Analysis

Israel Believes Nasrallah's Threats Over Lebanon Strikes, Braces for Retaliation

Israel's top political echelon briefed by defense establishment, which assesses Hezbollah chief will have to make good on public statements

Hezbollah supporters gather to watch a speech by Hasan Nasrallah, in the town of Al-Ain in Lebanon's Bekaa valley, August 25, 2019.
AFP

Hezbollah plans to respond to the two attacks it attributes to Israel in Syria and Lebanon, defense officials told the government Monday. The military’s high alert continues, especially along the borders with Syria and Lebanon, but vigilance also remains high on the Gaza border for fear of a further escalation there.

Israel claimed responsibility for the attack on Syria on Saturday night that killed two Hezbollah fighters, members of a cell led by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards that was about to attack the Golan Heights via explosive-laden drones.

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A few hours later, a drone was launched against Hezbollah’s offices in the Shi’ite neighborhood in southern Beirut commonly known as Dahieh. Israel didn’t take responsibility for this attack, for which Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah blamed Israel in a speech in Beirut on Sunday evening. Nasrallah also threatened to respond by attacking Israeli soldiers along the border.

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Israel believes that Nasrallah will keep his word. Hezbollah, including in speeches by Nasrallah in recent months, has delineated its red lines in the “war between the wars” with Israel. The organization has said it will respond to any attack on its people in Syria and to any attempt to attack it in Lebanon. Nasrallah repeated this even more forcefully in his speech on Sunday. Not only is this his approach, he’s locked into it because of the explicit threats he has made.

A Hezbollah flag in the Lebanon village of Aitaroun is seen from the Israeli side of the border, August 26, 2019.
Jalaa Marey/AFP
Netanyahu tells Hezbollah's Nasrallah to "calm down" after drone incident

"Netanyahu, you and your army know that we're not joking," he told the crowd Sunday. "I tell the soldiers on Israel's borders, stand on the border wall with two feet and a half, and wait for us."

What happens then largely depends on the results of Hezbollah’s retaliation. During the previous escalation between the two sides, in January 2015, Israel chose to “contain” the situation after Hezbollah killed an officer and a soldier on Mount Dov in response to the killing of seven Lebanese and Iranians in an Israeli assassination operation in the Syrian Golan Heights. If the Hezbollah attack causes many casualties, Israel may respond with its own operation. In other words, tactical results can again dictate strategy.

During Nasrallah’s speech in Beirut, another attack attributed to Israel on the Syria-Iraq border was reported. Nine fighters in an Iraqi Shi’ite militia, the Iraqi Hezbollah Battalions (a kind of sister movement to Lebanon’s Hezbollah) were killed in a drone bombing on the Iraqi side of the border crossing.

Then, very early Monday morning, only a few hours after Nasrallah threatened Israel and restated Hezbollah’s red lines, another unusual attack was reported in Lebanon, not far from the Syrian border. This time, according to reports from the area, Israeli drones bombed the Lebanon valley base of a long-forgotten Palestinian organization, the Popular Front-General Command, established by Ahmed Jibril. Jibril’s organization has in the past served the Iranians and Hezbollah as a proxy for attacks for which neither wanted to take direct responsibility. That could be the background for the incident this time.

On Monday, Lebanese President Michel Aoun called the drone attack “a declaration of war by Israel." Also Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement in which he accused Iran of “operating on a broad front to commit murderous terror attacks against the State of Israel.” Netanyahu, in what almost sounded like a cry for help, called on the international community “to act immediately so that Iran stops these attacks.”

Either way, it seems, based on these recent attacks, that Israel is signaling a new, more aggressive policy toward Iran and Hezbollah. There have also been direct condemnations by military chief Aviv Kochavi and Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz on Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force. Kochavi blamed Soleimani for planning the drone attack on the Golan Heights. Katz, as well as a tweet by the IDF spokesman, mentioned Soleimani as someone who might be harmed by Israel’s next moves.

Stepping up the attacks

The confrontation between Iran and Israel has been going on for most of the decade. At the beginning of the Syrian civil war the attacks attributed to Israel focused on Iranian weapons convoys that traveled through Syria en route to Hezbollah in Lebanon. In December 2017 there was a change; at least some of the attacks were aimed at Iran’s attempts to entrench itself militarily in Syria. These attacks hit weapons systems that the Iranians had deployed and bases of Shi’ite proxy militias.

Hezbollah's retaliations to attacks they attributed to Israel
Haaretz

Last month, according to foreign press reports, there was another change in policy: Israel started to attack Iranian targets in Iraq. (Though it turned out that some of the acts attributed to Israel were actually glitches in which shells exploded in militias’ weapons storehouses). This is apparently what led to Tehran’s attempt to retaliate, which was scuttled Saturday night by Israel’s air force.

In other words, Israel has expanded the limits of its campaign against Iran, and Tehran responded with an assault whose foiling could put the parties at the brink of an escalating cycle. This raises two questions: What was the reason for the change in Israeli policy and was it justified?

The opposition in Israel has two types of reactions, almost reflexive, when the government decides to escalate militarily. Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan, with three of its four top members former military chiefs of staff, assumes a tensely quiet patriotic stance and salutes the military as it continues to heap fire and brimstone on Netanyahu for his restrained policy in Gaza. (The prime minister was subject to criticism yet again Sunday after the rocket fire on Sderot.) Other voices, especially on social media, accuse Likud of a plot under which the borders are being ignited to change the election campaign to focus on a security debate that allegedly serves Netanyahu.

Such allegations have been heard in the past, including during the January 2015 incidents, which also occurred on the eve of an election. Back then the allegations turned out to be disproportionate; Netanyahu showed restraint and didn’t let the situation deteriorate into a confrontation with Iran and Hezbollah. Over the years, the prime minister has usually acted cautiously and responsibly in navigating the moves in the north, for fear of sliding into war.

The question now is whether something has changed in Netanyahu’s judgment given his stressful situation in the polls and the need to put together a coalition of at least 61 Knesset members without Avigdor Lieberman and his party, so that he can form the next government and stop the legal proceedings against him.

In Israel, politics is always mixed with security concerns, and it’s very difficult to fully distinguish between the various considerations. Of course, Netanyahu’s main consideration is security: Israel has identified Iranian moves toward building a military force along its borders and launching attacks against it. Israel is working to thwart them, even if this means reaching deep into Iraq and Lebanon.

Netanyahu and Kochavi tour Israel's northern border, August 25, 2019.
Haim Zach/GPO

In this regard, apart from the weakness of the opposition and the lack of external oversight by the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in the period between the two election campaigns, the weakness of the security cabinet should also be noted. Netanyahu is also the defense minister, and there are no experienced and senior ministers in the security cabinet like Ehud Barak, Moshe Ya’alon or Lieberman who are likely to challenge him.

As Haaretz’s Chaim Levinson has remarked, the real security cabinet nowadays is made up of the prime minister’s close advisers (ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer, Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and, to a lesser extent, Kochavi). They tend to take a hawkish line, which dovetails with Netanyahu’s approach.

Also note that there have been developments between the United States and Iran. First, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif unexpectedly arrived in Biarritz, France, where the G7 summit is taking place. On Monday, French President Emmanuel Macron said he hoped conditions have been created for a summit between the U.S. and Iranian presidents in the coming weeks. This is a very significant development, but it’s doubtful that Netanyahu, who wants the United States to put more pressure on Iran, sees it as good news.

With thanks to Eisenkot

Kochavi has recently become the darling of the right. Rightists are heaping praise on him on social media. The enthusiasm, which has been clear since a right-wing favorite, Brig. Gen. Ofer Winter, was promoted, has increased because of the recent attacks in the north. The praise is often accompanied by repeated criticism of Kochavi’s predecessor, Gadi Eisenkot, who completed his term in January.

Timeline of events over the past week amid an escalation in the Middle East involving Syria, Iraq and Israel.
Haaretz

But now, when the confrontation with Hezbollah is escalating again, it’s worth recalling that Israel owes its thanks to the previous chief of staff, who insisted last December on launching Operation Northern Shield. In that operation the military discovered and destroyed six attack tunnels that Hezbollah had dug under the Lebanese border into Israel.

As the north heats up again, it’s good that Hezbollah has been denied the option of sneaking hundreds of commandos into the Galilee to conduct a surprise attack. This wouldn’t have happened if Eisenkot, backed by Netanyahu, hadn’t pushed for it.