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Interview with Dahlia Scheindlin: “Many Israelis are aware that Israel was behind the attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus, but from the Israeli point of view, Iran is always perceived as the aggressor”

Par Dahlia Scheindlin, Ines Gil
Publié le 30/04/2024 • modifié le 30/04/2024 • Durée de lecture : 5 minutes

Dahlia Scheindlin

After the Iranian attack, there is debate on Iran’s motives and objectives. Some researchers emphasise Iranian restraint. For them, it was a prepared, calculated Iranian response, which came in retaliation for the strike on the Damascus consulate. Is there such a debate in Israel? Or is there unanimity on the existential threat of this attack?

There is unanimity on the idea that the attack was really severe and unprecedented, which is factual more than a simple perception as there has never been a direct attack from Iran on Israel. Furthermore, Israel has not claimed responsibility for the strike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus that killed senior Al Quds Force officials. For obvious reasons, Israelis are not going to claim that they started this round of violence and that Iran is just responding.

Many Israelis are aware that Israel was behind the attack on the Iranian consulate. In a way, most Israelis know that the Iranian attack on 14th April was a response to the attack on the Damascus consulate. Nevertheless, the coordinator of Iranian military activities in the region, including activities with the Lebanese Hezbollah, was targeted in the Damascus strike. Therefore, from an Israeli perspective, the attack was justified. And even if Israel had claimed responsibility for the strike in Damascus, from the Israeli point of view, Iran is always perceived as the aggressor.

In Israel, the European Union and sometimes the United States are criticised for their stance on colonisation in particular. And particularly since the start of the war in Gaza, Israel - rightly or wrongly - has felt increasingly isolated. Is American and European aid during the Iranian attack changing Israel’s perception of its allies? Does the country feel less isolated?

In recent months, there has been growing pressure on Israel’s conduct of the war in Gaza, and serious opposition from some Western allies who have distanced themselves. The demand for a ceasefire is growing. The Israelis are aware of this. The Israeli public is certainly anxious over criticism of the war in Gaza but tends to believe it’s the outside critics who are wrong and fail to understand or support Israel’s perspective, rather than question their own activities.

Therefore, after the Western and Arab help given during the Iranian attack, a feeling of relief dominates the media. This relief is due to the establishment of a kind of global coalition to prevent most of the missiles from reaching Israel.

However, in my opinion, the Israelis should not rest on their laurels, as this coalition is very precarious. All these allies have said that Israel must restrain itself in its dealings with Iran. This little pause in support for Israel does not open up a new deal in Israel’s relations with its allies and with Arab countries. Israel could quickly lose this support if it goes too far in its military response against Iran and drags the region into a major regional escalation; in this sense the limited Israeli response against Iran a few days later did not further escalate the situation and seems to have been acceptable to Israel’s international allies. But that does not imply some newfound acceptance of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza.

However, de-escalation depends not only on Israel, but also on Iran’s proxies. Hezbollah in particular has helped maintain a low-to-medium intensity conflict on the Lebanese border. So even if there is no direct war with Iran, there could be an escalation with Hezbollah, which is also a major concern in Israel.

As you said in the article you wrote for The Guardian, Benyamin Netanyahu has long been presenting himself as Mr. Security, particularly on Iran, but you state that his Iran policy is a failure. However, despite the failure of the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, his base seems to be pushing for a strategy of maximum pressure on Iran, in the hope that the regime will eventually fall. Therefore, today, it seems that B. Netanyahu is now faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, pressure from his allies not to respond, on the other, his base which seems to want to put pressure on Iran, and then, the Israeli public as a whole which seems very divided on the issue despite the obvious hostility against Iran

The maximum pressure doctrine, which was always a real demand in Israel, refers to sanctions against the Iranian regime, backed by the threat of military force. This is what Benyamin Netanyahu was looking for when he pushed the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal: to weaken the regime, and eventually bring it down.

However, the situation today is different. Right now, there is a real possibility of direct war with Iran. And the future of the Iranian regime is no longer a concern in Israel. The strategy of maximum pressure is a long-term strategy, but now we are facing short-term decisions involving Israel’s security and the immediate future of the region.

I can’t tell how much B. Netanyahu cares about the nature of the Iranian regime; he is primarily concerned about the nuclear program and Iranian support for proxies in the region, in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Gaza. In a way, the fact that the Iranian regime is a repressive theocracy helps him in his discourse, as he can present it as fundamentalist, Islamist and extremist. Indeed, he talks a lot about the global Islamist threat, including Iran, ISIS and Hamas, as threats to western civilization as a whole.

On the other hand, I do not understand those who claim that the maximum pressure strategy has been a success, over diplomacy. Since Donald Trump took the United States out of the JCPOA six years ago, Iran has never been so close to acquiring nuclear weapons. I believe Netanyahu’s policy towards Iran has been exposed as a fraud.

Over 70% of Israelis are against going to war with Iran, according to a recent poll. It is also likely that many Israelis do not trust B. Netanyahu (who has been heavily criticized for his handling of security issues since October 7) to wage such a war

I do not think that B. Netanyahu is only criticised for the security issue. Before October 7, he had failed on many other points, according to many Israelis.
But yes, since October 7, B. Netanyahu and his party have collapsed in the polls. They are criticized for their management of security affairs. If elections were held today, the current coalition parties would win only 45 to 47 seats (when at least 60 are needed to form a government coalition). That being said, since the Iran escalation and Israel’s perceived successful response, surveys have shown some recovery for Netanyahu and his government, but still not a majority.

On the Northern front: the idea of opening a high-intensity war with Hezbollah to weaken the Lebanese group seems to be gaining ground in Israel, at a time when thousands of Israelis displaced by the war are still unable to return to their homes in the north. Do you see advocates of this scenario among the war cabinet?

I am not so sure that the majority of Israelis would accept the opening of this front. Certainly, polls have shown that a majority of Israelis support an attack on Hezbollah. In the war cabinet, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant in the past supported an open war with the Lebanese militia in the first months of the current war. According to advocates of a war, there is the idea that it has to be done once and for all, that Hezbollah must be pushed back to the Litani river. And it has to be done now.

On the other hand, polls also show that the diplomatic option is also supported by Israelis. There have been relatively successful indirect talks between Hezbollah and Israel before October 7. But if diplomacy no longer works, there is certainly the idea that the military solution is a good one. The military solution is often seen as a good solution in Israel.

However, I think that with the risk of escalation with Iran, there are a lot more fears about Hezbollah. Especially as Hezbollah has an impressive military arsenal that could overwhelm the Iron Dome and is capable of destroying civilian infrastructure. Therefore, Iran’s attack last Saturday and the risk of a regional escalation could lead to a more restrained attitude from Israel on the northern front.

Publié le 30/04/2024

Ines Gil est Journaliste freelance basée à Beyrouth, Liban.
Elle a auparavant travaillé comme Journaliste pendant deux ans en Israël et dans les territoires palestiniens.
Diplômée d’un Master 2 Journalisme et enjeux internationaux, à Sciences Po Aix et à l’EJCAM, elle a effectué 6 mois de stage à LCI.
Auparavant, elle a travaillé en Irak comme Journaliste et a réalisé un Master en Relations Internationales à l’Université Saint-Joseph (Beyrouth, Liban). 
Elle a également réalisé un stage auprès d’Amnesty International, à Tel Aviv, durant 6 mois et a été Déléguée adjointe Moyen-Orient et Afrique du Nord à l’Institut Open Diplomacy de 2015 à 2016.

Dr Dahlia Scheindlin is a researcher specialized in public opinion research on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and peace process. Dr Scheindlin holds a doctorate in political science from Tel Aviv University and has previously worked as a Senior Analyst for the Washington-based global firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, and as a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute. She is a political analyst who has worked on eight electoral campaigns in Israel and in 15 other countries ; she is currently a fellow at The Century Foundation and a co-host of The Tel Aviv Review podcast.