As Israel grapples with fundamental questions of identity and societal fissures years in the making, its enemies have been gleefully watching. Weekly scenes of street protests and signs of deep societal division reinforce the narrative long advanced by Iran and its Axis of Resistance — comprising proxies and partners like Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad — that the Jewish state is living on borrowed time. To exploit this situation, they continue to employ their escalation-ready approach of pushing the envelope in multiple geographic theaters, launching cyber operations to foment disunity in Israeli society, and attempting to neutralize the regional gains Israel has made after signing the Abraham Accords with several Arab neighbors in 2020.
Many recent events and escalations have been driving Iranian perceptions of Israeli weakness. Some of the most notable include the massive popular demonstrations over the Knesset’s recent passage of a law that limits the Supreme Court’s ability to strike down government decisions under a “reasonableness” standard; growing cases of reservists quitting and morale plummeting over the government’s controversial policies, thus undermining the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) readiness; and the Biden administration keeping its distance from the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, specifically exemplified by the months-long unwillingness to extend the Israeli prime minister a formal invitation to the White House. Taken together, these developments have eroded Israel’s internal unity and jeopardized the health of its strategic international partnerships, thus undermining the country’s ability to credibly deter its regional enemies.
With Israel divided, Iran’s proxy network pounces
In September 2015, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivered a speech predicting that Israel will not exist in the next 25 years. Two years later, in 2017, the regime even unveiled a digital countdown clock in Tehran, forecasting that there will no longer be a State of Israel by 2040, in keeping with Khamenei’s prophecy. Fast forward to 2023, and the internal turmoil gripping Israel has only reinforced the Iranian government’s confidence in these doomsday scenarios. Khamenei remarked in April 2023, “The Zionist regime had never faced such a terrible crisis like the one during its 75 years. It is gripped by severe political instability. In four years, it has changed four prime ministers, and political coalitions have fallen apart before they have been completely formed. We said a few years ago that the Zionist regime would not see 25 years from then. They themselves are in a rush and want to leave sooner.”
This strategic view from the supreme leader, who wields considerable influence — if not outright control — over the Axis of Resistance, has filtered down the chain of command to the broader militia network overseen by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Quds Force. On the day the judicial overhaul passed in Israel, Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah proclaimed, “Today, in particular, is the worst day in the history of the entity, as some of its people say. This is what puts it on the path of collapse, fragmentation, and disappearance. God willing.” Nasrallah has been making such statements for years, dating back to May 2000, when he declared, “This Israel, which has nuclear weapons and the strongest air force in the region, is more fragile than a spiderweb.” The latest developments will only buttress his view that Israel’s internal problems will inevitably lead to its demise, as scholars at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies noted earlier this year.
But Iran and its proxies’ response has not been limited to aggressive rhetoric. Hezbollah has engaged in significant escalation in the past year, as Israelis have been consumed with infighting. In March, Hezbollah was behind a roadside bomb attack near the Megiddo junction in northern Israel. Israel’s National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi, when asked on Channel 12 whether the crisis over judicial reform was emboldening Hezbollah, said, “We estimate that for now it may lead to operations that were not considered in the past.” Later, members of Hezbollah erected tents on Israeli-controlled territory and the militant group has increased its provocations near the Israeli border, including by deploying its elite Radwan Unit to the area.
In April, Palestinian militants associated with Hamas launched 34 rockets from Lebanon at Israel in the largest such barrage since the 2006 Lebanon War. In July, an anti-tank guided missile was fired from Lebanon at Israel, rather than the more usual rocket attacks. Reuters reported in July about a three-hour meeting featuring a senior commander from the IRGC’s Quds Force, two Iranian security officials, and Hamas operatives to discuss how to capitalize on the unrest. While a decision was made to avoid “direct interference,” they discussed “ways to upgrade the work of the resistance” in this climate.
Meanwhile, developments in the West Bank have been worrying. Khamenei highlighted the priority that the West Bank plays in the Iranian regime’s strategy to encircle Israel. He told the visiting Secretary-General of Palestinian Islamic Jihad Ziyad al-Nakhalah that “[t]he growing power of the resistance groups in the West Bank is the key to bringing the Zionist enemy to its knees, and this path must continue.” The IRGC’s commander-in-chief boasted this year that “unseen hands armed the West Bank, and you have modern automatic rifles and automatic weapons in the hands of the Palestinians.” Iran has long engaged in recruitment efforts there to undertake terrorist attacks in Israel. The Shin Bet internal security agency has thwarted attempts by the IRGC’s Quds Force and Hezbollah to smuggle arms for such operations. Israel even busted an “irregular” attempt to smuggle weapons to the West Bank via Jordan in July.
Tehran has also been patronizing nascent Palestinian militias like the Lion’s Den, with Khamenei mentioning them by name during a speech in April. The head of Shin Bet, Ronen Bar, revealed this year that Iran was influencing the Lion’s Den, saying, “Behind this group is the long arm of Iran. Iran influences and targets young people online who are likely to move toward terror, incites them, sends them funds, and provides them weapons.”
But it would be a mistake to attribute the rise in West Bank violence solely to the current domestic unrest in Israel. The seeds were planted long before, and Iran has nurtured and exploited them by playing a long game. For example, in 2022, there were 61 shooting attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians in Nablus, up from three attacks in 2020. Tehran has also been laying the groundwork for terrorist network infrastructure well beyond the West Bank, which can be activated when it senses internal instability in Israel. For example, in 2021, Israel’s Police noted a significant increase — specifically, “a several-fold jump” — in arms smuggling for use by the Arab Israeli community, with Hezbollah spearheading the project, particularly via the Lebanese and Jordanian borders.
It is in this context that the IRGC’s Quds Force has attempted to forge a defense pact among the Axis of Resistance, raising fears in Israel of potentially having to face a multifront conflict. The Iranian side is capitalizing on growing coordination among the militias: For example, in April 2023, while the commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force, Esmail Ghaani, visited Beirut to meet with Nasrallah and Ismael Haniyeh, the head of Hamas’ Political Bureau, a volley of rockets was launched toward Israel from both Lebanon and Gaza. But even though greater coordination among these arms of the Axis of Resistance is clearly possible amid this sensitive moment for Israel, different militias will be constrained by their own domestic politics, especially with Hamas’ leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, reportedly expressing concerns about the concept because of Hamas’ responsibility for daily governance in the enclave. This caution may, in part, explain Hamas’ reticence when it met with the Quds Force in July over “direct interference” as Israel experiences protests. Nevertheless, more risk-ready militias like Palestinian Islamic Jihad can always compensate for this aversion. While Iran itself seeks to avoid a full-scale war with Israel, it has been pressuring Hezbollah to take bolder actions on its behalf. This state of play has led Israeli officials to conclude that the risk of war in the north is at its highest since 2006.
Beyond arming and funding traditional proxies and partners bordering Israel, Iran has also attempted to use various cyber tools to sow societal division inside Israel in recent months. For example, in June, a campaign was uncovered that utilized Instagram to reveal the personal details of Israeli police officers. The operatives branded the effort as part of the opposition to the Netanyahu government. It became especially dangerous after Israel’s National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir fell for the campaign and blasted the Israeli protesters on his Twitter account for endangering the safety of the police. However, Israeli security officials subsequently found it was misinformation spread by a foreign state, likely Iran.
Shin Bet has warned that it “identified Iranian influence activity on social media in Israel, whose purpose is to exacerbate the social and political rifts in Israel over the entire political spectrum.” In addition to these endeavors to manipulate the political discourse, some Iranian-linked efforts have attempted to recruit Israelis to take action that could lead to violence, as Haaretz has reported. The Islamic Republic has also engaged in this playbook in the United States, with a voter intimidation and influence campaign during the 2020 presidential election. While the Israeli assessment maintains that such influence activities are “minimal,” they nonetheless represent an opportunity to inflame public opinion at a very delicate moment in Israel’s history.
In mid-July, amid the ongoing protests over the government’s judicial reform, some reserve officers in the IDF’s cyber intelligence Unit 8200 announced they would not show up for duty anymore. In digesting these developments and the stated intention of more than 10,000 reservists from dozens of other military units, Iran and its allies may seek to test Israel’s readiness in the cyber realm as well, given its history of cyberattacks against the Israeli state. In fact, in an interview featured on the supreme leader’s website, an Iranian international affairs analyst, Seyyed Mostafa Khoshcheshm, highlighted these fissures in Unit 8200 and noted that the perception of Israel being weak creates an “opportunity” for the Axis of Resistance.
While the Israeli government has other cyber units, like the National Cyber Directorate, which operates under the Office of the Prime Minister, Unit 8200 has undertaken indispensable work not just in Israel but in thwarting attempts to hack U.S. power plants as well. Escalating cyberattacks in this environment could fall under the category of indirect interference, as Tehran and its transnational militia network would seek to maintain a level of plausible deniability.
This is not the first time Iran has sought to interfere in Israeli politics via cyberspace. In 2019, the head of Shin Bet warned that an unnamed foreign country was looking to intervene via hacking and cybertechnology. Reports later circulated that Iranian intelligence hacked the personal cell phone of Benny Gantz, then a rival to Netanyahu, in the election. In 2020, Facebook removed a network of accounts seeking to masquerade as the Black Flags movement, which at the time were protesting against Netanyahu. Thus, given the highly fraught environment, the desire by Iran’s militia network to camouflage its work, and the history of similar efforts, an uptick in such operations is possible.
Slowing down the Abraham Accords
Iranian decision-makers also likely view the unsettled domestic situation in Israel as an opening to slow down the expansion of the Abraham Accords and to create fissures among its existing members. Back in 2021, despite the recent inking of the Abraham Accords, Khamenei said during a Quds Day speech, “Today, hope of achieving victory is stronger than ever. Today, the balance of power has swung in favor of the Palestinians. The Zionist enemy has become weaker.” He continued, “Will the normalization of relations with a few weak and small countries be able to help that regime? Of course, those countries will not benefit from the relations either.” The events in Israel in recent months will only serve as a reaffirmation of Khamenei’s predictions.
This assumption that Israel’s power is diminishing will offer another talking point the Iranian government can use as it seeks to normalize relations with other Middle Eastern countries. In July, Nasrallah tellingly remarked that “Israel was once thought of as a regional power that can’t be beaten, and regional countries accepted its threat as a fact that can’t be removed […] its trust, awareness, and self-confidence have deteriorated into the crisis it is experiencing today.”
This view has already fed Iranian propaganda. In April 2023, the Islamic Republic adorned Tehran’s Vali Asr Square with a banner for Quds Day that read, “the [West] Bank is the Shield of Jerusalem.” Included in this display of unity in the Islamic Ummah were flags of Abraham Accords states, including the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, as well as Saudi Arabia, with which Tehran inked a normalization agreement a month earlier. It was not too long ago that the Saudi leadership was routinely ridiculed in public by top Iranian officials. But now the Saudi kingdom was being given a place of honor in Quds Day banners. With discussions between Egypt and Iran to upgrade diplomatic relations as well as with Sudan after ties were severed in 2016, the Islamic Republic has already been eyeing ways to undermine the Abraham Accords because it views the concept as a way of constraining its power.
Iranian policymakers more broadly view events in the region as moving in their favor. Arab countries are reestablishing ties with Tehran. Moreover, Iranian military planners no longer appear to fear a U.S. strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, with the chief of staff of the Islamic Republic’s Armed Forces remarking in July, “It’s been years since they [the U.S.] have stopped talking about the military option.” Meanwhile, Iran sees Israel as seemingly mired in domestic problems. Iranian media outlets have been amplifying the calls of former Israeli leaders for “street battles”; news coverage in major newspapers like Jam-e Jam, published by Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, carries headlines proclaiming “collapse.” This all signals greater Iranian smugness, which will likely prompt it to search for even more opportunities to weaken Israel’s position in the region.
That said, the strategy Iranian and Axis of Resistance leaders are employing is not without risks. The divisions in Israeli society are domestic in nature. When it comes to external threats like Iran, however, there is consensus across the political spectrum. Therefore, Iranian attempts to mount increasingly aggressive terrorist attacks, cyber operations, and diplomatic stratagems may backfire by unifying Israeli society. This could already be seen in leader of the opposition Yair Lapid uniting with Prime Minister Netanyahu in warning the United States against inking a bad nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic in June. Additionally, despite Tehran’s attempts to torpedo the Abraham Accords, these plots are unlikely to be successful as the UAE has demonstrated an ability to maintain relations simultaneously with Israel and Iran. That same logic is likely to apply to Saudi Arabia, should it eventually ink a similar normalization deal with Israel, as the Biden administration is currently pursuing. The threat perception and caution in Arab capitals toward Tehran remains essentially unchanged despite the reopening of embassies.
Likewise, however, risks persist for Israel. The drama over judicial reform is far from over despite the passage of part of the package by the legislature last month. The Supreme Court is due to hear appeals over the law in September, the Knesset reconvenes in October, and Netanyahu outlined that his ruling coalition is “prepared to discuss everything, immediately, and do so in the round of talks during the Knesset recess and reach a comprehensive agreement on everything, and [the government] will add more time should it be needed, until the end of November.” This elongated calendar means the cycle of protests will continue for some time. The Islamic Republic and its allies are likely to view this unsettled landscape as providing space for taking calculated aggressive risks against Israel. By the same token, evidence suggests that Iran’s proxies and partners are wary about going too far: They neither want the protests to end nor do they wish to trigger a war. Therefore, members of the Axis of Resistance will most probably engage in a carefully calibrated escalation.
Jason M. Brodsky is the policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) and a Non-Resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute’s Iran Program. His research focuses on leadership dynamics in Iran, the IRGC, and Iran’s relationship with Israel.
This article is part of a series about Iran and Israel made possible by a grant from the Iranian American Jewish Federation of New York and the Nazee & Joseph Moinian Foundation.
Photo by Borna News/Matin Ghasemi/Iran Images ATPImages/Getty Images
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