Until the October 7 massacre and the ensuing war, the Yemen-based, virulently antisemitic Houthis were a distant threat to most Israelis.
Most people had heard the Iran-backed Houthis in the context of the ongoing civil war in Yemen but did not pay them much attention.
With Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza and the West Bank, and Iran keen on setting up bases for proxies in Syria, Israel had closer, more immediate threats to worry about.
That was the thinking pre-October 7. In the post-October 7 world, however, the Houthis have emerged not as some distant threat but as a real and immediate one.
Since the beginning of the war, the Houthis have fired cruise missiles and attack drones toward Israel that have been shot down by the IDF, the US, and, according to some reports, even once by Saudi Arabia.
On Sunday, the Houthis struck again, this time not with missiles or drones in the air, but at sea, by hijacking a cargo ship en route from Turkey to India via the Red Sea.
A British company with an Israeli partner owns the Japanese-operated, Bahamas-flagged ship. There were 25 crew members on the ship from the Philippines, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Romania, and Mexico – no Israelis.
The Prime Minister’s Office released a carefully worded statement after the ship was seized.
“This is another act of Iranian terrorism and constitutes a leap forward in Iran’s aggression against the citizens of the free world, with international consequences regarding the security of the global shipping lanes,” the statement read.
There were four key words in this statement: “Iranian terrorism” and “international consequences.”
It made clear that Israel does not believe the Houthis acted on their own. The hands that hijacked the ship might have been those of the Houthis, but the motivating force came from Iran.
The statement made clear that Israel holds Iran responsible, and expects the rest of the world to do the same.
The second part of the statement spoke of “international consequences.” With these words, Israel was saying that although the hijacking may have been aimed at Israel, it is not a localized Israeli problem.
Threats to free shipping on international waterways – piracy, pure and simple – are a threat to the free world with “international consequences,” not only to Israel.
The next move
So, what actions should be taken?
First, the world should let Tehran know that it is not fooled by its shell game and realizes it employs proxies to commit acts of terror, targets Israel, and disturbs the world order.
Secondly, the US should immediately place the Houthis back on its list of foreign terrorist entities.
In the last days of former president Donald Trump’s term in office, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo placed the Houthis on America’s foreign terrorist organization list, a list that has symbolic importance as well as practical significance: anyone providing material support to such an organization is committing a crime.
A month later, just a couple weeks after Joe Biden took over as the American president, the State Department took the Houthis off this list, arguing that their listing was making it difficult to get humanitarian aid to Yemen, which was in the grips of a devastating civil war.
That was only, apparently, part of the story. The move was also aimed at Saudi Arabia, which the Biden Administration entered office believing should be kept at arm’s length, and a positive signal to Iran, with whom the new administration was interested in reengaging in nuclear diplomacy.
Now is the time for the US to reclassify the Houthis as a terrorist organization. This characterization seems very apt for a group that sends cruise missiles and attack drones toward civilian populations and hijacks commercial shipping vessels.
Right now, the Houthis are acting with impunity. Reinstating them on this list signals there is a price for their actions.Israel, too, will eventually need to make the Houthis pay. The time to do this might not be now, in the midst of a full-scale war in Gaza, but it will come at a later date. Israel does not live in a neighborhood where enemies will refrain from attacking just because they are asked not to. A price needs to be extracted, but at a time and place and in a manner of Israel’s choosing.