Editorial

Before Embarking on a War of Choice

When it comes to a volatile threat such as Lebanon, close and skeptical scrutiny of the political and military decision-making processes is essential

File photo: Smoke billows from burning buildings destroyed during an overnight Israeli air raid on Beirut's suburbs August 5, 2006.
ADNAN HAJJ / REUTERS

Does the government of Israel intend to go to war in Lebanon? It’s hard to come to a different conclusion in light of the abundance of statements, warnings and threats in the Israeli public sphere these days. Such discourse began with the publication of an article in Arabic by the army spokesperson’s unit in the Arab media about Iran’s intention to build a factory to produce precision missiles in Lebanon. It continued with the defense minister’s warning that Israel will not allow Iran to build such a factory, while at the same time the prime minister made clear to the Russian president that Israel will not permit Iran to increase its military power in Syria and Lebanon.

Preparing Israeli and international opinion is usually an essential preliminary step before military action — hence the concern over such discussion. It is of course possible that the threats are intended to deter Iran and Lebanon and encourage the international community to intervene or cause the Lebanese government to halt Iranian plans. But what if this assumption turns out to be wrong and Iran is not deterred? Is Israel obligated to go to war?

The battle cries are intended to present construction of a weapons factory, if indeed it is built, as an existential threat against Israel. It’s as though suddenly the ordinary threat is forgotten, the one that consists of hundreds of thousands of missiles directed at Israel from Lebanon, Iran, Syria and Gaza. So far, this threat has not prompted Israel to go to war.

Israel maintains a balance of deterrence against Hezbollah that has proven effective since the Second Lebanon War, and the same is true for Gaza. As for Tehran, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes the case that the Iranian threat lies in its nuclear program and in the agreement meant to halt it — but not specifically in its missiles.

The Israeli government therefore owes Israeli citizens a precise, pertinent and persuasive explanation as to why a missile factory in Lebanon has changed the strategic balance to the extent that it requires going to war. It must present assessments to the Israeli public as to the expected number of casualties, damage to civilian infrastructure and the economic cost of going to war, as compared with the danger that construction of the missile factory constitutes. The public has the right and even the obligation to ask whether Israel will also be going to war in Gaza to destroy the stockpile of missiles there, and whether Iran is also to become a target because of its ballistic missiles.

The Israeli public is experienced enough to doubt the Israeli government’s definitions of a threat, or to unconditionally adopt the government’s definition of a war of “no choice.” This is not to denigrate or diminish the threats that Israel faces. However, when it comes to this dangerous issue close and skeptical scrutiny of the political and military decision-making processes is essential.

The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.