(photo credit: Screen capture)
In the autumn of 2006, a number of media reports appeared claiming the IDF General Staff was convinced that Hizbullah and Syria would provoke a war with Israel in the summer of 2007. This was when public discourse here began to be dominated by the "war next summer," although such expressions had been voiced even earlier - from the very first days after the inconclusive finish of the Second Lebanon War.
Then, I asked a senior security officer just how much credit should be given to such expressions. "Well," he replied, "perhaps we made a mistake not talking about the possibility of war with Hizbullah before the summer of 2006 - so if we talk about if enough for next summer, at least they know that this time we are ready for it, and that may help deter them."
Whether that strategy was effective or not, it's evident that "the war next summer" never happened, and 2007 passed with relative quiet on the northern border.
On Thursday, though, at the funeral of his slain deputy Imad Mughniyeh, Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah offered a different perspective on the state of hostilities between his movement and Israel.
"The July war is still continuing - until now, no cease-fire has been proclaimed," he said. "This war is continuing at the political level, at the media level, at the financial and material level, at the security level."
Until now, most Israelis have thought of a further round in the struggle with Hizbullah in terms of a renewal of the open conflict that took place in 2006. But Nasrallah's threat of an "open war" that would include strikes against Israeli targets abroad - and the fact that the one thing Hizbullah did not do in the two days following Mughniyeh's death was to fire Katyusha rockets across the border - suggests that this paradigm many no longer be applicable.
The fact is, the nature of the battlefield, both politically and militarily, on which Israel and Hizbullah fought two years ago, has changed significantly since that war's cessation. According to most intelligence reports, Syria and Iran have rearmed the radical Islamic movement to the same level as prior to July 2006, if not greater. But other factors have changed in Lebanon and elsewhere since then.
This includes the deployment of Lebanese army troops in the south of the country following the war, supported by the European peacekeeping forces put into place there by UN Security Council Resolution 1701. While they may not have been able to completely prevent the infiltration of Hizbullah fighters south of the Litani River, they have definitely altered the potential combat conditions north of the Israeli border, taking away several of the advantages Hizbullah's fighters once enjoyed in that region.
What's more, the presence among those European forces of several thousand French troops now representing a government in Paris much more antagonistic toward Syria and its Lebanese allies than the one in place in 2006, brings with it a further element of geopolitical risk that Hizbullah's sponsors in Damascus and Teheran must take into account before giving Nasrallah a green light to launch an open attack on Israel.
The Second Lebanon War also failed to win Hizbullah anything more than temporary wider backing among the Lebanese public, and if anything, cost it longer-term support. The million-plus turnout Thursday for the memorial rally in honor of slain former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri - which dwarfed the 10,000 at Mughniyeh's funeral - indicates the degree to which the anti-Hizbullah/anti-Syria "March 14th" movement has gained strength in the last two years.
Seen from this perspective, Nasrallah's call for "open war" on Israeli targets abroad looks less like just an escalation of hostility in reaction to Mughniyeh's death, and more a convenient change in tactics reflecting the altered conditions his organization's military wing faces in the wake of the Second Lebanon War.
Less able to pepper Israel with missiles and to fight IDF soldiers face-to-face while entrenched among the villages of south Lebanon, attacks on "soft" Israeli (and perhaps Diaspora) targets abroad may represent the most feasible option for a still-recovering Hizbullah to wreak havoc.
Nasrallah, of course, was having none of this, putting his distinctive rhetorical spin on events Thursday: "You all know that the founder of Israel, [David] Ben-Gurion, who knew better than any other Israeli the strength and weakness of this entity, said that Israel would fall down after the first defeatâ€¦ Israel lost its first war [in 2006]. Why? Simply because its army faced a sincere and brave resistance for 33 days. Because Imad Mughniyeh, his brothers and his students, were fighting them. Israel lost its first war, and will fall down soon."
Actually, Nasrallah was more correct earlier in stating that the war remains unfinished. As of now, Israel still stands, Mughniyeh is down, and Hizbullah faces increasing challenges on its home soil.
Yet backed by Syria and Iran, and tied in with a radical Islamic network that stretches across the globe, Nasrallah can well make do on his threat to continue the fight with Israel, even if far from such places as Haifa, Nahariya and Kiryat Shmona.
So if "the war next summer" as we expected it fails to arrive again this summer, Israelis must still prepare to defend themselves, in other ways, for the battle with Hizbullah - while finding even more new methods to show that they can also bring the fight against Hizbullah into any corner of the world, including Nasrallah's deepest bunkers.
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