Israel’s military response to Iran’s rocket salvo was too short on deterrence

The four rockets fired from Syria into Israel’s Galilee and Golan Thursday, Aug. 20 were Iran’s way of testing how far Israel’s government and military leaders were willing to go militarily in support of their political campaign against a “bad nuclear deal” in the US congress and Iran's bad intentions in general. Tehran needed to test the credibility of the warning issued by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu during his visit to the IDF Northern Command on Aug. 18.

Seen in that light, Israel’s artillery, missile and aerial strikes Thursday night and Friday against Syrian military targets in the Quneitra district and contradictory rhetoric were the right reaction. They were confused enough to leave the Iranians totally at sea, wondering if that was the sum total of Israel’s response to the first unprovoked rocket attack from the Syrian Golan in 42 years.

But the Iranians chose to voice their thoughts in another arena. Saturday, they unveiled their new Fateh 313 short-range, surface missile, which is highly accurate at a range of 500 km. They also displayed new satellite launch engines. Tehran clearly judged the Israeli response to the rocket attack to be deficient in strategic value and it stood ready for the next round.
This episode exposed the real muddle governing government Israel’s policies for Iran and Syria. Official spokesmen first accused Iran of staging the rocket attack, then the Palestinian Islamic Jihad – funded and armed by Iran’s Al Qods Brigades.  Israel next leveled its counter-strikes against Syrian military positions around Quneitra. Why? Because the rockets were fired from territory controlled by Bashar Assad’s army, the spokesmen explained.

But Assad’s army has lost control of large stretches of Syria, and Israel claims that the Iranians alone call the shots in Damascus these days. Striking Syrian army positions on the Golan was therefore a pointless exercise.

And if the real culprits were the Islamic Jihad – hence the Israeli air strike Friday which claimed to have killed the four-man rocket cell – then why not go for this terrorist group's primary bases in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon?

The Iron Dome batteries deployed last week to protect Ashdod and Beersheba from Gaza rockets must have sent a strong message to Tehran that Israel prefers to avoid offensive action and would rather stay on the defensive against its enemies.

This Israeli posture has produced four repercussions:

1.  Iran can continue to engineer rocket attacks from Syria against northern Israel and is in fact free to calibrate their intensity to suit its wider strategy. The first attack last Thursday deliberately targeted open ground and avoided causing casualties or major damage. But Iran’s finger remains poised over the tuning button.

2.  The Iranians and their Hizballah pawns are not losing a moment’s sleep over the damage Israel’s counter-attacks inflicted on Assad’s army.

3.  Tehran has grounds to presume from the experience of the past seven years that Israel is highly reluctant to employ military action in support of its campaign against a nuclear-armed Iran.  This conclusion is a crucial element in Iran’s decisions to continue to pursue diplomatic steps against the US, military steps against Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf emirates, and, above all, carry on with its nuclear aspirations undisturbed.

4.  Domestic politics are a major contributor to the Israeli government’s muddled policies. The rocket episode was still not resolved when a bombshell from past government controversies exploded Friday night.

TV Channel 2 aired tapes of Ehud Barak, former prime minister and defense minister, who was recorded as reporting that Israel had stepped back from attacking Iran’s nuclear program three times in the past.

Barak was heard accusing the incumbent Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, and another minister Yuval Steinitz of voting against an attack in an inner cabinet forum, while Netanyahu and Barak himself were all for going ahead.

The tapes were released by two writers of a new book.

Our political sources suggest that the leak came from a domestic political source bidding to discredit Ya’alon as too timid for the job. The culprit may even be Barak himself, who retired from politics last year and may be keen to get his old job back as defense minister in the Netanyahu government coalition.

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