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Source: Washington Post

Apr 3, 2024

Opinion | The agonizing story told by two Israeli airstrikes

By David Ignatius

Monday illustrated the spectrum of outcomes we have seen from the Israel Defense Forces: astonishing precision in targeting some of Iran’s most toxic commanders at a secret meeting in Damascus and appalling sloppiness in an apparently accidental strike on a humanitarian team in Gaza.

That’s not a good formula. And it helps explain the agony of this war for Israel and its adversaries alike.

Nearly six months into the Gaza conflict, Israel has achieved tactical successes that are gradually degrading Hamas and deterring its Iranian sponsors. It can conduct “targeted killings” of its enemies, at least aboveground, almost at will. Yet the strategic prize of “victory” and regional stability seems as distant as ever.

Monday’s strike on Brig. Gen. Mohammad Reza Zahedi, the Quds Force commander in Lebanon and Syria, was a brilliant if brutal Israeli show of arms. The Israelis gathered intelligence that he would meet six commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in a building adjacent to Iran’s embassy in Damascus — and hit them with smart weapons from F-35 fighters.

The Quds Force victims were hardly innocents abroad. They had Israeli — and probably American — blood on their hands. Zahedi had helped direct operations by Hezbollah, Hamas and Iranian militias in Syria. Like his mentor Qasem Soleimani, who was killed by the United States in 2020 in a similar precision attack, he was a commander in Iran’s undeclared war against Israel and America.

The Damascus operation illustrated what Israel’s military and intelligence services do most efficiently: strike their enemies in what amount to precise assassination plans. Their skill at these targeted killings was described by Ronen Bergman, an Israeli journalist for the New York Times, in his superb 2018 book, “Rise and Kill First.”

“Since World War II, Israel has assassinated more people than any other country in the Western world,” Bergman wrote. By his reckoning, Israel had conducted at least 2,300 such operations as of 2018. The message was, he writes, “If you are an enemy of Israel, we will find you and kill you, wherever you are.”

This unblinking use of lethal force was meant to intimidate Israel’s adversaries — and often did. But it was also part of the hubris that led to Hamas’s terrorist attack on Oct. 7. Israel had overvalued its own paramilitary prowess and undervalued that of Hamas. Ever since, a sense of vulnerability and deflated military mastery has left Israel reeling.

Operations such as the Damascus attack could happen only with the direct approval of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And at a time when Netanyahu is under severe attack at home and abroad, this is a reminder that he is a tough adversary who will take big risks to maintain Israeli security, as he defines it.

Many analysts have warned that the Damascus strike could finally push Iran and Hezbollah into a wider regional war they have so far avoided. That’s a risk Netanyahu was evidently ready to take. He might not be able to kill Hamas military leader Yehiya Sinwar in his tunnel hideout somewhere underneath Gaza. But he could target Zahedi in downtown Damascus.

Do these tactics truly provide greater security in the long run? That’s the issue Bergman examined in his book. He told his story partly through the eyes of Mossad chief Meir Dagan, who he said had engineered the killing of six of the 15 Iranian nuclear scientists on his target list. Dagan believed, according to Bergman, that assassination was “‘a lot more moral’ than waging all-out war.”

But before his death in 2016, Dagan came to doubt that the hard edge of Israeli military power could, by itself, carve out the security Israel desired. As Bergman explained, Dagan concluded that Israel had achieved “a long string of impressive tactical successes, but also disastrous strategic failures.”

Dagan (along with many of Israel’s toughest military and intelligence chiefs) decided that the country’s security required a political settlement with the Palestinians through creation of a Palestinian state. Netanyahu has vehemently disagreed, then and now.

That brings us back to Monday’s other headline-making strike — what Israel says was the unintended assault on a three-vehicle convoy of the relief organization World Central Kitchen. Netanyahu described it as a “tragic case of our forces unintentionally hitting innocent people.”

Let’s assume Netanyahu’s characterization is accurate. Nations make terrible mistakes in war. Even so, the World Central Kitchen tragedy is part of a much larger pattern of Israel refusing to plan adequately for coordination of humanitarian assistance in Gaza — to make the safety of noncombatants a priority along with its effort to destroy Hamas.

Why is Israel only now, in the aftermath of this disaster, agreeing to a joint coordination center to plan humanitarian relief?

When Biden administration officials argue that Netanyahu doesn’t have a strategy for ending the Gaza war and stabilizing the region, they are thinking about this lack of foresight and planning. It isn’t simply that Palestinians need a safe and stable Gaza but that it’s essential in the long run for Israel, too.

Israel has a righteous cause in combating Hamas and its paymasters in Iran. But Monday’s events should remind us that enduring security doesn’t come through force of arms alone.

Opinion by David Ignatius

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column for The Washington Post. His latest novel is “The Paladin.”Twitter

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