Striking a balance
Hezbollah?s growing dominance in Lebanon is worrying, but has a bright side: The next time the Islamic movement attacks south of the border, Israel will blame the new unity government and Hezbollah knows it.
At Wednesday's cabinet meeting, which was devoted to yet another discussion of the situation in Lebanon, senior Defense and Foreign Ministry officials presented a dismal picture. Defense Minister Ehud Barak even described the discussion during a private conversation as "the final nail in the coffin of [UN] Resolution 1701."
Hezbollah, senior defense officials said at the meeting, is completing its takeover of Lebanon. After the Doha agreement that brought a cease-fire in May, Hezbollah added political superiority to its military superiority, and the platform of Lebanon's unity government in all matters relating to the fight against Israel was fully subordinated to the demands of Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. On the other hand, the sources noted, the Lebanon of the last war, which allowed Israel to hit Hezbollah, but not to cause damage to the state and its institutions, no longer exists. In the next war, the United States will not be able to stop Israel from bombing the Beirut airport or power stations. To a certain extent, the defense officials told the cabinet ministers, the new situation in Lebanon has thus led to the strengthening of Israel's deterrent capability.
One recommendation adopted by the cabinet was to formulate a new policy on Lebanon, in which Israel holds the Siniora government responsible for every incident that occurs in that country's territory or that Lebanese are behind. In the coming weeks, Israel plans to relay this message to the UN, the United States, Russia, European countries - and, primarily, Syria and Hezbollah. If Hezbollah attacks Israel from Lebanese soil, fires at air force planes or carries out a terrorist attack abroad to avenge the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, Israel will place the political blame for it on Lebanon and respond accordingly.
The defense establishment claims that Hezbollah also understands the new situation and its implications for the organization's ability to act against Israel. One intelligence official who spoke at the cabinet meeting described Hezbollah as "an organization in a dilemma": It seeks to fulfill its jihadist destiny in the struggle against Israel, but is worried about a massive Israeli retaliation operation, which would bring destruction down upon all of Lebanon and not just upon Shi'ite villages and neighborhoods.
For this reason, intelligence officials suggest, Hezbollah sought operations that would gain it wall-to-wall legitimacy in Lebanon and be perceived as serving the Lebanese national interest rather than the narrow Shi'ite interest, not to mention the Iranian interest. The target decided upon was Israel's air force flyovers in Lebanon, and to strike at them Hezbollah needs anti-aircraft missiles.
Israel invested substantial effort over the last two years in convincing the international community of the necessity of its intelligence flights in Lebanon. At both the Foreign Ministry and the General Staff's planning department, they feel there is an understanding of their importance, both for gathering intelligence about Hezbollah and also to deter the organization, given its growing power. The flights have become a topic about which there is "silent agreement," and if it is raised in diplomatic venues, it is clear to everyone that the protests are intended only for public consumption.
One group that Israel has not managed to convince is the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. Once a month, UNIFIL publishes a report on the flyovers, which it forwards to the members of the UN Security Council. In recent months, these reports included lists of hundreds of flights in Lebanese skies. The protests from the UN and the U.S. were not long in coming.
In order to prove that the situation is not all that bad, the head of the IDF Planning Branch's strategic division, Brig. Gen. Yossi Heyman, invited the UNIFIL commander, General Claudio Graziano, to visit the Ramat David air force base. After presenting the different squadrons and their missions, Heyman told Graziano: "You have mistakes in the reports about our flights. You count each plane twice, once when it enters Lebanon and once when it leaves." Heyman also suggested to Graziano that the two compare records. "Let's check before each report you issue and see if the list isn't cut in half."
Two smugglers gone
Hezbollah's search for anti-aircraft missiles that will impair the air force's freedom of movement in Lebanon was nothing new to Israel. Neither is the arms smuggling from Syria to Hezbollah, which has been going on since the IDF withdrawal from Lebanon two years ago, under the supervision of two figures who are no longer with us. On the Hezbollah side it was Mughniyeh, who was killed in a mysterious explosion in his car in Damascus several months ago, and on Syria's side it involved Mohammed Suleiman, President Bashar Assad's military adviser, who was assassinated by sniper fire on the Tartus coast a week ago.
After the Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah began, with massive Iranian and Syrian aid, to rehabilitate its military capabilities. Israel was aware of this, but for its own reasons chose to exercise restraint. In one case, a few months after the war, it seemed that the pressure on the defense establishment would lead to an aggressive anti-smuggling operation, but in the end Prime Minister Ehud Olmert decided to shelve the idea.
"There was no international problem, and the world would have accepted it," a senior defense official explains, "but the politicians simply didn't approve it."
Defense officials fear that Syria would transfer anti-aircraft missiles as well as ground-to-ground missiles with much greater precision than the rockets the organization has, and this prompted a sense of emergency also among the political leadership. To the defense establishment, supplying the missiles constituted "a violation of the strategic balance in Lebanon."
At Wednesday's cabinet meeting, there were assessments that Syria might still decide to supply the "balance-disrupting" weapons. And the ministers decided that if this indeed was to happen, Israel would view it as the crossing of a red line. The debate between the defense establishment and the political leadership today focuses on the question of how to make Israel's position clear to Syria without affecting the negotiations underway with Damascus. If Syria wants serious peace negotiations, say officials who have participated in the debates, it has to understand that Israel will not agree to the continuation of the arms transfers. On the other hand, the negotiations have strategic benefits, as they serve to distance Syria from the war option, which is especially important if Israel anticipates a new confrontation with Hezbollah, or even more critical, a war with Iran.
What frustrates Olmert, Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is the fact that until now, Israel has failed to mobilize the international community behind a meaningful move against arms smuggling. As with Hamas' ongoing buildup in the Gaza Strip, the world is aware of Hezbollah's arming, but is not doing anything to stop it.
In Israel, they would like to see the smuggling of arms to Hezbollah turn into a significant problem in the relationship between Syria and the European Union. But when Israel itself during its negotiations does not demand an immediate halt of the arms smuggling, in Europe they see no reason to be "holier than the pope."
Two weeks ago in New York, a day apart, both Barak and Livni surveyed the situation in Lebanon with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Ban is a very significant element in the implementation of Resolution 1701 and the supervision of UNIFIL forces, but a transcript of the meetings that reached Haaretz indicates that his response was rather apathetic.
"The transfer of certain arms to Hezbollah disrupted the balance in Lebanon," Barak told the secretary-general. The latter responded laconically: "We did not find Hezbollah infrastructure that had been rebuilt after the war." "You know what information we have about Hezbollah - we forward everything to you," Livni said. Ban maintained his position: "What UNIFIL tells me is that there is nothing in south Lebanon except abandoned bunkers."
A senior Israeli official dealing regularly with the issue of arms smuggling summed up the present situation thus: "Israel is going back to a situation that is similar to what was in the 1950s. There are two states, one in the south and one in the north, that are arming themselves to the teeth. Then it was Egypt and Syria; today it's Hamas and Hezbollah. What can you do? Hardly anything. Build up deterrence and prepare for the next conflagration."