The targeted assassination of Qasem Soleimani is a game changer for Israel in its simmering conflict with Tehran. This drone strike could mean an Iranian attack on Israel in response. But whether Iran seeks to attack or not, it means that the country’s remaining allies in the region – such as Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah – will know they could meet a similar, sticky end to Soleimani.
For Israel, Trump's decision to target Soleimani is a moment to celebrate. Israel viewed the Iranian Quds Force commander as a central figure behind Tehran’s threats to destroy Israel. In August, Israel's PM Benjamin Netanyahu gave a stark warning to Soleimani, blaming him for an attempted drone attack on Israel from Syria. Soleimani and senior IRGC leaders have also increased their rhetoric against Israel over the last year, claiming the destruction of Israel is no longer just a dream but a practical reality.
For many years, despite Israel’s concerns about Iran’s growing role in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, the US cautioned Israel against a pre-emptive strike on Iran, It also warned against taking out senior commanders like Soleimani. This changed when US president Donald Trump took office. His administration has given Israel a green light to counter Iran in Syria and allowed it to be more assertive as part of a wider US campaign to pressure Iran.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke to Netanyahu, assuring Israel of support, after the US decided to withdraw from part of Syria in October. He also spoke to the Israeli leader on 31 December and 2 January; both times emphasising that Israel and US held a common cause in countering Iran. Soleimani's assassination only confirms this mutually beneficial alliance.
So why was Soleimani such a threat to Israel? He was a key figure in the 2006 Hezbollah war when Hezbollah launched an attack on Israel’s northern border, kidnapping the bodies of two soldiers and killing others. That led to a 34-day war, in which Israel struggled to find its footing as rockets rained down on the country. It was a major embarrassment and wake-up call for Israel. Soleimani boasted of how he had helped Hezbollah during that conflict.
Israel saw Soleimani as integral to providing precision guidance to Hezbollah. He seemingly played a key role in moving munitions to Syria to plot attacks on Israel. He was believed to be behind several rocket attacks from Syria on Israel this year and a salvo of rockets fired in May at Israel. He was also behind the attempt to launch drones at Israel in August. In response, Israel has carried out retaliatory and pre-emptive raids in Syria, in 2019, it struck more than 50 targets. But Iran hasn’t stopped. It is building bases and moving weapons. And a key player in that refusal to back down has been Qasem Soleimani.
This made Soleimani high on the list of Israeli targets. But Israel has been reluctant to pull the trigger. In January 2018, a Kuwaiti newspaper reported that the US had given Israel a green light to strike Soleimani. There were clear reasons for doing so: Israel was convinced that Iran would continue to entrench in Syria and Iraq. That is why Jerusalem sought to make Syria the equivalent of Iran’s “Vietnam.” Yet Soleimani – a shrewd, intelligent operator – was perhaps the chief reason for ensuring that Syria did not become Iran’s Vietnam. He was a tough competitor in the kind of deadly chess game that mark Israel-Iran tensions. By removing him the US has taken a key piece off the board.
And, what's more, while Israel remains a target for Iran, because the US conducted the killing it is less likely that Iran will mobilise the region against Israel. Instead, it seems probable that Iran will use its proxies, such as Shi’ite militias and Hezbollah to attack Israel instead. But Hezbollah must tread carefully. Trump's clear message is that there is an open season on Iranian proxies. Israel has warned Hezbollah not to test its resolve. Unlike in 2006, Israel now has a complex multi-layered air defence system, made up of systems like Iron Dome and Arrow 3. That means the game has changed significantly in Israel's favour. Yes, Hezbollah also plenty of missiles, but it knows Israel has F-35s and some of the best military technology in the world. Israel also has America’s full, wholehearted support under president Trump. So make no mistake: Qasem Soleimani's demise will be warmly celebrated in Jerusalem.