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Israeli fears grow of united Hezbollah-Hamas-Iran front

Netanyahu’s dream of a regional Israel-led alliance with Sunni Arab states against Iran has been shattered, as Israel’s fierce enemies unite.
TOPSHOT - Israeli soldiers take up a position with a tank near Shtula, bordering Lebanon, on April 7, 2023. - Israel launched air strikes before dawn on April 7 in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, saying it was targeting Palestinian militant group Hamas in retaliation for several dozen rockets fired at Israel from both territories. (Photo by Jalaa MAREY / AFP) (Photo by JALAA MAREY/AFP via Getty Images)

TEL AVIV — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened on Monday an urgent news conference in Tel Aviv, reinstating to his position Defense Minister Yoav Gallant whom he fired two weeks ago. Taking reporters’ questions for the first time since assuming office over three months ago, Netanyahu blamed the recent security escalation on the previous government.

The unusual press conference by Netanyahu was convened for good reason. The long-held dream of Israel’s enemies to forge a united front against the Middle Eastern country appears to be coming true with militants in the Gaza Strip, Lebanon and Syria firing rockets into Israeli territory in recent days and deadly attacks against Israeli civilians and soldiers.

In a rare occurrence, a suicide bomber infiltrated Israel from Lebanon last month carrying enough explosives to mount a mass casualty attack in central Israel, which would have likely sparked a greatly feared major war with Hezbollah and other Iranian-allied forces. Luckily, the explosives did not kill anyone, instead injuring an Arab-Israeli citizen. The attacker was located and shot dead.

Tensions have also been greatly fueled by two Israeli police raids on Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque during the holy month of Ramadan to disperse militants who had barricaded themselves inside. Disturbing video footage showing them beating worshippers with truncheons went viral and set off global Muslim fury.

To cap off this string of events, senior Hamas and Islamic Jihad officials met in Beirut in recent days with Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah to coordinate their moves against Israel, delivering a public slap in the face of Netanyahu.

The latest Israeli intelligence assessment is also troubling, presenting an increased likelihood of all-out war on the northern front, for the first time in a long while.

The Israel Defense Forces' Intelligence Directorate believes that Iran and Hezbollah are not interested in direct confrontation with Israel, but their self-confidence has been shored up, and their determination to attack Israel has increased. A scenario where a violent clash between the sides erupts, prompted by an attack on Israel or vice versa by an Israeli air force bombing outside its borders, has become more realistic.

Military intelligence has for years surmised that Israel’s deterrence capacity minimizes the chances of an all-out war, but the latest assessment points to the accelerated erosion of this deterrence. The erosion has been fueled by the general weakness of Netanyahu's government and intense anti-government protests, as well as Israel's growing rift with the United States.

Still, Netanyahu’s decision to risk facing a largely hostile media on Monday was apparently not driven by any of these security or geo-strategic factors. Support for Netanyahu and his Likud party has been plunging, with the latest survey of Channel 13 giving the Likud just 20 Knesset seats should elections be held today, down from the 32 it garnered in the Nov. 1 elections. In all, the Netanyahu-aligned coalition of radical nationalist and ultra-Orthodox parties dropped from its current 64-seat majority to just 46 seats in the 120-member Knesset.

Netanyahu’s opening statement to reporters was a reiteration of a tiring blame game, a litany of accusations against the previous government, the political opposition and the pro-democracy protests for emboldening the country’s enemies. In a seemingly off-handed comment, he said Gallant would remain in office.

Reinstating the experienced defense minister reflects Netanyahu’s current weakness. Despite the public storm generated by the decision to fire Gallant, Netanyahu dragged his feet for two weeks. The prime minister did not go back on his decision, but also never sent his minister a formal letter of dismissal, leaving him in limbo. Instead, Netanyahu kept demanding that Gallant apologize — an apology he never received.

Netanyahu has mainly himself to blame for this mess. Former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett — high on the list of Netanyahu’s blame targets — went on television (Channel 11) after the news conference to slam him for lack of leadership. "Netanyahu whines and does not take responsibility," said Bennett, arguing that leaders of the United States, the Emirates and Egypt "are not ready to meet Netanyahu. They see Israel today and say — what a poor country."

A senior diplomatic source told Al-Monitor that the key is to prepare well for the annual Ramadan observance by avoiding inflammatory moves and decisions that could easily anger devout Muslims.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the source pointed to a series of measures Bennett's government took before Ramadan in 2022. First, he convinced the Shin Bet security agency to greatly increase the number of permits for Gazans seeking work in Israel, and at the same time implemented a strict tit-for-tat policy in response to every rocket or incendiary balloon launched from the Gaza Strip.

Bennett then arranged a high-profile meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who presented him with a long list of requests from Israel. "Bennett came [to Sisi] with only one request — that the Egyptians seal off the Rafah crossing [between Gaza and Egypt] against smuggling,” recalled the source. "When you come with only one request, the other side understands its importance. Sisi did his part optimally."

Indeed, Bennett hit the jackpot. The Gaza border was calm throughout his tenure. His successor Yair Lapid oversaw a successful three-day operation against Islamic Jihad in Gaza in August 2022.

Preparing for Ramadan, Bennett also targeted Iran, implementing a strategy he described as “striking the head of the octopus” rather than the proxy tentacles sent to attack Israel. According to foreign media reports, Israel launched a series of attacks against Iranian military and scientific figures, on Iranian territory.

“We realized that Iran was afraid to mess with us. They understood that the rules of the game had changed and they longer enjoyed immunity. It worked,” the senior source said.

Israel was thus prepared in an optimal fashion for Ramadan during Bennett’s tenure, with deterrence vis-a-vis Iran automatically strengthening deterrence vis-a-vis Hezbollah. While Palestinian attacks in the West Bank and inside Israel continued, they did not set off violence on other fronts.

Bennett told Al-Monitor that senior Hamas official Saleh al-Arouri has long entertained the idea of a convergence of the various fronts against Israel. “This year is the first time Arouri succeeded. It all depends on how you arrive at Ramadan, how prepared you are, how resilient you are, how well you manage to isolate the arenas from each other."

Compounding Israel’s (and Netanyahu’s) woes is a significant downturn in its diplomatic international standing. Bennett and Lapid were favorites with President Joe Biden, also enhancing ties with United Arab Emirates leader Mohammed bin Zayed, Sisi and even Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, as well as with European leaders. Netanyahu, on the other hand, has come in for Biden’s undisguised disgust, while the Saudis, Emiratis and Bahrainis are rushing to reconcile with Iran.

Netanyahu’s dream of a regional Israel-led alliance with these Sunni states against Iran has been shattered. He finds himself alone with the radical nationalists he has mobilized for his Cabinet.

"This also greatly influences the daring of our enemies," a former top Israeli political source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. "Part of Israel's strength was the American umbrella, the key to the White House, the ability to maneuver in a problematic arena in an optimal way. When Netanyahu does not get an invitation to Abu Dhabi or Washington for so long, the reverberations spread to the entire Middle East."

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