What the Israeli army calls the “war between the wars” has undergone a radical change in recent months. The idea of the war between the wars was developed late last decade and involved the need to operate, even far beyond Israel’s borders, to contain enemy terrorist and guerrilla organizations in the hope that such steps would postpone the next war – or at least weaken these groups when war did break out.
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These operations usually were conducted with a “small signature”: late-night bombings and – at least according to foreign sources – mysterious deaths that no one accepted responsibility for. Former air force chief Amir Eshel told Haaretz in August that in recent years, Israel has operated almost 100 times to prevent the arming of enemy groups.
Other operations have become part of the war between the wars recently. On Wednesday, in a well-timed leak, the IDF “outed” Munir Ali Naim Shati, better known as Hajj Hashem, the head of Hezbollah’s southern command in Syria. He’s in charge of Hezbollah’s fighting in southern Syria and the organization's efforts to establish its presence near the Israeli border in the Golan Heights.
The publication of Hashem’s name and picture in the Israeli media looks like a signal that his life may end à la other commanders of Hezbollah networks in the region, such as Jihad Mughniyeh in January 2015 and Samir Kuntar in December that year. The Arab media attributed both killings to Israel.
These weren’t the only Israeli statements in the past week concerning Iran and Hezbollah’s activities on the northern front, especially southern Syria. Last Saturday rockets were fired from Syria into the Israeli side of the border on the Golan, which defense officials described as intentional and not “spillover.” On Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said repulsing Iran’s attempts to establish themselves militarily in Syria is at the top of the list of Israel’s strategic priorities, even higher (by implication) than the fight against the Iranian nuclear program.
That same day Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman blamed Hezbollah for the latest rockets fired at Israel, saying this happened behind the back of the Assad regime. Later, after it turned out that his claim wasn’t backed up by intelligence known to Israeli defense officials, Lieberman clarified that this was his personal opinion.
On Wednesday, at the IDF’s officers-training graduation ceremony, Lieberman warned of “the greatest challenge, the Iranian attempt to build a stranglehold around us.” In the meantime, it turns out that the chief of staff of the Lebanese army, Gen. Joseph Aoun, decided at the last minute to boycott a conference of chiefs of staff in Washington attended by IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot.
So far, it appears Israel is conducting itself quite well in the north. The Iranian and Syrian effort to arm Hezbollah with precision weapons – against which Israel is investing most of its attention – has run into a great number of difficulties. Netanyahu has also been wise enough to keep Israel out of the Syrian catastrophe. But the Israeli viewpoint is tactical in principle and focuses mostly on attacking the next weapons convoy.
Iran, as Netanyahu and Lieberman both admit, has long-term strategic plans: Bolstering its territorial contiguity from Tehran through Baghdad and Damascus all the way to Beirut. It’s doubtful whether Israel’s tactical success in attacking weapons convoys or warehouses helps prevent this vision of reviving the Persian Empire as a regional superpower.
Even worse, the success of the Shi’ite-Russian axis in preserving the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad has boosted the confidence of the mass murderer from Damascus.
Every Israeli attack just adds to the long list of insults Assad has accumulated over the years. In the most recent incidents, such as the Syrian antiaircraft fire at Israeli planes over Lebanon last week, his desire to rewrite the rules of the game concerning Israel is clear. Given these circumstances, it’s not clear if the Israeli threats, which are growing stronger against Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, increase Israeli deterrence or actually bring the next escalation closer.
According to Military Intelligence, almost all the last rounds of fighting – the Second Lebanon War in 2006 and the three operations in the Gaza Strip – broke out without prior planning as a result of a string of mutual mistakes in understanding the other side’s intentions. It seems the time has come to rein in the rhetoric, and in Jerusalem, too.