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Israeli Officials, Media React To Tensions In Gulf, Concerned About Impact On Israel

An F/A-18E Super Hornet aircraft launches from the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in the Persian Gulf, May 10, 2019

Israeli media have given extensive coverage to the rising tension in the Persian Gulf area, fearing wider implications for the region and Israel. Reactions by officials on the other hand have been limited, perhaps deliberately trying not to appear as inflaming existing tensions.

Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz was the first Israeli official who reacted to the events in the Gulf immediately after the May 12 attack on four civilian ships in Fujairah, warning that an over-reacting Iran might strike Israel with rockets. “Things are heating up,” Steinitz told the Ynet news site, “I wouldn’t rule anything out. Iran may fire rockets at Israel.”

Meanwhile, according to the times of Israel, Steinitz also said that Iran might activate its regional proxies, Lebanon’s Hezbollah or Gaza’s Islamic Jihad, to attack Israel.

In the meantime, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu who has always said his government was the first and only regional player to oppose the nuclear deal with Iran in 2015, called Iran a "vital threat" while also adding that the United States is Israel's closest ally in the region. The New York Times revealed on May 16 that "Israel has been providing Washington with intelligence about potential Iranian attacks."

Reminding that Netanyahu is obsessed with Iran's regional ambitions and that he floated the idea of war with Iran as recently as February, the New York Times observed that "analysts and former Israeli military and intelligence officials say the Israeli government is not angling for a full-blown war between the United States and Iran. Such a war, Israeli officials fear, could plunge Israel into a mutually destructive conflagration with Iran’s ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah."

On May 14, while U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman called the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem a shrine that attracts tourists, Maariv quoted Netanyahu as having said that Israel and the United States share the goal of stopping Iran's aggression.

He also called on the world community to stand next to Israel and America against Iran.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday May 15, Channel 13 of Israeli TV reported that Netanyahu held a meeting same day with his country's intelligence and security officials to discuss the Iran-U.S. crisis, including the possibility of Iran's proxy rocket attacks on Israel. According to Channel 13, Netanyahu advised his aides at the meeting to distance the country from the Iran-U.S. standoff if it gets any worse.

According to Channel 13, Israeli officials had informed U.S. authorities as early as late April of intelligence reports about the possibility of sabotage operations by Iranians against U.S. targets in the region. The channel reported that Israeli National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shebbat had communicated the reports to U.S. officials in the White House, The Times of Israel reported.

"Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency reportedly tipped off the United States on an impending Iranian attack on American interests in the Gulf, prompting Washington to deploy an aircraft carrier strike group to the region," the report said.

Some regional Arab media have quoted anecdotal reports about Pro-Iran Iraqi cleric Ammar Hakim having heard the same in meetings with U.S. official, but those reports cannot be verified.

Israel's Channel 13 has also said that Iran has considered attacking Saudi oil establishments." The channel, did not name any source for the report, but added that Iranians have also considered violent attacks on American targets and U.S. allies in the region, but ruled out such attacks for being "too dangerous," while attacks on Saudi oil establishment was less dangerous and could also lead to a rise in oil prices.

The Times of Israel also quoted Channel 13 as having said that some IRGC commanders assessed an attack on Israel "tantamount to committing suicide." However, the Times of Israel did not say where did it get the report from.

According to Ron Ben-Yishai, an Israeli military affairs correspondent writing for the YNet News, one possible explanation for the acts of sabotage in the Gulf is that hardliners in the Iranian revolutionary guards wanted to say they are serious in their threats. He reminded that any misunderstanding or miscalculation can escalate the crisis, but Iranians will act cautiously as they know a military engagement with Israel will lead to destruction in Syria, Lebanon and Gaza.