The U.N. Hezbollah tunnel debate and U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking in Jerusalem to the foreign press, called on the Security Council to condemn Hezbollah’s aggression.

December 20, 2018 04:28
3 minute read.
An Israeli soldier lowers a camera down an Israeli-dug hole into a cross-border tunnel dug from Leba

An Israeli soldier lowers a camera down an Israeli-dug hole into a cross-border tunnel dug from Lebanon into Israel, as seen on the Israeli side of the border, near the town of Metula December 19, 2018. (photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)


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Despite all the learned arguments, even with the aerial photographs, and regardless of the unequivocal diplomatic support from the US, Israel knows that it will not get the UN Security Council to take firm and determined action against Hezbollah for its tunnel project.

This was clear when listening to the Security Council debate on the issue on Wednesday, as one member of the 15-country Security Council after the other, with the exception of the US, decried – using different nuances – Hezbollah’s attack tunnels into Israel, but also made clear that Israel also violates Lebanon’s sovereignty.

Israel’s wish list going into the debate was long.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking in Jerusalem to the foreign press, called on the Security Council to condemn Hezbollah’s aggression, designate it as a terrorist entity and sanction it, demand that Lebanon stop letting its territory be used to attack a neighboring state, support Israel’s right to defend itself against “Iranian-inspired and Iranian-conducted aggression” and demand that UNIFIL meet its mandate and deepen its operations.

But Netanyahu knows there is no way that the Security Council, with Kuwait, Bolivia, Russia and China among its members, is going to agree to that.

Then why all the effort? Why go through the motions? Simple, because Israel is using the Security Council as a forum to explain to the world why it might need to take strong action inside Lebanon in the near future. It is preparing its lawyerly case now.

Ironically, the need for making that case became greater even as the debate was taking place, when reports emerged that US President Donald Trump will be withdrawing the 2,000 US troops from eastern Syria.

For Israel, as well as for the Sunni states in the region, this is a nightmare. The presence of the US troops in Kurdish-controlled areas in eastern Syria kept Iran from being able to complete a Shia arc leading from Iran, through Iraq and Syria and into Lebanon.

The US presence in that region is all that prevents Tehran from being able to convey overland state-of-the art weapons along that arc into Hezbollah’s eager hands in Lebanon. This was a critical buffer zone.

As former deputy chief of staff Yair Golan said at a conference on the eastern Mediterranean last week, “We need the presence of the US in the region, mainly in Iraq and the eastern part of Syria, as much as possible. With the American presence, with the American support to the Kurds, we can in a way mitigate the Iranian influence in the region. And that is extremely important.”

The American presence there was a bargaining chip that could be used with the Russians in trying to get them to move the Iranians out of Syria. The Russians do not want the American presence in the area, and as a result the US could say, “Use your influence to get Iran out, and we will go.”
But now the US is going, without the Russians – at least to anyone’s public knowledge – doing anything to move the Iranians out.

Israel, Netanyahu said in a very restrained reaction to the American announcement, will know how to defend itself, even with the US troops out of Syria, and Israel left alone to deal with the tremendous challenges in Syria: from the Russian presence there, to Iran’s.

And one of the ways it might choose to defend itself is by acting against Iran’s proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon’s performance at the Security Council was aimed at getting international legitimacy for such a move, a move that a US troop withdrawal from Syria may make more likely. If, as a result of the US withdrawal of troops from Syria, Iran is able to transfer precision-guided missiles more easily to Hezbollah, then the likelihood of an Israeli action inside Lebanon will becomes less remote.

On Wednesday, the world was put on notice.

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