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Iran's Challenge in Lebanon: Israel's Options Not Limited to 'War' or 'Doing Nothing'

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Hezbollah soldiers in southern Lebanon, 2016.
Hezbollah soldiers in southern Lebanon, 2016.Credit: AP

The probability of war with Hezbollah in Lebanon this summer does not seem higher than it was last summer, or two summers ago.

While the basic hostility between Israel and the Shi'ite organization remains intact, so does their ability to do each other serious harm. That is the essence of the mutual deterrence that has kept Israel’s northern border relatively quiet in the 11 years since the Second Lebanon War ended. During that time, Hezbollah had better things to do than fight with Israel (at first, to preserve Iran’s deterrence lest Israel consider dropping bombs on its nuclear sites; later, to protect the Assad regime in Syria).

Israel knows well that neutralizing Hezbollah's military ability would take a war that would hurt Israel’s home front like never before. 

The Iranian effort to build manufacturing facilities to make guided rockets in Lebanon has been extensively covered over the years, in the Kuwaiti press, and by the head of Israeli intelligence, Hertzi Halevy, warnings that Israel sent to Iran through European intermediaries and the meaning of the new balance of power taking shape in Lebanon. 

Iran is patiently working at achieving its long-term goals, such as creating a territorial continuum via Iraq, Syria and Lebanon on areas being abandoned by ISIS. It is also building weapons manufacturing facilities near its main client – Hezbollah.

The Israeli cabinet indeed faces a difficult problem – whether, when and how to act against these plants. But there’s many a gray area between doing nothing and war. There is a vast range of possibilities for moving against Hezbollah. The official statements seem designed to keep things at the level of rhetoric rather than missiles.

Israel doesn’t deny reports that it’s been acting for years, usually under the radar of the press, to frustrate advanced arms from being smuggled through to Hezbollah, by attacking the arms convoys as they pass through Syria.  But Israel isn’t in any rush to go to war bed the enemy is beefing up. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, aware of the potential damage that could be caused by inflating the threat Hezbollah poses, tried to smooth the waters on Sunday, telling the press that Israel has “no interest in initiating a military move in the north, or the south."

It is true that the entire region is in upheaval, mainly thanks to the civil war in Syria. It is also true that things can always go wrong. That doesn’t mean Israel is heading for war with Hezbollah this summer. 

The left wing seems intensely suspicious, especially on social media, about the entire narrative about the risk of military escalation. There seems to be a feeling that the prime minister is looking for excuses to go to war, to distract from the investigations against him, or to improve his status ahead of election. But that theory was debunked back in 2015, when Netanyahu took extreme caution not to get embroiled in war with Hezbollah, despite a series of incidents up north, including the assassination of a top Hezbollah official and an Iranian general, and the retaliation by the Shi'ite organization’s fighters, in which two Israeli soldiers were killed.

The last rounds of fighting in Gaza also saw Netanyahu being led, in that case by Hamas, as opposed to leading. Something really extraordinary has to happen for the prime minister to initiate a war and even if he does, it will probably be in Gaza, which has less potential to hurt Israel than Hezbollah does. The anticipated dimension of damage is clear to both sides. 

Whether or not to go to war in Lebanon isn’t a matter to be decided by a referendum of tabloid readers, or voting by text message. The Israeli press would do well to think twice before urging the cabinet to war, by creating the illusion of pressure on the public. The Israeli press isn’t the British tabloids during the Falkland War. If war does break out, it will be right at home, not thousands of miles distant from the home front.

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