Can Israel Avoid Slow March Toward War With Hezbollah?

The Israeli intelligence community has every reason to expect revenge attacks.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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An Iron Dome defense system in the Golan Heights, January 20, 2015.
An Iron Dome defense system in the Golan Heights, January 20, 2015.Credit: AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Days after Sunday's assassination of an Iranian general and six Hezbollah operatives on the Syrian side of the border in the Golan Heights, defense officials are drawing two conclusions.

First, Hezbollah and Iran feel obliged to retaliate for the assassination, which they attribute to Israel.

Second, Hezbollah is thinking about dealing Israel a blow serious enough to reestablish its deterrence in the north without leading to an all-out war.

Iran and Hezbollah have threatened to avenge their people’s deaths. Judging by their declarations and acts in recent years, in most cases they carry out their threats, even if it takes some time.

After the 2008 assassination of Imad Mughniyeh – the father of Jihad Mughniyeh, who was killed this week – there were dozens of attempts to strike at Israeli and Jewish targets abroad, until the successful suicide attack in Bulgaria in 2012.

After an airstrike and assassination of a senior Hezbollah official in Lebanon about a year ago, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah threatened to open a new front against Israel. Soon enough, there were attempted attacks in the north, on Har Dov and the Golan.

The Israeli intelligence community has every reason to expect this to happen this time as well.

In contrast, the overall assumption is that war is not an Iranian or Hezbollah interest at this moment. Preserving the Iranian nuclear program and Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime are more important. A broad military confrontation with Israel could jeopardize both these objectives.

Israel is, therefore, focusing on foiling any revenge attacks. The hard part stems not only from Hezbollah’s compartmentalization, but from the fact that Hezbollah and Iran could launch an attack in several places, whether on the Golan border or on some other Israeli border via allied organizations. Or the attack could take place abroad.

If a retaliation succeeded, then, yes, the ball would be in Israel’s court. It’s not inevitable that Israel would simply go for containment. Even if one or more attacks succeeded, Israel would have to consider if limited casualties justified a counterattack that would plunge the country into a spiral of attacks and retaliations.

From there, it’s a slippery slope to war. Israel believes it has nothing to gain from such a war – it doesn't seek to change the Syrian or Lebanese regimes, and it's well aware of the potential damage that missiles and rockets could wreak on the home front. So Israel better try to avoid a war.

If the foreign reports attributing the attack to Israel are correct (it’s hard for Israel to deny this in view of the UN observers’ report on Israeli drones that opened fire), the move was carried out despite two significant arguments against it.

One is the presence of the Iranian general in the bombed convoy and Nasrallah’s speech three days before the assassination. Nasrallah explicitly threatened to launch attacks from the Golan, so the assassination was seen in Beirut as an immediate Israeli response to his speech, which in turn challenges Hezbollah to retaliate.

But these things have been done and can't be undone. Even if there is apparent cause for investigations and tensions between Israel's military and political leaders – as in the Mavi Marmara Gaza flotilla affair of 2010 – the critical issue touches on Israel's strategy in the future.

The officials who ordered the assassination of Jihad Mughniyeh on Sunday appear to have been aware that an Iranian general was in a vehicle in the convoy, despite a report to the contrary – according to information provided by several sources familiar with the incident.

A Reuters report this week quotes a senior Israeli security source as claiming that Israel didn’t know the general was in the convoy. This report appears to be unreliable.

Mughniyeh was posted in the Golan Heights some time last spring, as the result of a joint decision by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah's leadership. Mughniyeh, 25, was considered an effective military operative.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boasted in a Likud election-campaign video this week that he’s the responsible adult in Israel's political kindergarten. To mix metaphors, he can maneuver through the security minefield that the country faces.

If Netanyahu remembers that he’s a statesman and represses the fact that he’s a politician in a tough election campaign, maybe he can prevent Israel's slide down the slippery slope toward war with Hezbollah.

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