Israel’s Dangerous Game With Iran

9 minute read
Melman, in Tel Aviv, is a defense and security analyst for Haaretz. Raviv, in Washington, is a former CBS News correspondent. Their latest book is Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars.

The destruction of an entire building in Syria’s capital on April 1 was impressively precise. Whoever fired missiles at Iran’s consular offices in Damascus—and anyone with an iota of experience knows it was Israel’s air force—wanted to destroy that edifice and kill whoever was inside. Then came the information, from Iran’s government itself, that among the dead was the vice commander of the Quds Force, the multinational spearhead of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), along with senior officers who coordinated Iran’s activities in Syria and Lebanon.

No one claimed responsibility, but sources in Israeli intelligence tell us that IRGC Brigadier-General Mohammed Reza Zahedi was tracked by the Mossad and by Aman, Israel’s technology-driven military intelligence agency, for years. And when Israel’s spies were certain of where he was, and whom he was with, they immediately wanted to take the shot. They had to get Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s approval, and despite all the current pressures on Israel, he readily agreed.

That was a mistake. It was the right action, perhaps, but at the wrong time.

We can see why the Israelis wanted to do it. When they looked back at how America assassinated the charismatic head of the Quds Force, Major-General Qassem Soleimani—a daring decision made by President Donald Trump in January 2020, with a small Israeli role in tracking their quarry—they considered that Iran’s response was little more than bluster.

Right now, however, with the war in Gaza a costly and painful burden for six months and counting, Netanyahu is risking a much wider war. He is stirring the hornets’ nest, represented already by rocket attacks on Israel by Iranian proxies in Lebanon and in far-off Yemen and Iraq. Hours after the explosion in Damascus last week, many of Israel’s almost 10 million people went into a panic: hearing pundits in the media predict a massive retaliation by Iran, Israelis stocked up on food and rushed to ATM’s to draw cash from their accounts in case of all-out war.

A fresh round of panic was the last thing that the people of Israel needed, half a year after the Hamas attack of last October 7 with its massacres and the kidnapping of over 200 hostages. Netanyahu probably saw flattening an Iranian building in Syria as part of restoring Israel’s deterrence—meaning its ability to intimidate its hostile neighbors. But, as is typical of Israel’s longest serving prime minister, Netanyahu’s main concern was his own image. He wants to look bold, in the wake of a security and intelligence failure for which he must share the blame. He hasn’t stopped playing politics for a second, since the trauma of the worst attack on Jews since the Nazi Holocaust, and every hour of every day he is seeking to reverse his vulnerable political fortune.

In recent days, the families of the Israeli hostages held by Hamas stepped up their pressure campaign for a negotiated prisoner swap by turning explicitly against Netanyahu. They declared that the prime minister failed to protect their loved ones, and now is abandoning them again by playing politics and caring only about his own standing. The hostage families—a small but newly influential factor in Israeli public opinion—say Netanyahu needs to resign. They don’t even want to wait for scheduling an election, which is what Senator Chuck Schumer stunningly urged in his recent speech .

Read More: Biden Administers Ultimatum to Netanyahu

Joe Biden obviously agrees with Schumer. While the President did strong-arm Netanyahu into stepping up humanitarian aid deliveries to the Palestinians of Gaza, in the wake of the terrible Israeli mistake of killing seven World Central Kitchen workers, Biden has not gotten Netanyahu to agree to other key steps aimed at reducing bloodshed: a softer stand in the negotiations aimed at freeing hostages, believed to include five U.S. citizens; abandoning plans to enter the last Hamas stronghold, the city of Rafah, unless somehow more than a million Gaza refugees can be safely moved; and helping to lay plans for reconstruction and governance in Gaza aimed at paving the way to an independent Palestinian state. Netanyahu refuses to assent to a two-state solution, Palestine living alongside Israel as sovereign nations, and extreme Jewish nationalists in his cabinet won’t go along with any concessions.

Against this background is a long-standing strategy of the Mossad and other Israeli security agencies: targeted assassinations. It was a Pavlovian reaction when the spies locked on to Brigadier General Zahedi’s precise location. We found him—let’s kill him.

They certainly had found a potent enemy. Iran encouraged the Shi’ite Muslim fighters of Lebanon’s Hezbollah to keep firing rockets and anti-tank shells at northern Israel since last October, compelling tens of thousands of Israelis to leave their homes and reside temporarily in hotels and communities many miles away. Iran also clearly gave the green light to the Houthi rebels of Yemen to fire missiles at ships in the Red Sea and even at the Israeli port of Eilat, to show support for the embattled Palestinians of Gaza.

Israel’s military and intelligence services wanted to give Iran a bloody nose, but cooler heads have prevailed. Biden told everyone in the Middle East to avoid a wider war and anchored U.S. Navy warships in the Eastern Mediterranean to underline the American message. Yet Netanyahu and the Mossad couldn’t resist the temptation. After all, there is a long history of Israel literally getting away with murder.

Targeted killings by Israeli intelligence can be traced back to 1956, when a bomb hidden in an Islamic holy book killed an Egyptian colonel based in Gaza. He had organized Palestinian guerrillas who kept crossing the border to attack Israelis. In 1965, the Mossad sent killers to assassinate a Nazi war criminal in Montevideo, Uruguay. After PLO terrorists murdered 11 Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in Munich in 1972, the Mossad assassinated Palestinian activists in half a dozen countries—a so-called revenge campaign made famous by Steven Spielberg’s movie, Munich.

Senior men in Arab radical groups that attacked Israel were assassinated, from time to time, but Mossad officials have always told us that killings were a last resort. They much prefer to capture, interrogate, and if possible blackmail enemies and turn them into double agents. Israeli leaders want to avoid obvious violations of foreign laws, and the Jewish state does not want to be considered a worldwide murder agency.

Yet in Iran, desperate to stop that country’s secret but active drive to build nuclear weapons, Israeli agents assassinated more than half a dozen scientists and engineers connected with the nuclear program. Its top scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was the most recent known victim—killed in 2019 by a remote-controlled robot gun parked at the side of a road in Iran.

Israel has never determined what its rules of engagement should be, when it comes to targeted assassinations. After the publicly embarrassing failure of a mission aimed at poisoning a Hamas leader in Jordan in 1997, a parliamentary subcommittee tried to define an “assassination doctrine.” Netanyahu was prime minister at the time, and he and other government leaders failed to move ahead, even though the panel wrote that a policy was needed “for combatting terrorist organizations, based on rigorous thought and consistent logic.” Depending on killing prominent enemy individuals “has taken on great and damaging weight,” the Knesset members wrote.

So there in Damascus, Israeli intelligence saw a ripe target. Even more invitingly, he was meeting with other men who were directing Iran and Hezbollah’s simmering war on Israel. Netanyahu didn’t stop the Mossad’s Pavlovian response, even though he and his country are already coping with a 6-front war: the death and destruction in Gaza sparked by the historically awful Hamas incursion, an upsurge in violence in the West Bank, the Lebanese border exchanges of fire, a long streak of unacknowledged air force attacks on Iranian-affiliated targets in Syria, and the long-range missiles from Yemen and Iraq. Netanyahu is also in a diplomatic war with Joe Biden, and European leaders who expressed great sympathy after October 7 are now turning against what Israel’s been doing in Gaza.

Yet Netanyahu took the risk of opening another front by striking an Iranian consulate. Iran, vowing revenge directly against Israel, naturally says the building—under diplomatic protocols—was Iran’s sovereign territory. Israeli officials minimized the violation by telling us that it was just an apartment building, next door to Iran’s unscathed embassy. Tell that to the anti-aircraft and anti-missile system operators in Israel, now on high alert for any incoming attack from the East. Tell that to Israeli civilians, whose new round of panic included cleaning and preparing their bomb shelters. Tell that to the hostage families, who want a primary focus on rescuing the innocent captives, even as officials quietly opine that fewer than 60 of the 133 on the list are likely still alive.

We can see that the Mossad wanted some action, to be part of the battles that began last October. The head of the agency, David (Dedi) Barnea, has seemingly been relegated to the role of a messenger, as he flies to Qatar and to Egypt to take part in mediation sessions with the CIA director William Burns. Hamas negotiators are in separate rooms, when talks are underway in Doha and Cairo, even as Israelis and Americans involved wonder if the Hamas men of violence in the tunnels of Gaza will even honor whatever agreements might be reached.

A central decisionmaker in all this mess is Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu. He looms large with his ego, his resentment at political foes and the media he labels as “fake news,” and the fact that he is on trial for alleged fraud involving bribes. It is a slow-moving legal process, but one that has clearly motivated his refusal to call an early election—none is required until October 2026. While Israeli society is marred by a combustible mix of angry and divided citizens, and despite his terrible poll ratings, Netanyahu keeps hanging onto power by his fingernails. If he thought angering Joe Biden, violating diplomatic norms, and risking a longer and wider war could help him, Israel’s prime minister was willing to take the shot.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.