Analysis

Israeli Threats to Strike Lebanon Missile Factory Not Intended to Provoke War, but to Distance It

The last time Israel issued such warnings, in September 2017, the message was apparently received

Hezbollah fighters parade during a ceremony in Tefahta village, south Lebanon, February 18, 2017.
Mohammad Zaatari / AP

Israeli officials sounded all the alarm bells this week about the danger posed by Iran’s plans in Lebanon, but their intent was the opposite of war-mongering. Rather, they sought to distance the danger of war.

The warnings by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Israel Defense Forces chief Gadi Eisenkot against Iran’s plans to set up arms factories in Lebanon were meant for every available ear in the region – in Beirut and Tehran, but also in Moscow.

The last time Israel issued such warnings, in September 2017, the message was apparently received. Iran and Hezbollah stopped the project. These efforts resumed recently, whether because similar Iranian efforts in Syria encountered Russian opposition or because Tehran has concluded that Israel is incapable of stopping it in Lebanon.

Israel’s verbal blitz began with an article published by the IDF spokesman, Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis, on Arabic-language websites. This was followed over the next 72 hours with explicit threats by Netanyahu, Lieberman and Eisenkot. During the prime minister’s talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, the issue of Iran’s involvement in the region, and especially its efforts to set up arms plants, was a major topic of discussion.

As usual, however, Israel’s public-diplomacy offensive was less calculated and coordinated than might appear to the ordinary reader or viewer. Manelis had been seeking a suitable platform on which to publish his article for almost two weeks. Only after several Arabic websites finally agreed to publish it did the snowball begin. Hezbollah responded with denials and counterthreats.

File photo: Israeli soldiers search for remains of rockets fired from Lebanon in December, 2015.
\ BAZ RATNER/ REUTERS

On security issues, Netanyahu is extremely risk averse. Ever since he got burned, as a new prime minister, by the Western Wall Tunnel riots in September 1996, he has been leery even of far smaller risks. When he did embark on limited military conflicts (Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 and Operation Protective Edge in 2014, both in the Gaza Strip), he was dragged into them only by a combination of an external security challenge and a domestic political threat.

But fighting Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon would entail a much greater risk. And this explains the mutual deterrence that has developed between the parties ever since the end of the Second Lebanon War in 2006, which led to an unusually long period of quiet in the north.

Every so often, when Netanyahu gets carried away by hawkish rhetoric, conspiracy theories about how he plans to launch a major war to divert attention from the corruption investigations against him spring back to life. But when these allegations move from the cellars of internet comment sections to lead editorials, more convincing evidence is needed. And so far, it hasn’t been found. Moreover, it’s hard to see Eisenkot, in his final year on the job, lending a hand to such a plot.

Israel is currently adopting a more aggressive tone, and it has already backed its words with deeds (according to Arab and other foreign media reports) in the form of numerous airstrikes in Syria. But as of now, it seems the drums of war in the north will be kept waiting a while longer.

Hezbollah has no lack of rockets and missiles. In the years after the 2006 war, its arsenal grew almost tenfold, according to Israeli intelligence assessments. Hundreds of these rockets are capable of striking the greater Tel Aviv area and a few can apparently hit Eilat in the far south. (By comparison, at the start of the last war, Hezbollah’s rockets could reach only about as far as Hadera.)

But the change that really seems to worry Israel is the increased accuracy of Hezbollah’s missiles. If the Iranians move their production lines close to Hezbollah’s storehouses in Lebanon, this precision will be greatly increased, and Israel won’t be able to do much about it without starting a war. That’s why Israeli officials are determined to deal with the issue now – initially through diplomatic efforts, and then, though only if there’s no other choice, through covert operations or, as a last resort, kinetic force (missiles and bombs).

Judging by the Israeli statements, Jerusalem is expecting Russian help on this – a hope that proved vain on the issue of de-escalation zones in southern Syria this summer, when Russia refused to intervene to keep pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias as far from Israel’s border as Israel wanted. This time, however, there may be another force for restraint. Lebanon’s parliamentary elections are scheduled for May, and Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah probably doesn’t want a war that would disrupt his political maneuvers.

Also this week, the Lebanese army lodged a protest via UNIFIL over the resumption of Israeli work on building a protective fence and wall along the Israeli-Lebanese border near Metula. The Lebanese say the fence’s route deviates from the border in six places and have demanded trilateral discussions on the plan. But contrary to some media reports on the issue, Lebanon’s statement of concern wasn’t accompanied by threats of war.