Israel appears to be adjusting its tune — and strengthening its tone — when it comes to Lebanon. For years, the government's mantra has been, "Hezbollah is Lebanon and Lebanon is Hezbollah," a refrain that, in various iterations, similarly dominated the military establishment's doctrine. Given the terror group is a wholly owned Iranian subsidiary, the missive, when uttered, implicitly blamed Tehran for the effective takeover by its Shiite proxy of Israel's northern neighbor.
Of late, however, the blame is being shifted squarely onto the shoulders Hezbollah's patron, with a series of high-ranking Israeli officials having warned this week that the Islamic Republic's growing control over Lebanon, coupled with its attempts to establish a permanent military presence in Syria, is raising the prospect of war. Jerusalem has not only conveyed this message both to Washington and Moscow, in particular, but also has transmitted the warning directly to the Lebanese opposition and thus, as a corollary, to their political representatives.
According to Maj. Gen. (ret.) Giora Eiland, a former head of Israel's National Security Council, Jerusalem's actions are motivated by a concern over the prospect of a future war being fought on two fronts. "As far as Israel is concerned, it does not want to fight a war in Lebanon and Syria simultaneously," he explained to The Media Line, "and at least today there is no significant Iranian presence in the Golan Heights. As such, even if a war broke out in Lebanon, the Syrian theater might stay closed. But in five years, this could be different and Israel could have to face Hezbollah and Hezbollah 2.0 along separate borders."
Nevertheless, Eiland stressed that training has long been underway for such a scenario. "The way the Israeli armed forces is structured, the various components are [streamlined] to fight in multiple places at the same time. So this is not something new. However, since 1973 we never experienced a war on multiple fronts and this is obviously more challenging."
The full-scale diplomatic press began Sunday when a rare article by IDF spokesman Brig.-Gen. Ronen Manelis was published on the Lebanese Ahewar website and then quickly went viral throughout the region. "Lebanon has become — both by its own actions and omissions and by a blind eye from many members of the international community — one large missile factory," he wrote. "It's no longer a transfer of arms, funds or consultation[s]. Iran has de-facto opened a new branch, the 'Lebanon branch.' Iran is here."
A day later, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Moscow, where in a meeting with President Vladimir Putin he condemned Iran's efforts to turn Lebanon into "one big missile site," adding that Jerusalem would not countenance the manufacturing of advanced rockets in the country. Netanyahu's comments come amid heightened concern that the Islamic Republic is developing precision-guidance systems — possibly in subterranean facilities — to be fitted onto Hezbollah's longer-range missiles, which could potentially allow the terror group to accurately target critical Israeli infrastructure.
On Wednesday, it was the turn of Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who made clear at the INSS conference in Tel Aviv that Lebanon, in its entirety, would "pay the full price" for Iran's entrenchment there. A future war would not be like the last one against Hezbollah in 2006, the defense chief declared, as next time around "there won’t be pictures…showing people on the beach in Beirut while Tel Aviv residents [sit] in bomb shelters. This won’t happen.”
Avi Melamed, the Salisbury Fellow of Intelligence and Middle East Affairs for the Eisenhower Institute in Washington, D.C. believes that Israel's policy must be viewed within the context of changes in Lebanon and Syria, with Iran being the catalyst and common denominator in both domains. "It is a cohesive Israeli effort to signal very clearly to Iran and Hezbollah that there are red lines have been drawn in the sand that are different from the previous [Obama] administration."
But as Israel attempts to blur any distinction between Iran and Hezbollah, on the one hand, and the Lebanese government and its armed forces on the other, the international community continues doing just the opposite.
In fact, just hours before Liberman made his comments, a senior US official pledged — on the exact same stage at the exact same conference — continued support for Lebanon's military. "We will sustain our efforts to support legitimate state security institutions such as the Lebanese Armed Forces…[which] could well serve as a counter-weight to Hezbollah's desire to expand its own influence, as well as Iran's reach in Lebanon," asserted David Satterfield, acting Assistant US Secretary of State.
This followed numerous public declarations of support by Washington for Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri — who sits in a government with Hezbollah — after he reversed his decision, amid western intervention, to resign late last year under suspicious circumstances. At the time, a White House statement noted "the need to work with allies to counter Hezbollah’s and Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region."
All of this comes on the backdrop of US Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ announcement earlier this month of the formation of a new task force to combat Hezbollah’s vast drug trafficking and money laundering empire. That move, in turn, followed a Politico report claiming that the Obama administration interfered with a Drug Enforcement Agency initiative — code-named Project Cassandra — to thwart the Lebanese organization’s illicit activities for fear of jeopardizing the nuclear deal with Iran.
To this end, US Treasury Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing, Marshall Billingslea, was in Lebanon last week and "urged [the government] to take every possible measure to ensure [Hezbollah] is not part of the financial sector." He briefed both Hariri and President Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah ally, on the prospective American initiative while vowing that any measures implemented would not destroy the banking system underpinning the Lebanese economy.
But the tacit acknowledgment that Lebanon’s financial sector could be crippled if the terror group’s assets are targeted evidences Hezbollah’s deep penetration of the country, and, in turn, highlights what many view as an apparent contradiction in Washington’s strategy.
In this respect, the US firmly backs the Lebanese government despite Hezbollah's domination over Beirut. This reality was made stark when head of state Aoun raised eyebrows by praising the terror group as the primary source of "resistance" to Israel and for playing a "complimentary role to the Lebanese army," in the process seemingly validating the Israeli contention that the two bodies coordinate together. The US also contributes more than one hundred million dollars in annual military aid even though sophisticated American weaponry provided to the Lebanese Armed Forces has found its way into Hezbollah’s hands.
As regards Europe, the situation is even more abstruse, as evidenced by Wednesday's news that Bulgarian state prosecutors will not charge Hezbollah with involvement in the 2012 bombing of an Israeli tour bus at the Burgas airport, which killed six people. The prosecutors claimed that they had not been provided with proof of the terror group's complicity; this, despite multiple previous pronouncements by Bulgarian officials explicitly linking Hezbollah to the attack, including one by then-foreign minister Nikolay Mladenov who, in a further bit of irony, also attended the INSS conference in Tel Aviv in his new capacity as UN Middle East peace envoy.
Developments in Bulgaria fit into Europe's broader approach to Hezbollah, which might be described as a separation of terror and state. While the Lebanese group's "military wing" was blacklisted by most of the European Union in 2013—a decision that, equally ironic, was prompted by the Burgas bombing that EU member state Bulgaria now says had nothing to do with Hezbollah—the terror group's so-called "political arm" freely operates throughout the continent, raising funds and recruiting members at will.
In Eiland's estimation, this complexity — and perplexity — stems from a misunderstanding of the Lebanese arena, which is perceived very differently by western nations than it is by Israel. The former, he explained to The Media Line, "differentiates between a camp of 'good guys' and 'bad guys.' So the theory is to support the good guys, which is obviously simplistic and naive. But despite the supposed distinction, there is an agreement between both sides in which the good guys act in a way that ensures the continued support of the West while the bad guys provide security."
In fact, the bifurcation of Hezbollah's terrorist elements by Europe parallels the US' bifurcation of the same terror elements from Lebanon's political, military and economic spheres. This is in sharp contrast to the position of Israel, which therefore cannot expect to garner much support even from its closest allies for its stated policy that, in a future war with Hezbollah, all of Lebanon will be "fair game."
Dr. Avi Davidi, formerly the Iran Director at the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs and currently a Fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, insists there is an increasing sense of urgency on Jerusalem's part. "The issue is becoming very serious because we are approaching the end of the war in Syria, at which point the extent of Iran's future presence will be determined. So Israel wants to make sure that everyone knows its position that Tehran not be allowed to replicate in Syria its activities in Lebanon.
"Israel knows what it is facing with Hezbollah in Lebanon," he elaborated, "but Syria is a different story. What does it mean, for example, to attack Syria? Plus, the Russians are the major power there. So it is easier for Israel to make its point by saying it will attack Lebanon. This also acts as an indirect threat to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin who does not want any added instability."
Nevertheless, it could be that "game-changing" developments are, in fact, occurring in Lebanon. It is possible that Moscow will not abide by a major Iranian military presence in Syria and, in response, Tehran is trying to enhance its capabilities next door. What is crystal clear is that Israel will not sit idly by and watch the Islamic Republic make further inroads in its backyard.
Despite the Israeli full-press, Melamed contended to The Media Line that it is currently not in the interest of Iran and its proxy to engage the Jewish state militarily. "From their perspective, they will try to avoid a direct confrontation because the Trump administration has [upped pressure] on Hezbollah and they are aware of the steps that could come. Furthermore, a conflict could result in an outcome that would be devastating for both parties.
"There is also a big awareness in the Arab world," he continued, "that there may be a big plan being cooked up in the US, Israel, and Saudi kitchen to greatly diminish Hezbollah and Iran's influence. They are cognizant of this and must take it into consideration."
As such, analysts point to three major objectives of Jerusalem's present diplomatic offensive. First, to try to prevent a conflict by reminding all parties of the utter destruction wreaked upon Lebanon by the IDF in 2006, while putting the world on notice that the Israeli military will do whatever is necessary if Iran is allowed to pursue its agenda uninhibited. This, in turn, could induce countries with leverage to apply pressure on Tehran to curb its militarization of Lebanon, while simultaneously making the Islamic Republic think twice about threatening Israel through its forces in Syria.
Second, the campaign is meant to prepare the Israeli public for a potential "war of choice," one that would be initiated by Israel — irrespective of the predictable international outcry — before the risks posed by its enemies in the north cross the threshold of defensibility.
And lastly, to foster dissent among the Lebanese opposition, a tactic not dissimilar to the Israeli government's support for Iranians during their recent nationwide protests.
Two age-old adages come to mind that seemingly encapsulate Israel's policy, the first being ancient military strategist Sun Tzu's assertion that, "the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting." While this aptly describes the attempt to deter Iran and Hezbollah via a diplomatic offensive, no amount of rhetoric can substitute for active preparation.
And as Israel readies militarily for what many deem inevitable, there is still hope in George Washington's affirmation that, "to be prepared for war is one of the most effective means of preserving peace."
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