If Hezbollah dares confront Israel it will receive an unimaginable blow, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said as Jerusalem’s crisis with Moscow over Syria’s downing of a Russian plane triggered an unusual “war of words” with terrorist leader Hassan Nasrallah.
Speaking on Thursday at a Bible study group that he holds a several times a year at his residence, Netanyahu referred to comments Nasrallah made earlier in the day that Hezbollah already has the precision missiles Israel is trying to prevent Iran from transferring via Syria.
“I heard the words that came from the direction of Hezbollah, and they came from the same person who said after [the Second Lebanon War in] 2006 that if he knew what Israel’s response would have been to the kidnapping of our soldiers [Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev], he would have considered twice whether to do so. So today I recommend he think not twice, but 20 times, because if he confronts us, he will get a blow that he cannot even imagine.”
Nasrallah claimed on Thursday that the balance of power between the Lebanese Shi’ite terrorist group and Israel has “changed,” and that the group has accurate missiles that would be used in the next conflict.
“All your attempts to prevent Hezbollah from possessing accurate missiles are foiled,” Nasrallah said in a speech via video to Beirut’s Dahiyeh suburb to mark the Shi’ite holiday of Ashura. “We have accurate missiles that if used in any future war will change the entire equation.
“No matter what you do to cut the route, the matter is over and the resistance possesses precision and non-precision rockets and weapons capabilities,” he said.
While Nasrallah frequently boasts of what he claims is his organization’s potential, it is rare – though not unprecedented – for Netanyahu to respond to his remarks.
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Intelligence Minister Israel Katz said in a Kan Bet interview that the downing of the Syrian plane has caused concern for Hezbollah that it will now be pressured by Russia to curb the transfer of strategic weapons via Syria because this is endangering Russian troops.
But Israel is also worried that as a result of Monday’s incident Russia may work to curtail Israel’s ability to act over Syria. To curb that possibility, Netanyahu dispatched Israel Air Force Commander Maj.-Gen. Amikam Norkin to Moscow on Thursday to convince Russian military leaders that Israel was in no way responsible for Monday’s incident, and also to underline that Israel is acting in self-defense against Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria.
Netanyahu said that in his conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday he stressed that the “root of the problem was Iran’s attempt to use Syrian territory for attacks against Israel and to arm our enemies like Hezbollah.”
The premier added that he told the Russian president that Israel “had the right to self-defense, and yet it was very important to maintain the security coordination” between the two countries.
Norkin and the IDF delegation, according to the IDF spokesman, held several meetings with the commander of the Russian air force and other senior air force officials at the Russian military command headquarters in Moscow.
In a statement, the IDF said the meetings were held in “good spirit” and there was a professional, open and transparent discussion on the various issues, emphasizing the importance of the interests of the two countries and the continued implementation of the deconfliction mechanisms in place to prevent similar incidents from occurring again.
The Israeli officers briefed the Russians on the preliminary and main findings of the IDF investigation, and also showed how Iran is continuing to entrench itself in Syria and smuggle strategic weapons to Hezbollah.
Before the meeting, however, the Russian Foreign Ministry took a less conciliatory tone than the one Putin took on Tuesday when he called the incident a “tragic mistake,” with the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv issuing a statement that “Moscow views as irresponsible and unfriendly actions of the Israel Air Force, which exposed Russian IL-20 aircraft to danger and lead to the death of 15 servicemen.”
Russia, the statement said, “would take all necessary measures to eliminate threat to life and security of our military fighting against terrorism.”
But Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, in an Army Radio interview, deflected any Israeli culpability, saying Syrian President Bashar “Assad’s army is to blame.”
The lack of professionalism of the Syrian military “led to the Russian planes being shot down,” he said, adding that they opened fire in an indiscriminate manner.
“We will do anything to stop the consolidation of Iran’s presence in Syria and the transferring of weapons from Syria to Hezbollah,” he said.
Liberman also addressed reports that Russia closed air, land and sea routes near the Syrian coast for a military exercise until next Wednesday, saying “this is not the first time” this has happened and that “we will continue as normal.”
Former national security adviser Yaakov Amidror said in a telephone briefing organized by The Israel Project that Russia’s closure should not be seen as a signal that Moscow had begun curtailing Israel’s freedom of action.
Rather, he said, this type of closure was aimed at “freezing the situation in the area to prevent any such mistakes in the coming days” and to learn what happened.
“I think this decision is natural,” he said.
Amidror said Israel has allocated considerable resources over the last three years to identify where Russian forces and assets were located in Syria so that they are not harmed in Israeli attacks.
He said Norkin’s mission has two goals. The first is to convince the Russians that the incident was not the result of an Israeli mistake, not deliberate and that Israel did what was needed to prevent harm to the Russian forces, and the second goal is to recommend ways to improve the deconfliction mechanism “so we have the ability to continue our preventive defensive attacks, and they will feel they are safer than in the past.”Tamar Beeri contributed to this report.
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