Israel's Best Intentions May Not Be Enough to Avert War in Lebanon

Any attempt to alleviate the Arab world's suspicions tends to have the opposite effect.

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On Thursday, Lebanon marked five years since the last Syrian troops left the country. Next month, it will mark 10 years since Israel withdrew from south Lebanon. But despite these important anniversaries of events that ostensibly bolstered Lebanon's independence, the Lebanese are apprehensive.

Not a day has passed in recent weeks without a Lebanese or foreign Arab media outlet bringing up the fear that Israel intends to launch a war against Hezbollah this summer. On Thursday, Barak Ravid reported here that Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit left Beirut with the impression that Lebanon was in "complete panic" over the prospect of an Israeli attack.

Damascus is also tense: The Syrians have raised and lowered their alert level several times recently, thinking Israel might attack. The Syrian moves were prompted mostly by statements from Israeli officials, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Likud MK Yossi Peled, a former GOC Northern Command. But the tension on that side of the Israel-Syria-Lebanon triangle has eased a bit recently.

To put it bluntly, Israel's main challenge is that it's very difficult to calm a paranoiac. The Arab world's approach to Israel is fraught with suspicion, and any attempt to alleviate it tends to have the opposite effect.

The starkest example yet came in the summer of 2007. Israel and Syria both raised their alert levels and expanded military exercises. Jerusalem said it had no intention of attacking, Military Intelligence said it feared a war might break out because of a "miscalculation."

The rest is history: The Israel Air Force (so foreign reports say) bombed a nuclear facility in Syria. And the paranoid became convinced they really were after him - even though this time, Damascus decided not to respond.

An analysis of the current situation, including through conversations with senior Israel Defense Forces officers, indicates that this time, Arab anxiety is somewhat exaggerated, although the possibility of war this summer still exists. Exploring the interests of the various parties doesn't lead to the conclusion that anyone has much interest in a conflict in the near future.

Despite reports of the delivery of Scud missiles from Syria to Hezbollah, Israel decided not to attack the arms convoys. The threat that concerns Israel most is the Iranian one, where any progress still awaits a sanctions resolution by the UN Security Council.

Syria certainly has no wish to start a war. And Hezbollah, though it recently finished repairing the damage it sustained in 2006, will need to think twice before starting a new conflict and once again being blamed for the destruction Israel would wreak on Lebanon.

The Lebanese remember only too well how Hezbollah dragged them into an unnecessary war four years ago. Websites affiliated with the former standard bearer of the anti-Syrian camp, the March 14 Alliance, warn that Hezbollah will once again spark a conflict with Israel for the sake of foreign countries.

But even the Iranians, who frequently get the blame for ramping up tensions in the region, don't seem to desire an immediate conflagration - at least not while the international community is still stuttering on the sanctions issue and allowing them to advance their nuclear program.

So what can go wrong? There's still the issue of Hezbollah's rearmament. The Scuds, it turns out, were not Israel's point of no return, but a delivery of more accurate rockets to Hezbollah might well elicit an entirely different reaction. This is what lies behind the recent warnings by Aboul Gheit, Lieberman and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who this week said Hezbollah has a missile arsenal bigger than that of most countries.

The other possibility concerns Hezbollah's quest to avenge the assassination of senior operative Imad Mughniyeh. If Hezbollah scores a massive success - like blowing up an Israeli embassy, downing an Israeli plane or assassinating a senior official - the IDF would have to respond, and it will respond in Lebanon. From there, the situation could escalate to a new war on the northern front.

Posted by Avi Issacharoff on April 30, 2010

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