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Multi-front war with Iran proxies irks Israel despite deterrence

Unlike the surprise multi-front attack against Israel in 1973, the threats Israel faces today are much more splintered, but no less deadly.
This picture taken on August 5, 2022 shows Israeli Iron Dome defence missile system battries, designed to intercept and destroy incoming short-range rockets and artillery shells, in the city of Ashdod in southern Israel. - Israel's army said its air strikes in Gaza today killed an estimated 15 enemy combatants, warning that the operation against the Islamic Jihad militant group was not over. (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP) (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images)

TEL AVIV — An Israeli citizen was shot and injured on Tuesday in the northern West Bank as the country was marking Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and terror victims.

The incident comes against a backdrop of increased tensions between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank in recent weeks, including a deadly attack in the Jordan Valley on April 7, when a mother and her two daughters were shot and killed.  On Sunday night, Israeli forces arrested 16 Palestinians suspected of carrying out militant activities against Israelis throughout the West Bank. 

Israel faces not only with tensions in the West Bank, but also with simultaneous and perhaps even coordinated threats on its other fronts. 

Fifty years ago, on May 21, 1973, then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan told commanders of the Israel Defense Forces that in his assessment, the likelihood of a multi-front war with Egypt and Syria was rising and that other countries would join the fighting, including Libya and Iraq. His assessment materialized less than five months later. On Oct. 6, as Israeli Jews were marking Yom Kippur, the holiest day on their calendar, Egypt and Syria launched a coordinated surprise attack. The IDF was prepared for war but had not mobilized reserve forces, believing that regular forces could block the enemy advance until reserves could be deployed. To this day, the error is perceived as the greatest security failure in the history of the State of Israel.

Last Thursday, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant sounded a similar assessment in a conversation with journalists. "The IDF must prepare for a multi-front war with a real security threat on all fronts at the same time," Gallant said. "We are at the end of the era of limited conflicts. … Today there is a prominent phenomenon of arena convergence."

The defense minister was referring to the IDF operating mostly in one arena at a time these days, whether against Iran-backed militias in Syria, militants in Gaza and in the West Bank.

Gallant's remarks caused little stir, perhaps because Israelis are more concerned over the unprecedented domestic clash between pro-democracy forces and the country’s ultra-nationalist, ultra-Orthodox government and its repercussions for the economy, judiciary and social fabric. The constant trickle of attacks is also perceived as a more imminent threat than external enemies. On Monday evening a Palestinian resident of Jerusalem rammed a car into pedestrians, injuring eight people in the center of the city. The attack took place as Israelis were readying to mark Memorial Day for their fallen. 

Gallant did not elaborate on the reason for his concern over a "convergence of arenas," but there is no great mystery. He appeared to be referring to the ongoing erosion of Israeli deterrence and influence on all fronts, greatly accelerated by recent events. Since the current government assumed office four months ago, Israel's newfound allies in the region have begun distancing themselves, either sitting on the fence or jumping ship to the Iranian side.

"There is still no clear danger of a multi-front war," a senior Israeli military source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. "All the players in the neighborhood still understand that the IDF's strength is immeasurably greater than their aggregate strength." 

What, then, is Gallant warning about? "They are less afraid of getting involved in such a war. They see the dramatic distance between Israel and the United States; they see the international attitude toward Israel; they understand that [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu has become almost a pariah among Israel's true allies in the West; and they see the internal unrest in Israel and signs of mutiny among the military ranks. All these together reduce their fear of entanglement," said the source.

There is little danger that Iran, Hezbollah, Syria and perhaps Hamas and Islamic Jihad will attempt a reprise of the Syrian and Egyptian attacks 50 years ago. Israel is not threatened today by the tanks that swept across the Golan Heights in 1973 and almost reached the Sea of Galilee, nor by Egyptian forces crossing the Suez Canal to establish a bridgehead into Israeli-controlled territory. The threat lies in an enormous arsenal, one of the largest in the world, of hundreds of thousands of missiles and rockets stockpiled by Hezbollah, Iran, Hamas and Islamic Jihad and the militias loyal to Iran in Syria and Iraq. All have one target: Israel. 

Deployment of these projectiles would set off an open war between Israel and Iran that could spill over into other areas. "If that happens, the IDF will use its full force in the first days," a senior Israeli military source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. Such was the case in the 1967 Six Day War, when Israel destroyed the air power of its enemies in the initial hours of fighting and thus determined its outcome. The source added that unlike in in the 2006 Second Lebanon War, when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert avoided damaging Lebanon’s infrastructure, "no one will wait."

"On the contrary, in the first days we will already see maximum destruction, with one goal: to bring an end to the war as quickly as possible," concluded the source.

An Israeli military source in the Golan Heights told Al-Monitor two weeks ago that Israel does not see “too much motivation" or specific preparations to take on Israel. He spoke on condition of anonymity after a surprise rocket barrage into Israel from Lebanon and Syria, to which the IDF responded with shelling and aerial bombardment. "This was a local initiative of pro-Palestinian organizations that maintain some independence," the source added. "They received a clear signal and a blow to the head. The officers of the regular Syrian army also paid a price, but we do not see a decline in deterrence vis-à-vis the Syrian regime."

None of these remarks are all that reassuring. A multi-front flare-up could break out as a result of miscalculation and rapid escalation at a time when restraining factors are weakened. The wave of lone attacks that Israel has been facing for two years along with external threats and internal unrest are the real threat, a senior Israeli security source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “We could find ourselves in exactly the same situation we were in 50 years ago," he added.

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