Israelis quietly hail Soleimani killing as they brace for retaliation
By STEVE HENDRIX | The Washington Post | Published: January 3, 2020
JERUSALEM — Israelis reacted with muted satisfaction Friday to the killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a man they considered the mastermind behind decades of terrorism directed against their country, even as they braced for potentially deadly retaliation by Iran and its proxies at a time of pitched tension in the region.
Israel's embassies around the world were put on heightened alert, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cut short a visit to Greece to monitor the situation from Jerusalem. Businesses bustled as usual on the morning before the beginning of the sabbath, but officials closed the Hermon ski area, a resort in the Golan Heights that has been targeted in the past by missiles fired from Syria.
Israel's official reaction to Soleimani's killing by a U.S. drone strike was restrained so as not to further inflame the moment or imply any Israeli involvement. Netanyahu instructed government officials not to comment but hailed the attack in remarks to reporters while traveling.
"Qasem Soleimani is responsible for the death of American citizens and many other innocent people. He was planning more such attacks," Netanyahu said. "President (Donald) Trump deserves all the credit for acting swiftly, forcefully and decisively."
Analysts said Israel was preparing for possible reprisals from any direction, from Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon in the north to the Gaza Strip in the south, where the ruling Hamas faction and Islamic Jihad cells had long-standing ties to Soleimani.
"Israel has to be on high alert," said Yossi Kupperwasser, a former head of intelligence research for the Israeli army. "These groups are all indebted to Soleimani. They might have to do something to show sympathy for him."
The scope of the threat highlighted the central role that Soleimani, commander of the elite Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, has played in Iran's efforts to extend its influence and spread Islamic revolution around the region. Israelis have long viewed him as the ruthless and capable architect of terrorist infrastructure that surrounds the country, including Iran's swelling presence in Syria and Iraq.
In one of several statements condemning the killing from militant groups, Hamas released a statement praising Soleimani's "major and critical role in supporting Palestinian resistance at all levels."
"On this sad occasion, Hamas condemns the U.S. bullying that creates disputes and upheavals in the region, just to serve the interests of the Israeli occupation," the statement said.
The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, which has previously complained of Iranian meddling in the region, had no immediate comment.
But many Israelis hailed Soleimani's demise.
"He was busy, day in and day out, in promoting terrorist attacks again Israelis and training, arming and financing other groups to do the same," said Kupperwasser. "Obviously, we have no sorrow for him."
Benny Gantz, who is campaigning against the embattled Netanyahu in Israel's upcoming third election in less than a year, called the killing "the appropriate response to anyone responsible for the murder of countless innocent people and for undermining global stability."
It was unclear what effect the developments would have on Israel's dogged political stalemate, although observers said Netanyahu might be relieved for any distraction from his efforts to have parliament shield him from a pending corruption prosecution.
"It could help in the short term if all the headlines aren't about a craven request for immunity," said Chuck Freilich, a former Israeli deputy national security adviser. "If this escalates, it could be a negative."
The likely broader impact of the killing was far from clear. Israel had been calling for world leaders to take a tougher stand against Iran's expansionist activities, particularly its nuclear ambitions and efforts to upgrade Hezbollah's arsenal with guided missiles. Many here had grown frustrated with what they saw as Trump's idle response to previous Iranian attacks, including strikes on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia and tankers in the Gulf of Oman.
While many hailed Friday's bold hit in Iraq, they noted that it came in response to Iran's killing of a U.S. military contractor on Dec. 27 and the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad over the weekend, not to Iran's regional provocations. Whether the moment marked a bigger shift in Trump's cautious stance was unclear.
"He seems willing to respond to attacks on U.S. forces; that seems to be the red line he's drawn," said Dan Shapiro, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. "On other issues, he has left it to regional partners to respond. And he has made it clear that he does not want a sustained U.S. presence in the Middle East."
One consequence that Israelis feared was that the escalation marked by Soleimani's killing - and the feared reaction - could lead to a pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq, opening the way for even great Iranian influence there. That could mark a repeat of Trump's drawdown in Syria last year, which was widely criticized here.
"On Iran, Trump has left Israel out on its own, said Freilich. "It's too early to see if this a one off or a real change in the American approach. It he going to get serious now?"
Freilich noted that a previous strike ordered by Trump - airstrikes against the Syrian military in response to chemical attacks in 2018 - did not portend a sustained effort to keep up the pressure. "There have been chemical attacks since then, and nothing was done," he said.
Israeli officials were mum on Friday's strike and declined to address questions on whether Israel had advance knowledge of the plan or provided any intelligence or support. Israel has launched its own targeted strikes on Iranian-backed positions in Iraq region, including an attack last year near the Baghdad airport where Soleimani was killed.
Israel was already in a tense state of readiness before Friday's attack. Following mounting tensions with Iran, officials in Jerusalem had been warning citizens that the risks of escalation were growing.
"We were on tenterhooks anyway with Iran," said Freilich. "This only heightens them."
On Wednesday, as the standoff between United States and Iran grew more lethal, Foreign Minister Israel Katz said in a radio interview that Israel should be braced for an assault.
"There is a possibility - the chances are not high, but it exists - that the Iranians could harm Israel and drag us into this," Katz said. "It must be clear to them that we will respond with great force to any attack."
The Israeli military reportedly went on high alert after the killing of Soleimani early Friday, but there were indications that officials planned no immediate increase in preparations.
Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett met in Tel Aviv with senior military leaders Friday, including Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, chief of the General Staff. According to reports in Israeli media, they made no significant changes in military preparation or border defenses.
The Washington Post's Hazem Balousha in Gaza City and Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem contributed to this report.