Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s unusual trip to Brussels – the announcement in the morning and the flight in the afternoon to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – is an Israeli attempt to quickly utilize this diplomatic channel to deal with the increasing security problem in Lebanon. If this had been a meeting to coordinate positions before a military move, one assumes Netanyahu would have sent one of the security professionals (the Mossad chief, or the head of Military Intelligence) to speak with his American counterparts, and the meeting would not have been publicized.
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But the prime minister has started the diplomatic clock. His trip signals to Iran, Lebanon and Hezbollah, through the Americans (and perhaps also the French), that there’s an urgent need to deal with the problem before Israel considers using military means.
For two years Israel has been warning about the construction of Iranian weapons factories in Lebanon. In September, in his address to the UN General Assembly, Netanyahu revealed the location of three such sites, in which Iran and Hezbollah are allegedly improving the precision of the Lebanese organization’s missile and rocket arsenal. It certainly may be that Israel is worried about other possible developments, such as Hezbollah moving its focus from Syria, where the civil war is waning, back to a confrontation with Israel in southern Lebanon.
The changes in Lebanon, and to some extent the increasing Iranian activity in Iraq, are the result of developments in Syria. Russia is seeking to stabilize the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and has exploited the accidental downing of its reconnaissance aircraft by Syrian air defenses on September 17 to restrain both Iran and Israel. Moscow is pressuring the Iranians to stop smuggling weapons to Lebanon through Syria, and at the same time is warning Israel against continuing its broad attacks against the smuggling convoys and Iranian bases in Syria.
These new circumstances forced Iran to changes its method of operations. But Gen. Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, is pushing the envelope. The repeated reports of Iranian planes unloading precise weaponry in Beirut are posing a new challenge to Israel.
The Israeli dilemma is familiar. During Syria’s civil war, the Israel Air Force operated almost freely in Syrian skies. After the fact, it emerged that there had been over 200 attacks on targets across the border just from the start of 2017 until this past September. But Israel now has less room to maneuver in Syria, and Lebanon is a whole different kind of problem.
Hezbollah has already warned several times that it would view any offensive action in Lebanon as a casus belli. This past weekend the organization posted a propaganda video on social networks in which it warned that it had the ability to launch precise attacks on Israeli infrastructure sites and military bases if the Israel Defense Forces attacked in Lebanon. The question before the cabinet and the security cabinet is, as in the past, whether to take a short-term risk (an attack that could provoke a response) to deal with a long-term danger (such as a weapons project).
The increased tension in the north is coming on the backdrop of other regional developments: the American effort to exert additional economic pressure on Iran; the U.S. support, albeit delayed, for Saudi Arabia following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul; the somewhat tense relations between the United States and Russia in the region; and the American decision to reinforce the special forces helping the Kurds in northeastern Syria. In Lebanon itself, tensions between Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Hezbollah are intensifying the political crisis there.
Israel approaches this new battle with a rather significant advantage: the uncontested support of the Trump government, at least until now. U.S. President Donald Trump coordinates with Israel and is taking a tough stance against the Iranians. And since it’s difficult to predict what Trump might do, Tehran and Beirut must also consider the possibility that Washington will back Jerusalem even if Netanyahu – in contrast to his recent caution – decides to initiate a military action while risking confrontation.
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