Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani was on Israel’s “most wanted” list for more than a decade. Israeli intelligence identified him as a looming threat early in his career, and with time he outperformed even the graver threat predictions, as he systematically built the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Quds Force into a formidable regional stealth operation. Soleimani was a highly sophisticated executioner of Iran’s long-term strategy, which can be described as an effort to build a “double crescent.” The first, in the iconic phrase coined in 2004 by Jordan’s King Abdullah II, is the “Shi’a Crescent” running from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon’s Mediterranean coast. The second is the crescent around Israel, encircling it from the north (Hezbollah in Lebanon), via the north-east (IRGC and pro-Iranian militias in Syria), down to the east (Jordan, whose regime is a long-term target of Iran), over to the deep south (the Houthis in Yemen), and lastly to the southwest (Gaza, via the wholly owned subsidiary of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the fluctuating cooperation with Hamas).
Israel watched the two crescents slowly build up with growing alarm. It decided to take action to foil the process by focusing on the Syrian arena, a point of convergence for the two crescents. Hundreds of airstrikes against IRGC, Hezbollah, and other Iranian-backed militias were only partially successful, however. They slowed the pace of entrenchment, but didn’t change Iran’s long-term strategy or outlook.
More than a decade earlier, in February 2008, Israel and the U.S. took out the head of Hezbollah’s military wing, Imad Mughniyeh, in Damascus, while he was with Soleimani. According to media reports it was President George W. Bush who made the real-time call to spare Soleimani. Nearly 12 years later, Donald Trump made the call to eliminate him, and Israel could not have been happier. For Israelis, it was a “double-header” — a strategic blow for Iran and a strategic comeback for the U.S. Soleimani was crowned by some of the more seasoned commentators as “the Jewish people’s greatest enemy since World War II,” and Trump was unanimously hailed for “reclaiming U.S. deterrence” and “proving that the U.S. is not leaving the Middle East.”
The timing and political context of the assassination were also particularly favorable from Israel’s perspective. On the one hand, in recent months the dominant tone in the public discourse was becoming more and more about Israel’s “strategic loneliness.” It is a well-entrenched Israeli-Jewish line of thinking, anchored in the biblical phrase “.... lo, it is a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations” from Bamidbar (Hebrew for “In the Desert”) 23:9. Interestingly, there is an important nuance between the original text and the English translation. In the Hebrew version, it is the Hebrews who are actively disregarding the “Goyim” — all other nations. In the translation, it’s the reverse — world nations are the active actors, not “reckoning” with the Hebrews. In modern Israeli strategic culture, since its inception, the notion of defending the nation on its own, without depending on any external power, has been a major pillar of the national defense doctrine. The Trump administration’s heavy and frequent signaling of its wish to “end the endless Middle East wars” was therefore reinforcing this old notion. Notably, in a rare one-hour speech last month, the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) incoming chief of general staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, made a point of almost scolding world nations, particularly the U.S., for leaving Iran’s multiple provocations and regional hegemony strategy unanswered. His and other’s conclusion was therefore clear: It is up to Israel, and Israel alone, to face the Iranians, and it should be done now since the enemy is constantly advancing and time is not on our side.
The hawkish, pro-“preventive-strike” line of thinking is of course also an age-old tradition in Israel. Strategic practitioners and scholars by and large accept the historical lesson that the Six-Day War, with its astonishing preemptive strike, was Israel’s last decisive military victory. The news of Trump’s bold decision was therefore reminiscent of that nostalgic element of strategic surprise. More and more voices are now calling for “success leveraging” by intensifying IDF and other Israeli independent operations against Iran, mainly but not exclusively in Syria.
Moreover, the overall context seems to be supporting a more aggressive Israeli posture. The accelerated crumbling of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and Iran’s gradual return to pre-agreement enrichment levels, the perpetual green lighting by Trump of virtually each and every Israeli action, and the multiple mass protests in Iran proper, as well as in Lebanon and Iraq, which many in the Israeli establishment view as authentically anti-Iranian. Taken together, they create an almost perfect regional and international alignment for Israeli preemption.
But there are still some countering factors. The first is Israel’s unprecedented year-long political and constitutional crisis, created by Benjamin Netanyahu’s indictments in three separate criminal cases. It has left the country in a virtual dysfunctional state, under transitional governments and with no public mandate for historic decisions. The third consecutive general election, slated for March 2, may or may not end the crisis. A second critical restraining factor is — lo and behold — Vladimir Putin’s Russia, with its heavy boot well entrenched in Syria, overseeing Israel’s every move. To illustrate the point, Russia was allegedly behind a recent massive GPS jamming that forced all incoming civil aviation to Israel to alter its landing approach. Of course, there was no official claim of responsibility. A third restraining factor is the prevailing collateral damage assessment, this time not on the enemy’s side but rather in Israel’s own major population centers and critical infrastructure installations. Hezbollah’s massive missile and rocket arsenal, Gaza-based Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s own independent arsenal, coupled with Iran’s now-proven long-range precision-weapons apparatus, all present a formidable challenge to planners of any preemptive strike.
Rather than a successful reenactment of the Six-Day War’s opening gambit, a preemptive strike might end up looking more like a second Yom Kippur War, with scenes of devastation and a lasting blow to national morale. The 1973 potential catastrophe was averted largely due to massive U.S. military shipments and diplomatic support. To what extent can Israeli planners rely on similar levels of U.S. support now? Will an election-year Trump prefer to take the lead on any preemptive strike? Or is there still room for preemptive U.S.-Iran diplomacy? The “day after” Soleimani is at least as fraught with dangers as the day before it.
Eran Etzion is a non-resident scholar at MEI and an diplomat and strategist with more than 20 years of experience in senior government positions. The views expressed in this article are his own.
Photo by Pool/Iranian Supreme Leader Press Office/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images