When Israeli Minister without Portfolio Yossi Peled said recently that a war with Lebanon’s Hezbollah was “just a matter of time” and that such a conflict would include Syria, most observers dismissed the comment as little more than posturing by a right-wing former general. But Peled’s threat has been backed by Israeli military maneuvers near the Lebanese border, violations of Lebanese airspace, and the deployment of an anti-missile system on Israel’s northern border.
The Lebanese are certainly not treating it as Likud bombast.
“We hear a lot of Israeli threats day in and day out, and not only threats,” Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri told the BBC. “We see what is happening on the ground and in our airspace…during the past two months—every day we have Israeli airplanes entering Lebanese airspace.” Hariri added that he considered the situation “really dangerous.”
The increasing tension was behind the recent visit to Beirut by Senator Philippe Marini, French President Nicholas Sarkozy’s special envoy to Lebanon. After Marini met with Hariri, Christian Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, and Hezbollah leaders, the envoy said that he feared a Hezbollah-Israel rematch could easily become a regional war.
Rhetoric all over the region is heating up.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman first said that Israel would never return the Golan Heights to Syria, prompting Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem to comment that Israel “should not test Syria’s determination.” Lieberman responded by taking direct aim at Syrian President Bashar Assad: “In the next war, not only will you lose, but you and your family will lose the regime.”
Israel attacked Lebanon in 2006 following a Hezbollah raid that captured two Israeli soldiers. The 34-day war cost Lebanon more than 1,000 dead, and tens of billions of dollars in damage to bridges, roads, airports, and towns. But the war also saw the once-invincible Israeli Self-Defense Forces (IDF) fought to a bloody standstill, and a barrage of some 4,000 Hezbollah rockets into Israel.
Many in the Israeli military would love to re-establish the IDF’s reputation by beating up on Hezbollah, but the Shiite-based militia has broad support throughout Lebanon, as the last elections demonstrated. While the “pro-western” March 14 Movement won the most seats—largely as a result of ethnic gerrymandering—the Hezbollah bloc won the most votes. In any case, the March 14 Movement has begun to unravel with the defection of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.
Lebanon is a deeply fractious place, but an Israeli attack would unite the country as it did in 2006. “I think they’re [Israelis] betting that there might be some division in Lebanon if there is war against us,” said Hariri, “Well, there won’t be a division in Lebanon. We will stand against Israel. We will stand with our own people.”
Lebanon’s military is no match for Israel. It has a small army and its air force consists of two grounded 1950s vintage Hawker Hunter fighter-bombers, plus a motley collection of helicopters, most of which are not operational. In the 2007 fight with Islamic extremists in Tripoli, Lebanese Army soldiers pitched bombs out of French Gazelle helicopters by hand.
As the IDF found out in 2006, however, Hezbollah is a different matter. Of course, a massive Israeli ground invasion would overwhelm the group’s militia, but any occupation of South Lebanon will conjure up old nightmares for Tel Aviv. It was Hezbollah’s roadside bombs and ambushes that drove the IDF out of the same area in 2000.
The Israelis are threatening to flatten the entire country if it comes to war—“taking off the gloves” as Israel military analyst Yisrael Katzover puts it—and they certainly have the capabilities to inflict a stunning amount of damage. But Hezbollah claims it has some thunder of its own. Hassan Nasrallah, the group’s leader, vows to bring Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport under fire if Israel bombs Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport as it did in 2006. “If you hit our ports, we will hit your ports,” Nasrallah said Feb. 21.
According to Israeli intelligence, Hezbollah has 42,000 rockets, some with the range to hit Tel Aviv and targets further south. Whether the group actually has that many rockets is unclear. Israel tends to pump up the threat its antagonists pose. In any case, Hezbollah certainly has rockets and demonstrated its ability to strike northern Israel in 2006. If Nasrallah is to be believed, it may be able to bring central Israel under fire as well.
Does the war have the potential to become regional?
Only if Israel decides to make it so. While the Netanyahu government talks about Hezbollah being little more than a cat’s paw for Iran and Syria, the group has deep roots in the country’s long-repressed Shiite majority. It does receive arms from both Damascus and Iran, and Teheran also gives the group about $200 million a year in aid. That is, however, a tiny portion of Hezbollah’s annual budget.
Lebanon’s Shiites are also quite different than their Iranian counterparts. While Iran’s mullahs dominate civil and economic matters, Lebanon’s Shiites are suspicious of direct involvement in government, because they believe that it will ultimately corrupt Islam. A number of Iraq’s Shiites, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, come from a similar current in the Shiite sect.
Hezbollah is quite aware of the damage that Israel can inflict, and, is consequently unlikely to do anything provocative. As Azmi Bishara, a Palestinian and former Israeli Knesset members writes in Al-Ahram, “Hezbollah has made it clear it intends to avoid giving Israel any excuse to go to war.”
As for Syria, the last thing Damascus wants is a war. Its economy is humming, its careful diplomacy has lifted it out of isolation, and over the past several months world leaders from France and Spain, and regional governments—including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey— have beaten a path to President Assad’s door. When U.S. Special Forces violated the Syrian border while looking for al-Qaeda terrorists last year, the Assad government’s response was a mild protest. When Israel bombed a site in northern Syria, the Damascus government did nothing. Syria has nothing to gain, and much to lose, from a war.
Israel has moved its new Iron Dome anti-missile system to its northern border, even though the original plan was to deploy it in the south to intercept rockets fired from Gaza. The system is supposed to be up and running by June. “Making Iron Dome operational will transform Israel’s diplomatic and security situation,” says Israeli Defense Ministry director general Pinhas Buchris.
Given that Hezbollah has not fired a rocket at Israel since the summer of 2006, why would Tel Aviv move Iron Dome to the northern border unless it was to assure the Israeli public that it will not come under fire in the advent of a new war? In any case, Iron Dome is unlikely to transform anything, since anti-missile systems tend to be more about hype and hope than performance.
There is, of course, the possibility that the Israelis will bet the house and hit Lebanon, Syria and possibly Iran’s nuclear facilities. The rhetoric coming out of the Netanyahu government ties all three countries together, which is why Peled lumped Syria with Lebanon. The standard line coming out of Tel Aviv is that Iran is behind everything, including Hamas.
Any rational reading of the Middle East makes that charge difficult to credit. Iran commands neither Syria nor Hezbollah, and while Teheran might provide arms to Hamas, a radical Sunni organization is unlikely to go to war because a Shiite government told it to. The only one of those parties that might welcome a war with Israel is Iran, but only so that the Ahmadinejad regime can use it as an excuse to crack down on internal dissent.
Many in the Israeli establishment openly advocate attacking Iran. Danny Yaton, former head of Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad, told the German Council on Foreign Relations “The entire world should take military action to prevent Iran from getting the bomb.”
The Sunday Times (London) reports, “According to well-placed sources, Israel is speeding up preparations for a possible attack on Iran’s nuclear sites.” The Israeli daily Haaretz says that the Netanyahu government is asking the Obama administration to supply Israel with GBU-28 “bunker buster” bombs and refueling tanker aircraft, both which would be essential for a strike at Iran.
But some in the Israeli military establishment seems reluctant to launch such an attack. Brigadier-General Uzi Eilam, an Israel war hero and a man the Sunday Times calls a “pillar of the defense establishment,” says that Iran is a “very, very, very long way from building a nuclear capacity.” Eilam charges, “The intelligence community is spreading frightening voices about Iran,” and that such an attack would be “counter productive.”
Maybe this is all saber rattling aimed at getting the U.S. to step up the pressure on Iran, Syria and Lebanon. Maybe, as Eilam charges, it is all about the IDF getting “a bigger budget.” Maybe it is a diversion from the charges that Israel committed war crimes in its invasion of Gaza, its settlement building on the West Bank, and the diplomatic storm it has reaped from its assassination of a Hamas official in Dubai.
But ramping up the rhetoric of war in a volatile region can lead to a misstep—by accident or design—and once the dogs of war are off their leash, it will be hard to bring them to heel.
CONN HALLINAN can be reached at: email@example.com