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Can Israel, Hamas keep it calm after US killing of Soleimani?

For Israel, the return of deterrence is tainted with the possibility of a nightmare scenario.
Palestinian Hamas militants take part in an anti-Israel military show in the southern Gaza Strip November 11, 2019. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa - RC2Z8D99U0S8

With all eyes on Iraq, it would be a mistake to lose sight of the consequences of how the US killing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani on Jan. 3 is playing out in Israel and Gaza.

While Israeli leaders viewed the killing of Soleimani as necessary to enhance deterrence with Iran, the prospect of a US pullout from Iraq presents Jerusalem with a nightmare scenario, as would a collapse of precarious truce between Israel and Hamas — an unwelcome development for both parties.

For Israel, killing of Soleimani brings return of deterrence …

Graveyards are full, as the saying goes, of irreplaceable men and women. For Israel’s national security establishment, however, Soleimani was indeed indispensable to Iran’s regional agenda.

“In closed-door meetings over the past year,” Ben Caspit reports, “senior Israeli defense officials often explained that the war Israel was waging was not against Iran, but against Soleimani.”

“Israel views the killing of [Soleimani] as restoring US deterrence in the Middle East in one fell swoop — deterrence that had eroded over the past two years to the point that it was almost nonexistent,” Caspit adds. “Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, the commander of the Israel Defense Forces, even took the liberty of voicing veiled criticism in a Dec. 25 speech, saying Israel was acting alone against Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. ‘Tonight, they suddenly made a comeback,’ a senior Israeli source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Al-Monitor. ‘The Americans are signaling that they are still around and no one should mess with them.’”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu advised his cabinet to refrain from public comments in the days after the killing to prevent further escalation and any unwelcome blowback on Israel, Caspit reports. “Netanyahu himself said, in a Cabinet meeting, ‘The killing of Soleimani is a US event, not an Israeli event,’ and he emphasized that Israel needs to do everything to distance itself from it.”

With the third round of elections scheduled for March 2, Bibi can take credit for what many in Israel may consider a positive turn in US policy toward Iran, but others may worry is a dangerous spiral. Akiva Eldar writes that the “chances of Netanyahu, the Israeli guide who led Trump out of the agreement, being forced to vacate his official residence — which for now has become a public shelter against prosecution on charges of corruption — are also close to 50%. That being said, it is unclear what exactly is guiding his main rival. Gantz’ congratulatory message (after the killing of Soleimani) praised the American president for a “courageous leadership decision.” But was this the brainchild of an election campaign or a true strategic position about the best way to cope with the Iranian nuclear threat?”

… and fears of nightmare scenario in US withdrawal from Iraq

The afterglow in Israel security quarters regarding the benefits of Soleimani's killing has been accompanied by fears of a nightmare scenario: a US withdrawal from Iraq. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s request on Jan. 10 for the United States to send a delegation to Baghdad to discuss withdrawal of US forces has provoked further anxiety on this score.

Netanyahu and his team have been uneasy about US President Donald Trump’s staying power in Syria and Iraq despite his strong record of support for Israel and "maximum pressure" on Iran, as well as his close personal ties to Netanyahu.

“Israel must prepare for the worst-case scenario,” writes Caspit, “because the odds are increasing that such a scenario may arise. According to this scenario, Trump would choose to abandon the Middle East and leave Israel alone on the battleground toward the 2020 elections. This would constitute the worst and most dramatic possible timing imaginable, when Iran would gradually abandon the nuclear agreement and inch its way toward the bomb."

“Israel will inflict heavy pressure on Trump in the coming weeks and try to convince him not to abandon the Middle East in general, and Iraq and Syria in particular, before the US presidential election,” Caspit continues. Netanyahu “will use all the tools at his disposal in this context. Ambassador Ron Dermer will work overtime, and we can assume that Israel’s open communication lines to the evangelical Christian leaders in the United States will also be put to good use.”

Hamas avoids Iran’s debt

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and Islamic Jihad Secretary General Ziad al-Nakhaleh led their respective delegations to Soleimani's funeral.

For Hamas, the concerns are whether Iran will ask it to be part of further retaliation for the Soleimani killing and keeping the fragile peace with Israel, Egypt and the other Palestinian factions.

In July, Saleh Al-Arouri, deputy head of Hamas' diplomatic wing, led a delegation to Tehran to mend fences with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that had frayed when Hamas broke with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in the early days of the Syrian uprising in 2011. Khamenei treated Al-Arouri and his delegation as sons and heroes, sending them home with a party favor of missiles. In return, Al-Arouri promised Khamenei that “Hamas will be Iran’s first line of defense in the shadow of the recent aggression of the West” and that “any enemy of Iran is an enemy of Palestine and of the opposition axis.”

“Hamas owes a debt to Iran,” writes Shlomi Eldar. “If a violent confrontation erupts between Iran and the United States and Hamas sits on the fence instead of fulfilling Arouri’s promise to function as Iran’s first line of defense, the movement can forget about Iranian military aid. On the other hand, if Hamas keeps its promise to Khamenei, it would create a front against Egypt and end any chances for an arrangement with Israel. And should Hamas stop reining in Islamic Jihad, the group may pull Hamas into a dangerous military adventure leading to war with Israel.”

How long can Hamas keep it calm?

Adnan Abu Amer writes, “Many Palestinians feel that the United States has crossed a red line with Soleimani’s assassination, given his prominent stature in the Iranian state. It could encourage Israel to carry out similar assassinations against Palestinian leaders and escalate an Israeli-Palestinian face-off. Some Palestinian leaders may have decided to increase their security measures since Israel assassinated Islamic Jihad commander Bahaa Abu al-Atta Nov. 12 in Gaza.”

 Ahmad Abu Amer adds that Hamas, Israel and Egypt are heavily invested in the prevailing calm. “Israel has allowed the export of products made in Gaza, bound for the Gulf, European and Israeli markets via the Kerem Shalom commercial crossing,” he writes. "Moreover, according to Dec. 29 reports by Palestinian and Israeli media outlets, Israel allowed some dual-use materials into Gaza. The moves followed a Dec. 26 announcement by Palestinian factions of a three-month suspension of weekly demonstrations on the border with Israel as part of the Great March of Return, launched in March 2018. After the suspension ends in March, protests will only be held once a month and on national occasions.”

The current calm is precarious and fragile, but is for now in the interests of all parties. Hamas has welcomed the reprieve given the challenges of governing the Strip’s 1.75 million people. Islamic Jihad, which never cut ties with Iran and prefers a harder line, could also be Iran’s vehicle for another round of escalation by pressing Hamas. The challenge for Netanyahu and Hamas is that much depends on the decisions of others such as Trump, Khamenei, Adbul Mahdi and Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah — all of which are outside of their control. 

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