Understanding Israel's War in the 'Grey Zone' | Opinion

The facts of the case remain in dispute. A variety of versions have emerged. But all the various accounts agree that the Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a brigadier general of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, considered by Israel to be the commander of the military element of the Iranian nuclear program, died in a hail of bullets on the road to his hometown of Absard, south of Tehran, on November 27.

No one has openly claimed responsibility for the killing of Fakhrizadeh, but it may be taken as a near certainty that Israel was behind it. The event thus appears to be a rare sighting of an ongoing campaign under way for some years now: Israel's ongoing, usually silent "grey zone" war against Iran.

This campaign, and the way it is fought, is a natural partner to the diplomatic moves that have recently produced "normalization" agreements between Israel, Morocco, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Together, these represent the Israeli response to a strategic dilemma—namely, how can Israel maintain the required levels of societal calm, normality and tranquility within which economic activity and innovation can flourish, while at the same time engaging effectively in the long, open-ended struggle against those countries and organizations committed to its destruction?

The strategic "long war" doctrine underlying the activities of those organizations and states, nationalist and Islamist, which have engaged in irregular warfare against Israel over the last half-century is intended to accentuate this contradiction. The notion, as articulated by Lebanese Hezballah leader Hassan Nasrallah in his 2000 speech at Bint Jbeil in which he alleged that Israeli society was weaker than a "spider's web," is that by making the pursuit of normal life impossible in Israel, the Jewish state's enemies would erode its people's will to continue—and cause them, over time, to abandon their commitment to it in the first instance. The model for this desired outcome is the demise of French Algeria, and the departure from that country of French settlers after 1959.

Israel, of course, does not accept the historic comparison, nor the underlying diagnosis of the society. But this is not an argument characterized by respectful debate. The task facing Israeli strategists has been to develop a means of diplomacy and a simultaneous means of war capable of preventing the hypothesis from being tested. What this looks like in practice has been on display in recent weeks.

The purpose of Israel's current, ongoing military campaign is two-fold. It is intended to disrupt and hinder Iran's ongoing efforts to develop a nuclear weapons capacity. It also seeks to prevent and reverse the Iranian project to create an extensive infrastructure of support across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and then to embed advanced weapons systems directed at Israel within that infrastructure.

This is a very 21st-century campaign. It is considered to involve only a relatively small number of Israeli agencies and citizens. Key among the former are parts of the air force, the Mossad and other intelligence bodies, and personnel who learned their trade in Israel's most selective special forces units.

The killing of Fakhrizadeh would have been the province of intelligence groups. The air force, meanwhile, is engaged on a weekly basis in disrupting Iranian efforts at building and consolidating its human and material infrastructure in Syria. This ongoing campaign has, in the view of Yaakov Amidror, a former national security advisor in Israel and today a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, succeeded—as expressed to me in a recent conversation—in setting back the Iranian effort by "80 to 85 percent."

Covert action, including the use of assassinations, has formed a controversial part of Israel's way of war since the very birth of the state—and, indeed, even before it. Famously, then-Prime Minister Golda Meir directed Israel's intelligence agencies to eliminate the perpetrators of the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. This was a mission achieved, though not without serious errors and mishaps. The last of the individuals directly responsible for the Munich massacre was not killed until 1979.

Mural in Tehran for Mohsen Fakhrizadeh
Mural in Tehran for Mohsen Fakhrizadeh ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images

But the structures established by Israel for carrying out that campaign amounted to the formalization of existing practices, rather than a completely novel turn. In the early 1960s, Israel, in "Operation Damocles," conducted a series of assassinations of rocket scientists, including German veterans of Hitler's rocket program. These men were working with the then-Egyptian regime to develop Cairo's long-range missile capacity.

Even prior to the establishment of Israel, Zionist paramilitary organizations kept assassination as one of their tools. The commander of the Mossad operational unit in Operation Damocles was future Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. The latter learned his trade as operations officer of the Lohamei Herut Yisrael (Israel Freedom Fighters), better known in the English-speaking world as the Stern Gang. This organization assassinated, among others, a UN mediator, Count Folke Bernadotte, in Jerusalem in 1948, and a British minister of state in the Middle East, Lord Moyne, in Cairo in 1944.

The first significant political assassination carried out by Zionist organizations indeed traces all the way back to Jerusalem in 1924. The victim was Jacob De Haan, a prominent Jewish anti Zionist leader. The perpetrators were the newly formed Haganah, first of the Zionist military groups.

It is a long way from pistol shots by a lone gunman in 1920s-era Jerusalem—the gunman in question, at the time, was Odessa-born Avraham Tehomi, later the founder and first commander of the Irgun—to the complex, high-tech operation that appears to have ended the life of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. But a consistent, if evolving, praxis links the two. Israel does not always wait until a problem has ripened in order to meet it with large-scale conventional military or diplomatic means. Instead, where Israel deems it necessary, it prefers to deploy direct action to prevent the nascent problem from fully emerging.

Former Deputy Prime Minister and Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor, speaking to me recently in Jerusalem, located Israel's alleged policy of assassinations within an integrated, three-sided strategy intended to stop Iran from going nuclear. The strategy, according to Meridor, involves "prevention" (a euphemism for active measures to disrupt the Iranian effort), "defense" (including such systems as the Arrow anti-ballistic missile system) and "deterrence" (relating to Israel's own putative nuclear capacity).

This strategy minimizes disruption for the daily lives of the vast majority of Israelis, who are able to continue their own endeavors largely unaware of, or incurious about, national security details.

In this way, it fits with the current advances in peacemaking and the normalization agreements. The defense strategy is intended to keep professed enemies at bay with the minimum of visibility. This then enables civil society and enterprise to flourish. These, in turn, produce the capacities—in desert agriculture, medical tech, artificial intelligence and other fields—that make Israel such a useful partner for regional states in the civilian realm.

The killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh on the road from Tehran to Absard thus forms part of an approach to conflict intended to minimize fallout and accompanying noise, while bolstering the atmosphere of security and normality that makes a flourishing 21st-century society feasible amidst a troubled and strife-torn neighborhood. Innovation, normalization and cooperation for those who seek goodwill; the silent war for those with other intents. As of now, it appears to be working.

Jonathan Spyer is executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, a research fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Strategy and Security and a fellow at the Middle East Forum. Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @jonathan_spyer.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.