’s coalition partners Ben Gvir and Smotrich. With this fear in mind, many of the protestors simply want to bring down the coalition government, thus nullifying a democratic election. Change of government outside of an election is true ‘regime change.’
Where the protests became ominous is when major sectors of society refused to function if the reforms went through; also, reservists were refusing to report for military duty – a serious national security consideration. All of this is like an Israeli version of the culture war which is raging in the United States at present. While talk of civil war is premature, the situation needs to be watched.
The Shadow of Iran
The temperature with the Palestinians and neighbouring Lebanon and Syria has also gone up a few notches. These groups are heavily influenced by Iran. The Islamic Republic has a long shadow and it goes from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea.
Both the Jewish Passover and Muslim Ramadhan occurred at the same time this year and these passionate holidays saw sparks fly. On Passover 2023, Hamas and Hezbollah launched simultaneous rocket attacks from Gaza, Lebanon, and Syria. Is this an ominous precursor for a multi-front rocket war against Israel, not unlike the Second Lebanon War of 2006 with Hezbollah?
Radical Muslims continue to accuse Israel of ‘undermining the al Aqsa Mosque.’ Despite the lack of evidence, it is a war cry that continues to spawn a strong reaction. There’s been an uptick in Palestinian attacks against Israelis with thirty-three killed in 2022 and over twenty so far in 2023.
Let us not forget the power behind it all. Iran has sought hegemony in the Middle East since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979. There is an eschatological overtone to this ambition. The long-oppressed Shia Muslims, of which Iran is the leader, are destined to prevail against their Sunni rivals at the ‘end of days.’ Iran’s rulers believe that victory is now.
Prudently, Iran normally rejects direct confrontation and uses proxies like Hezbollah and Hamas to do its work of it. Iran’s controversial nuclear program and repeated declarations that Israel will disappear off the world map have led to a shadow war with the Jewish state during the past decade.
The scorecard for Israel is impressive. It introduced the Stuxnet computer virus that attacked Iran in 2010, one of several successful attempts to sabotage its nuclear facilities. High-profile assassinations in Iran have targeted military personnel and nuclear scientists. The Israeli spy agency Mossad launched a successful operation at a Tehran warehouse which netted a treasure trove of Iran’s nuclear archive. Add to Israel’s repeated air attacks on Iranian forces and installations in Syria and it gives the appearance that Israel has the upper hand in the shadow war. Iranian counter-attempts to assassinate Israelis overseas have thus far failed.
The Islamic Republic has two options:
First, utilise its proxies. Taking the long view, Iran has sought to surround Israel with Iran-friendly groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, the Houthis in Yemen, and possibly Palestinian groups in the West Bank. Once they are courted, Iran makes sure they are well-armed with rockets, drones, and conventional weapons. Together they can confront the Jewish state, especially in tandem with a coordinated effort among themselves.
The second option is riskier and has never been tried before: confront the Jewish State militarily in an actual Iran-Israel war. They have the troops, weapons, and long-range missiles (and soon nuclear weapons), so what’s stopping them? Long unrecognised Iranian pragmatism urges restraint since it is better to wait for maximum effect with little effort versus an ‘all guns blazing’ approach which could entail great damage, international repercussions, and worse.
At the same time, Netanyahu has threatened to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities for many years. He has been under intense pressure not to do it. Could a real hot war throw all restraint to the wind?
It’s time to pray for the people from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean in the spirit of Psalm 122:6. When you pray for the peace of Jerusalem – and its neighbours – you will prosper.