The War That Neither Israel nor Hezbollah Want

Sunday’s airstrike on a Hezbollah convoy in the Golan Heights has pushed Israel and the Shi’ite organization closer to a new conflagration in the north.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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An Israeli soldier checks the machine gun of a tank as he holds a position along Israel's northern border on January 20, 2015.
An Israeli soldier checks the machine gun of a tank as he holds a position along Israel's northern border on January 20, 2015.Credit: AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Six Hezbollah members rode in the convoy that was attacked from the air on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights last Sunday afternoon. Jihad Mughniyeh, 25, a rising power in the terror world whose status was based mainly on the legacy of his father, Imad – a senior commander in the organization whose himself was killed in a mysterious bomb blast in Damascus seven years ago – had come from Damascus for an operational tour near the Israeli border. In the two jeeps, one of which carried Mughniyeh Jr., were five other members of Hezbollah, some of whom were described as rather senior operational commanders.

Mughniyeh’s activities had been well known to the various intelligence services for a long time, as the person who established a new operational infrastructure with the close support of the Iranians on the Golan Heights. We can guess that the attack was intended to neutralize what was beginning to be seen as a ticking bomb – a network that had already fired rockets into Israel from the Golan four times during last summer’s Gaza war, and recently trained in preparation for more ambitious attacks along the border. There is no reason to mourn the other five members of the organization too much in Israel. It is unlikely they spent their time on the Golan doing charitable works.

If the claims attributing the attack to Israel are true, then it was another operation in a long series of hostile actions between Israel and Hezbollah. Both sides have been trading blows in Syria and Lebanon for two years, but usually they make sure things do not get out of control, deteriorate and lead them into another war. That is why it is possible to assume that surrounding such an attack on Hezbollah, there was a complete consensus between the military and political leadership.

The affair becomes much more complicated because of the presence in the convoy of a seventh passenger, the Iranian Gen. Mohammed Ali Allahdadi. The general (it seems in retrospect that this title was a bit of an exaggeration, considering his job) served as the liaison between the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards with the Hezbollah infrastructure commanded by Jihad Mughniyeh.

Until now, it seemed that Israel was wary of a direct confrontation with the Iranians so close to home, despite the intensive activities of the Revolutionary Guards in Syria and Lebanon. When the nuclear scientists in Tehran passed on at the peak of their careers, Jerusalem could roll its eyes to the heavens and claim it had no idea what had happened. Even when Tehran sometimes arrested those suspected of the acts, they were Iranian citizens and the television interviews in which they confessed that they had allegedly been run by the Mossad looked as if they had been extracted by torture. The assassinations in Tehran were low-key intelligence operations, and the identities of those really responsible has never been made clear.

The view from Tehran

The conditions on the Golan Heights are different, including the presence of a United Nations force – the same band of observers that fled to the Israeli side of the border after they were rescued from the clutches of Al-Qaida-affiliated rebels a few months ago – which made sure to publish an announcement saying it had identified drones that had come from Israel and attacked the convoy. This time, as things seems to look from Tehran, Israel has opened a new accounting.

On Monday afternoon, Reuters news agency cited a senior Israeli military source claiming that Israel did not know the Iranian general was part of the convoy. It also sounded as if it contained a bit of an apology to Iran. A few hours later, the leak was denied by “an official security official.” As reported in Haaretz, the claim reported by Reuters – certainly in good faith – turned out to be mistaken. Either the source who spoke with the news agency pretended to know things he did not, or someone misled him intentionally, in a somewhat hysterical attempt to calm things down with Iran. In practice, it can be assumed that whoever ultimately decided to attack the convoy knew who the seventh passenger was.

In that case, the heart of the matter is not in a lack of intelligence information, but in the operational considerations of those who decided to approve the attack. The foreign press has attributed to Israel dozens of attacks against terrorists over the past three decades – in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Sinai, Sudan, Tunisia, Lebanon, Syria, the Gulf states and Iran. The intelligence for these operations was gathered over a long period of time, but there can always be a situation where the critical intelligence information reaches the leaders at just the last moment.

When the target is moving, like the Mughniyeh convoy last Sunday, the decisions had to be made during a very small window of opportunity. The practical implications of hesitating for too long mean missing out on the opportunity and canceling the operation. The final decision in such a case is in the hands of the political leadership. The cabinet approves the operation in principle, but in real time only the defense minister – along with the prime minister – makes the decision, if there is enough time to consult him.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon is a calm person, even under conditions of extreme operational pressure. It was possible to glean this when, over a year ago, recordings of the radio communications during the 1988 killing of Khalil al-Wazir – better known as Abu Jihad – in Tunis were broadcast, when Ya’alon commanded the Sayeret Matkal elite commando unit.

During the most recent war in Gaza, Ya’alon was the dominant side of the security triangle including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz. In general, this trio wisely and responsibly led the war, which Israel fell into without adequate preparation. If the foreign press reports attributing the Syrian strike to Israel are accurate, this seems an exception to the levelheaded line.

In 2003, at the height of the second intifada, Ya’alon was IDF chief of staff. Avi Dichter – currently locked in a fight with Tzipi Hotovely for his position on the Likud Knesset slate – was then head of the Shin Bet security service. When then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was looking for a cease-fire to calm the fighting for a while in the territories, an argument broke out between Ya’alon and Dichter. All of the Shin Bet’s efforts were concentrated on stopping the terror cells in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and in attempts to arrest or kill their main activists. The IDF recommended taking into consideration broader aspects too, and to leave a possibility of economic hope open for the Palestinian population.

When Dichter demanded more targeted assassinations, Ya’alon accused him of having a too narrow, mission-oriented vision of the circumstances. Ya’alon has almost a copywriter’s talent for wording catchy insights in Hebrew. The accusation he made against the Shin Bet – that its heads see everything “through a drinking straw” – stuck with the security service, to Dichter’s chagrin. But the use of slogans can be counterproductive.

The tension in the north was seen by the Israeli public via the exposed tip of the iceberg: High security in communities along the border, noticing suspicious movements that have for now proven erroneous, slightly anxious reports on the television stations. The practical result of the Golan Heights attack will be known only in time. Yet still, there is no doubt that the chances of war with Hezbollah, with Iranian backing it, are higher this week.

Calming the situation

Previous periods of tension in the north resulting from deeds attributed to Israel (the attack on the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007; the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh and the Iranian general Muhammad Suleiman a year later) fizzled out. Israel’s conduct in the north since the attack displayed the maximal attempt at restoring calm. Alongside redoubling security forces and increasing alertness, the movement of nonessential forces along the border fence has been lessened, in order to limit the number of potential targets. The defense establishment is in favor of calming the situation.

A reasonable assessment is that Hezbollah will react with a terror attack of its own, in one of the many fronts at its disposal. The Israeli intention is to contain the tension – that is, first of all to act to limit the damage of the attack, and not be dragged into an ever-deepening battle of mutual accusations.

The Lebanese media looked sometimes this week like a mirror image of the Israel one. Nicholas Blanford, a Western journalist who has been living in Lebanon for many years, wrote in the Daily Star about Hassan Nasrallah’s difficulties: The Hezbollah leader, according to Blanford, realizes he has to take revenge on Israel for the attack, in order to preserve his organization’s deterrent image. At the same time, he fears that an overly harsh reaction would ignite Israel’s anger and drag Lebanon into a war it does not want. This would bring fresh accusations that he is causing further suffering in the country, after the destruction caused by the Israel Air Force in 2006. Judging by the description emanating from Beirut, Netanyahu and Nasrallah sound almost like brothers in distress.

The IDF General Staff’s intelligence branch assessment for 2015 speaks of possible “dynamics of escalation” in the territories and borders. The conventional military threat on Israel is down to a minimum, with the collapse of the Syrian army in the civil war there and the improvement in relations between Israel and Egypt. But the shock waves through the Arab world, alongside the diplomatic crisis with the Palestinians, provide a potential for deterioration in the north and the territories. A single incident – a kidnapping, an especially severe terror attack, a religiously inspired assassination – could lead to a war that, in theory, no side has a strategic interest in.

But life is full of surprises, as last summer taught us. Before the war in Gaza, most Israeli intelligence officials opined that Hamas had no interest in a war. And a strikingly similar process has taken place in the political arena, where tactical turned into strategic. When Netanyahu began arguing with his ministers Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni, and even when the crisis erupted over the “Yisrael Hayom Law” vote, few expected that this tension would necessarily lead to the current election campaign.

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