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Israel and the “Shia Threat”

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Written by Dennis M. Nilsen exclusively for SouthFront

The Israeli State founded in 1948 has consistently maintained a firm foreign policy of active defense against its regional neighbors who, since independence, have engaged in at least four wars against it.  This state of perpetual insecurity has forced all political parties within Israel to pursue a regional foreign policy of divide and manage in order to prevent the emergence of a powerful, ideologically-united military bloc able to viably oppose its actions, despite the uncritical support of the United States.  In on-the-ground terms, all Muslims in the Middle East possess a cultural dislike of the Israelis because of gross displacement of the Palestinian people during the 1948 War of Independence and the 1967 occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights.  While Israel has withdrawn from Gaza, it still occupies Golan, internationally recognized as belonging to Syria, a majority of the West Bank, and East Jerusalem.

Israel and the "Shia Threat"

Click to see the full-size map

This status quo provides a residual foundation of resentment, but it is the present and constant Israeli policy of discrimination against the Palestinians which forms the injurious thorn in the side of its Muslim neighbors.  This state of affairs causes all Israelis to live in a siege mindset, to be overly belligerent in words and actions to provocations and to always take a hardline in any negotiations designed to end the politically untenable situation of the Palestinian people in the West Banka and Gaza.  Though the Israeli vote is divided among a plethora of parties, there is this strong commitment to security found in them all which allowed men as opposed ideologically as Shimon Peres and Binyamin Netanyahu to ultimately agree on the larger picture of Israeli regional foreign policy.

Seen in a religious context, Israeli is surrounded by a sea of Muslim neighbors.  Yet Israeli foreign policy noticeably more severe towards the Shia than the Sunni.  Why, in Israeli eyes, do they constitute a potentially greater threat?

First, they unlike the Sunnis possess a religious unity whose character is politically based in Iran.  While Shia theology does not demand the existence of one guardian jurist (vela-ye faqih) to judge all of the ‘umma, this came to be supported from the middle of the nineteenth century, and the establishment of the Khomeini regime in Iran made this a fact.  While there are other ayatollahs – and the very chief among them marj’e – the constitution of Iran has institutionalized this hierarchy within Shia Islam.  Traditionally, the leading Shia jurists had refused direct involvement in politics as this stance was the continuation of the practices of the Imams.  However, with the creation of the Safavid state in Persian in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the political character of Shiism came into its own.  The historical direction of Shiite jurisprudence was therefore fated to occur in Iran because it was – and is – the locus of one of the two major venues of Shiite scholarship (Qom, the other being Karbala in Iraq, and because it is the only officially Shiite state.

Israel and the "Shia Threat"

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Second, the political direction of the Iranian Shia community has meant advocacy of a continuous revolutionary movement to establish Shia or Shia-friendly regimes.  The various Sunni schools of jurisprudence have all promoted the spread of Islam, but the political unity of the Shia under the headship of Iran has meant that much more of a focused attempt to do this, and the recent political breakwater created by Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran has given great fuel to this impetus.  Further, the absence of any real plurality within Shiite jurisprudence means that a very large majority of the Shia follow the Ja’fari School, which is institutionalized in Iran as part of the legal system.  The Yemeni Shia follow the Zaydi School which, while an older discipline than the Ja’fari, cannot compete numerically or status-wise against the latter.  All of the Shiite political allies of the Iranians follow the Ja’fari School, and while the ruling elite in Syria are Alawi, politically these have aligned themselves with the Iranians to challenge greater enemies in Sunni takfiris and Israel.

Therefore, the political and religious unity of the Shia under the headship of Iran means a concentration of the revolutionary element as taught by Ayatollah Khomeini.  While there indeed are a number of Sunni jihadi groups operating with goals detrimental to Israel, none have the institutional or political maturity of the Shia.

Israel and the "Shia Threat"

Israeli security forces clash with Palestinian stone throwers at the northern entrance of the village of Yatta, near Hebron in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on May 22, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / HAZEM BADER

This religious similarity being established, what does it mean in actual fact for the Israelis?  What designs does the Iranian-led Shia bloc have against Israel?  Are the usual mantras which we hear about the destruction of Israel and the mass murder of Jews true or merely hyperbole to instill a regime of fear among the Israeli populace?  Ever since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the political and military leaders of Iran have opposed the existence of the Zionist regime for a number of reasons, the most well-known among which are the unresolved plight of the Palestinians and occupation of the West Bank and the control of Jerusalem with the al-Aqsa Mosque.

Israel and the "Shia Threat"

al-Aqsa Mosque

More broadly, however, Iran sees Israeli foreign policy as detrimental to the Islamic world in general and destructive to its own well-being.  However, since the Iranians cannot match the Israelis in terms of military or alliance power, they must resort to methods recently characterized as hybrid warfare, a mixture of clandestine military support and propagandistic dissimulation.  As to Jerusalem, are they committed to restoring it to Islamic rule?  They have named the special action service branch of the Sepah the Ghods Force [Quds Force] (‘the Jerusalem Force’): is there any other country which denotes its units in such a way?

Israel and the "Shia Threat"

The Official Seal of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) or Sepah

Because Jerusalem is considered by the Shia after Mecca and Medina to be the third-ranking of their holiest sites, it is understandable to conclude that part of this preparation for the return of the Mahdi means the recapture of the city for the Muslims; they, as do the Sunni, consider that the Masjid al-Aqsa (“The Farthest Mosque”) in the Old City was a site given significance by the Patriarch Abraham as a place of sacrifice before the coming of Mohammed.  The existence of the remaining foundations of the Temple of Solomon underneath it means that the reoccupation of the Mosque by Muslim authority cannot happen without the eradication of the State of Israel; this the Iranians are reconciled to it.  With Karbala, Najaf, Mecca and Medina currently ruled by an Islamic authority, the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem remains the only one outside of Muslim hands.

Israel and the "Shia Threat"

Major General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force

The generations-long Palestinian Nakba (Catastrophe/Disaster), begun in 1948, is an added ingredient in the conflict between Iran and Israel, held by some in the Islamic Republic as a true injustice which needs to be remedied and by others who cynically accept the role of spokesman and advocate for these people, but who really consider them to have no effect upon the national wellbeing of Iran.

The Iranians, as a confessional Shia state, are naturally most concerned with their Shia brethren in neighboring countries, countries in which they do not enjoy the same directional control of the culture as they do in Iran.  In Iraq until recently, the Shia were politically excluded from the status quo regime of Sunni Arabs, and as I have mentioned before the removal of Saddam Hussein and the de-Baathification of the country was the greatest triumph for Iranian foreign policy since the Revolution of 1979.  The majority Shia population of Bahrain has meant the heightened interest of Iran towards that country since the Revolution, and the current military interventions in Syria and Yemen on behalf of al-Assad and the Houthis rebels are driven by a desire to see the existence of their fellow Shia made secure.  The Iranian support for Hezbollah, which the Sepah helped to create in 1982 in response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, is well known and is a permanent feature of Iranian regional foreign policy, the primary and most visible ingredient in their Axis of Resistance political, economy and military alignment against the Zionist State.

Israel and the "Shia Threat"

Flag of Hezbollah

The next factor in this Axis of Resistance is the quasi-state of Hezbollah, the ‘Party of God,’ a movement which arose in 1982 in response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and formed with the backing of the Sepah.  While Hezbollah has gone from being an anti-state within Lebanon to a participant in parliamentary governance and a provider of social and educational services to a large number of Lebanese, its original aim of the destruction of the State of Israel as an act of defensive jihad remains in place.

Israel and the "Shia Threat"

Hezbollah displays a pick-up truck mounted with a multiple rocket launcher in a parade in the southern Lebanese city of Nabatiyeh in 2014. (photo credit:MAHMOUD ZAYYAT / AFP)

Again, because it lacks the military might of Israel – and a strong backer like the United States – Hezbollah must engage in hybrid warfare.  Under the leadership of Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah continues to pose a very real though untraditional military threat to Israel.

The third party to this bloc is Syria, officially an ethnically-based republic but in reality a key partner in extending the reach of Iran to its Hezbollah partners in Lebanon.  Syria is no friend of Israel, due not least to the continued occupation of two-thirds of the Golan Heights since 1967.  Syrian attitudes towards Israel are not officially religiously motivated due to Syria not possessing a confessional character, but neither does it diplomatically recognize the Zionist state; it also takes part in the Arab boycott against it.  Further, it has consistently taken the part of Hezbollah against Israeli actions, intervening on its behalf during the 1982 invasion and continuously acting as a bastion on which to ensure a favorable Lebanese foreign policy for itself against Israel.  A potential fourth party here is Iraq, which is heavily under Iranian influence due to religious affinity and also to the more recent joint actions taken against ISIS.

Israel and the "Shia Threat"

In this Thursday Feb. 25, 2010 file photo, Hezbollah leader sheik Hassan Nasrallah, left, speaks with Syrian President Bashar Assad, and Iran’s then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad upon their arrival for a dinner in Damascus, Syria. (photo credit: AP/SANA)

Considering all of this, it is not difficult to understand why the Israelis maintain a hardline stance against these entities.  Although the Israelis are divided internally, and the political parties are quite diverse, seek different ends for a political ideal, all are committed to a Jewish state and only divided as to the intensity of its religious character and to the resolution of the Palestinian issue.  Despite this internal division, the Israelis have maintained a united front against any accommodation with what they perceive to be any threat against their interests.  Are they being misled by an unreasonable fear, or do they see the truth behind foreign policy maneuvers which can be seen as benign?

The real Israeli problem with the Muslim world at large and with their Middle Eastern Muslim neighbors began in 1967 with the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem; these actions caused a permanent state of animosity towards the Israelis despite the numerous agreements and the diplomatic recognition given to them by Egypt and Jordan.

The continued occupation of these lands, plus the aggressive campaigns of settlement building in the West Bank – a policy followed by all Israeli governments, whether Likud or Labour – have only further alienated Muslim sentiment and served as fuel to the fire both for Sunni jihadi groups and for the Shia bloc.  Existing within a small pale on the Mediterranean coast, the Jewish state understandably sees itself as having its collective back to the sea, and the only way that it can at the least maintain or at most strengthen its position is by engaging in forceful rhetoric and sometimes unilateral military action against those interests it perceives intend it harm.  The world has seen how severely it has dealt with the Palestinian groups Hamas and Fatah, and further back in time the PLO under Arafat; the world has also witnessed the unilateral military strikes against nuclear facilities in Iraq in 1981 (Operation “Opera”) and Syria in 2007 (Operation “Orchard”) and more recently against the Syrian Armed Forces on the pretext of interdicting arms shipments to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Israel and the "Shia Threat"

A two-ship of Israeli Air Force F-16s from Ramon Air Base, Israel, head out to the Nevada Test and Training Range, July 17 during Red Flag Exercise 09-4. Photo: Master Sergeant Kevin J. Gruenwald

As to Iran, if the political establishment has consistently spoken with bravado against Israel, then the Israelis have responded in kind, and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has on more than one occasion openly spoken of the existential threat which an Iranian nuclear weapons project will pose for his country, and that, if such be the case – despite the guarantees of the IAEA that Iran has complied with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – Israel reserves to the right to conduct a unilateral air strike against any and all facilities which it deems are crucial to the weapons construction regime.  Due to the brittle security atmosphere prevailing in the Middle East, the Prime Minister stills enjoys considerable support despite the allegations of corruption, and his Likud (Heb. “Consolidation”) Party unquestionably prevails in recent opinion polling.  Avigdor Lieberman, the defense minister from Yisrael Beiteinu (Heb. “Israel Our Home”), a secular rightwing party, while voicing greater moderation in his statements about the Palestinians (cf. “Lieberman Plan”) is as against Iran attaining nuclear weapons capability as his chief.  Of the 23 cabinet members (holding a total of 31 portfolios), 12 are from LikudKulanu (Heb. “All of Us”), the only centrist party within the governing coalition, holds the ministries of Economy, Construction and Finance, and thus does not have a strong say in the determination of foreign diplomatic and military policy.  The Orthodox Jewish parties Shas (short for Shomrei Sfarad, Heb. “Guardians of the Sephardim”) and The Jewish Home each have two portfolios, while Lieberman’s party Yisrael Beiteinu has two, and United Torah Judaism has one.  All of these parties save Yisrael Beiteinu and Kulanu are religious, and all save Kulanu are rightwing.

Israel and the "Shia Threat"

Avigdor Lieberman REUTERS/ Ronen Zvulun (JERUSALEM – Tags: POLITICS)

Suffice it to say that Netanyahu, who in addition to the Prime Minister’s office holds the foreign affairs portfolio, and Lieberman are both hawkish when considering actions towards countries whom they see as prejudicial to their own understanding of Israel’s interests.  Lieberman has publicly noted that he does not believe that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the main reason for the lack of a status quo in the Middle East, nor does he believe the restitution of the 1967 borders will bring about a peaceful settlement.  His main efforts are against Hezbollah and Iran, though it is myopic at the very least to disregard this continuous human rights catastrophe in the context of his country’s relations with Lebanon and Iran.

For the foreseeable future, then, the actions which Israel may take in order to prevent the consolidation of a Shia bloc are, in the first order, the exerting of diplomatic pressure on Iran, Hezbollah, Syria and (to be determined) Iraq in order to forestall actions prejudicial to Israel.  This will be most likely accomplished through the enlistment of American and/or British power at the UN or through NATO.

Also in the first order is the conducting of harsh security measures within Israel against suspected agents of these governments, unilateral air strikes against agents of these governments deemed to be operating in a manner directly harmful to Israeli security, and the use of clandestine operations through its Mossad security service.  Of the second order is the use of all-out war, something seemingly spoken of freely by Prime Minister Netanyahu but in reality something to be avoided at all costs due to the great destruction it would wreak on his country.

Obviously of particular concern to the Israeli government is the growing influence of Iran in Syria and in Lebanon through Hezbollah.  Its leadership can be expected to continually raise the alarm about this and to engage in unilateral airstrikes against targets they deem to be of particular importance.  Although they cannot prevent Hezbollah from arming itself to a dangerous level, they can reorient their defensive doctrine to prepare to refight the 2006 war.  It is widely expected that Israel and Hezbollah will again fight, but it remains to be seen how involved Iran will be in this contest.  These two countries cannot engage in a traditional war but only by proxy.  As Iran is determined to destroy the State of Israel as it exists, it will continue to supply and direct Hezbollah.  Israel on the other hand cannot directly reach Iran, even through airstrikes (which it has been shown will only have a small effect on Iranian nuclear capability but will ensure the uniting of the Islamic world against Israel).  Thus both are fated to fight a proxy war.

In Syria, Iranian support has been essential to the increasingly successful Syrian efforts to defeat ISIS, and this has caused concern in Israel.  However, a permanent Iranian influence will be measured on how much they give to the rebuilding of the country and the support to the Syrian Army.  The prospects for success here are much less than in Iraq because there is no shared border nor a sizeable Shia population in Syria; rather, the Syrian government has to worry about keeping its majority Sunni population pacified, something which will not happen should Iran visibly remain.  Despite all of this, should Syria remain a passageway for the shipment of arms and personnel between Iran and Hezbollah, Israel will continue to engage in its current efforts to dry up this land line.

Presently there exists a war of words between Israel and its Shia opponents coupled with a certain undeclared warfare prosecuted through indirect means.  We can expect to see more of this, as both Israel and her opponents (Iran, Hezbollah, Syria, Iraq) are in it for the long game.

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