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Netanyahu risks war on multiple fronts  

Aug 27,2019 - Last updated at Aug 27,2019

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is risking taking his country to war on multiple fronts, as Tel Aviv was quick to acknowledge that it had carried out an air strike against an Iranian position south of Damascus late on Saturday. On Sunday, Hizbollah claimed that two Israeli drones had crashed in Beirut’s southern district; one of which was carrying explosives and may have been targeting a senior militia figure. Less than 24 hours later, the Lebanese government claimed that Israel had struck a Palestinian base near the border with Syria. And earlier this week, Iraqi officials connected to the pro-Iran Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) blamed Israeli drones for a series of mysterious explosions that struck militia bases in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, Israel and Hamas continued to exchange blows amid rising tensions along the Gaza borders. On Sunday, Israel said it had intercepted two out of three rockets that were launched from Gaza, and in return Israeli fighter jets struck several Hamas targets north of the strip. Netanyahu and other government ministers have been warning Hamas of a major punitive military campaign ahead of a crucial election later this month that will determine the political career of the Israeli premier.

While Israeli strikes against Iranian related targets in Syria are not new, there seems to be an agreement with Russia that such pre-emptive attacks will be tolerated, the targeting of PMF bases in Iraq represent a dangerous development in Israel’s strategy to confront Iranian threats. Last week, US officials, requesting anonymity, confirmed that Israeli drones were behind the bombing of an Iranian weapons depot in Iraq last month.

Earlier this week Netanyahu was asked whether Israel would operate against Iranian targets in Iraq if needed. He said: “We are operating, not just if needed; we are operating in many areas against a state that wants to annihilate us. Of course I gave the security forces a free hand and instructed them to do anything necessary to thwart Iran’s plans.” He did not directly name Iraq as one of those areas.

In defending Saturday night strike in Syria, Israel said it had foiled an Iranian attempt to launch “killer drone attacks” against Israeli positions. The target was said to belong to Iran’s Al Quds Force, which is under the command of Iranian Gen. Qassem Suliemani, and is the overseas arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

Netanyahu’s escalation is seen by observers as taking his confrontation with Iran to new levels. In a fiery response to the latest attacks, Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said that the Israeli strikes against targets in Syria on Saturday were “very, very dangerous” and had actually targeted Hizbollah and not Iran. Two Hizbollah fighters were killed in the strike. He added that this had been the first attack since 14 August 2006 and that represented “a violation of the rules of engagement”. In fact, the Israeli attack was indeed a violation of UN resolution 1701 which had set rules of engagement between the two sides.

Nasrallah vowed to carry out a quick and painful response; one that the Israeli government is taking seriously. The timing of this latest escalation can only be tied to Netanyahu’s desperate efforts to win a historic fifth term as prime minister in the coming elections. Failing to form a right-wing government may increase the chances of facing corruption charges that may lead to trial and imprisonment.

It is interesting that the US had pointed the finger at Israel in the series of unexplained Iraqi blasts. Whether these strikes were carried out with or without US permission will have an effect on internal Iraqi politics and ties between Baghdad and Washington. The Iraqi government has stated that it does not want to be party to the current Iran-US showdown.

The Israeli strikes against the PMF may have an unintended results for Netanyahu. The mainly Shiite PMF were formed to fight Daesh in Iraq and were implicated in anti-Sunni atrocities. By targeting them Netanyahu is helping rebrand the militias as anti-Israel thus expanding their popular base. Pro-Iran and former Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki warned Israel of a strong response and said that if Israel continues to target Iraq, his country “will transform into a battle arena that drags in multiple countries, including Iran”.

The reality is that Israel has changed the rules of engagement with Iran and its proxies in Lebanon, Syria and now Iraq, not to mention Gaza. The danger is that two can play this game and Iran, which is unlikely to be affected by Israeli strikes, can still do harm and push for a new warfront or even multiple ones. Netanyahu must be ready to bear the consequences of his actions and in few hours or days we will see how Hizbollah will respond to the latest Israeli breach.

 

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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