- - Sunday, June 23, 2019

JERUSALEM | Palmachim Beach was busy on Saturday with Israeli bathers soaking up the sun and walking their dogs beside a calm Mediterranean Sea.

But just beyond the revelry, hidden in the sand dunes, is Palmachim Air Base. It is here, as recently as January, that Israel has tested its Arrow-3 air defense system, designed to stop incoming ballistic missiles.

Israelis have long been able to compartmentalize their prosperous but precarious position, a regional superpower that must ferociously protect its right to exist. And when tensions between allies and enemies soar, as is not the case with the U.S. and Iran, Israel can’t help but be dragged into the clash.

Israel could be in the crosshairs of Tehran and its military proxies if a conflict breaks out with the US. However for most Israelis, the last 72 hours of tension, since President Trump at the last minute called off retaliatory airstrikes on Iran, have passed with remarkable calm.

“We don’t talk much about Iran. Even the Israeli Hebrew media coverage of it is not giving the people any response to worry about,” said Hen Mazzig, a young Israeli activist and author, sipping a coffee on Ben-Yehuda street in Tel Aviv. Domestic elections — including the uncertain fate of longtime hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — are the prime topic of conversation and people have gotten used to the Iranian threats.

Last week, Mr. Netanyahu warned Israel’s enemies that they would face “immense destructive power,” during a drill by the Israel Defense Forces. The IDF carried out a large-scale exercise designed to “enhance preparedness in the northern sector” on Thursday — just as the tensions between Tehran and Washington were at their highest.

The drill included the air force, navy and ground forces. Troops practiced with helicopters, hiking through mountains and forces, and taking control of tunnels and caves.

The scope and design of the drills were clearly meant to send a message: The terrain resembles that which Israel would face fighting Lebanon-based Hezbollah, a longtime Iranian ally.

Israel has dismantled several Hezbollah tunnels that stretched under the border over the last six months. However the powerful Shiite group is estimated to have up to 150,000 rockets aimed at Israel. Hezbollah has said all of Israel is within its rocket range. Iran has been helping Hezbollah upgrade its rockets to make them more precise in a future war.

For all the blase attitude of the Palmachim beachgoers, the tensions with Iran could have very real consequences for Israel and the military drill underpins Jerusalem’s concerns.

Iran’s shootdown of a valuable and sophisticated U.S. drone Thursday came at a time of increasingly pointed Iranian threats to the U.S. and its allies in Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Israel has faced off against Iranian targets in Syria, with more than 1,000 airstrikes, in the last five years, according to the former Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot.

The Syrian regime has blamed Israel for airstrikes that hit the T-4 air base and an observation post near the Golan cease-fire line in early June. Iranian forces are alleged to have been in both locations.

Bolton visit

As a sign the Trump White House appreciates the threat Israel may face in a shooting war, U.S. National Security Adviser John R. Bolton arrived in Israel on Saturday night and met with Mr. Netanyahu on Sunday.

Mr. Bolton warned Iranian leaders not to interpret Mr. Trump’s decision to scrub the attack a sign of weakness.

“No one has granted them a hunting license in the Middle East,” Mr. Bolton said.

Mr. Netanyahu’s close relationship with the Trump White House is a central theme of his reelection campaign and he was eager to highlight U.S.-Israeli solidarity in the latest confrontation with Iran.

“In the last 24 hours, Iran has intensified its aggression against the United States,” Mr. Netanyahu said last week, assuring Washington of Israeli support. Mr. Netanyahu has warned of Iran’s threats for decades, and has told Iran not to test the Jewish state.

But Israeli leaders are also trying to keep a tight lid on the likelihood that any conflict between the U.S. and Iran could ignite a wider conflict between Israel and Hezbollah.

Former Israeli Deputy National Security Adviser Eran Lerman said that Israel is seeking not to be in the spotlight and is leery of accusations that Mr. Bolton and Mr. Netanyahu are coordinating on a hawkish policy to provoke a war.

Israel, he added, doesn’t want to expose its sources regarding what it know about Iran’s threats and military capabilities.

And Israel has “a minor political problem here,” he joked, a reference to the elections in the fall that could decide Mr. Netanyahu’s fate.

That may be why Mr. Netanyahu, who has always sought to be out front in warning of the dangers Iran and its proxies pose to the region, most famously with his literal representation of the Tehran regime as bomb about to go off in a 2012 address to the U.N. General Assembly, has kept a much lower profile in the past week.

Even so, Israel is preparing for the possibility of conflict.

The government rolled out a new warning system on June 11, designed to increase the ability to alert citizens more accurately to incoming rocket fire. Now instead of the country being divided into 250 sectors, the system can warn people in 1,700 localities, forcing them into bomb shelters only when they are directly under rocket fire.

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