The cynic in me finds it hard to ignore the timing. Just two days after police recommended – for the third time – that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be indicted on bribery and fraud charges, the IDF announced the beginning of a new operation to locate and destroy Hezbollah’s cross-border attack tunnels.
Why the cynicism? A couple of reasons.
First, the existence of the tunnels has been known for a while. Senior IDF officers admitted this week that they had first presented a plan to expose and destroy the tunnels at the beginning of the year. The timing then did not work due to a mix of operational and diplomatic considerations, so it was postponed. That could be a legitimate explanation. But if it was postponed from January until December, why did it have to happen this week? Why not next week? Or even next month?
The cynic in me would say that it was Netanyahu’s version of “Wag the Dog” – the 1997 film starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro, who invent a war to cover up a presidential scandal. Basically, divert attention away from Netanyahu’s legal troubles and get the country talking about something else.
The second reason is due to the unprecedented PR campaign that the IDF launched as the drillers and bulldozer got to work searching for the tunnels on the outskirts of Metulla, along the United Nations-recognized international border between Israel and Lebanon. The IDF gave the operation a name – Northern Shield – even though all we are really talking about is the discovery and destruction of tunnels, something that has taken place some 20 times the last couple of years along Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip.
When it comes to Gaza tunnels, though, there is no name and there are no special briefings for military reporters and news editors. There, the IDF’s Engineering Corps simply goes to work, discovers the tunnels and destroys them. The IDF Spokesperson’s Office then releases a press statement and some photos, and that’s it. If we are lucky, maybe a video as well.
THIS TIME though it was done completely differently, with an emphasis put on the PR side of Northern Shield. Special movies were made, and materials were quickly released to the media including one showing a Hezbollah operative looking into a camera mounted on a robot that the IDF had lowered into a tunnel shaft.
In addition, this isn’t some amazing and daring operation that the IDF has launched across enemy lines while putting the country at risk. This is a defensive operation by nature and by location, since all of the activity taking place until now has been on the Israeli side of the border, where, like any country, Israel can dig and destroy whatever it finds.
Why then make a big deal about something that is at the relative bottom of Israel’s list of concerns when it comes to Hezbollah? First and foremost on that list are the Iranian proxy group’s long-range missiles, surface-to-air missile systems and growing cyberwarfare capabilities. Not a few tunnels.
The opposition picked up on all these points and claimed that Netanyahu was the one being cynical by politicizing an IDF operation. While the military would be expected to resist being used as a political pawn, some on the Left argued, now as defense minister, Netanyahu left chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot with little choice but to go along with his grand scheme, all aimed at diverting attention away from his legal troubles.
There is supporting evidence for this. Netanyahu is known in Israel as “Mr. Security” – talking about military threats is not just his forte, it’s his sweet spot. A movie his office released on Tuesday from the speech he gave that evening at the Kirya Military Headquarters had background music added to it. It was almost like watching Rocky run up the 72 stone steps at the entrance to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
As if he was an actor in a Hollywood suspense film, Netanyahu told the Israeli public that “more remains secret than has been revealed,” and that the tunnel operation was just a small piece of a much larger scheme.
Isn’t it always the case that “more remains secret than has been revealed” when it comes to security matters? And isn’t that the way it should be in any responsible country? There is no reason for the public to know all of the country’s secrets, just like the government is not supposed to know everything about people’s private lives. That is how democracies work.
The way this was done and the speech Netanyahu gave just added to the feeling that we were witnessing something much more than an important and legitimate military operation. The cynics among us would be forgiven for thinking that Operation Northern Shield had been hijacked for political purposes.
BUT WHILE I can be cynical, I also know that this operation, has been handled correctly from the get-go. Not only was the rollout of the operation done right, it was a strategically smart initiative by Netanyahu and could be the government’s last real chance at avoiding a full-scale conflict with Hezbollah in Lebanon.
It is important to keep in mind that Hezbollah is not Hamas, the Gaza Strip is not Lebanon, and a war with Hezbollah will be very different than Israel’s past wars with the Palestinian terrorist organization.
In the 12 years that have passed since the end of the Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah has built up an impressive missile arsenal, with more firepower than 95% of countries in the world.
If in 2006 Hezbollah had approximately 15,000 rockets – of which it fired about 4,300 rockets during the war’s 34 days of fighting – today it is believed to have over 130,000 missiles and rockets, and is reportedly capable of firing over 1,500 in the first few days of a future war. This is far more than what existing Israeli missile defense systems – Iron Dome and David’s Sling – can provide adequate protection against.
The change, though, has not only been in quantity, but also in quality. Hezbollah’s missiles today have longer ranges and the ability to strike almost anywhere within Israel.
The missiles also have larger warheads, and Hezbollah – together with Iran – is working on giving them greater accuracy with satellite guidance systems. This would mean that if they want to strike the Kirya in a future war, they will be able to. The same applies to the Knesset, the Azrieli Towers in Tel Aviv and the oil refinery plant in Haifa.
WHILE A FUTURE war will be fierce, there is little doubt that Israel will prevail. Hezbollah might be able to cause great devastation and destruction with its missiles, but it does not pose a threat to the very existence of to the State of Israel.
In addition, all these predictions about Hezbollah’s missile capability do not take into account a possible preemptive strike by Israel against the group’s long-range missiles before they could be used, similar to what happened in 2006. If that were to happen again, it would undermine Hezbollah’s ability to cause Israel severe damage.
Nevertheless, this is a significant threat, one that Eisenkot views as the most pressing one today for the State of Israel. For that reason and despite initial cynicism, the government and the IDF were right to launch a PR campaign around the discovery of the tunnels for the simple reason that Israel needs to exhaust all other options before heading into a full-fledged war with Hezbollah.
One of those options is getting the world to understand what is happening along the border, and how grave a threat Hezbollah poses to Israel and to the stability of the Middle East. While unlikely, Northern Shield together with smart diplomacy could lead to a new UN Security Council resolution against Lebanon or, at the very least, some revisions to 1701, the resolution that was supposed to prevent Hezbollah from rearming after the Second Lebanon War.
This might not work, and the point might come in the near future when Israel will have to take decisive action against Hezbollah targets in Lebanon, potentially sparking a new war. When and if that happens, Northern Shield and its accompanying PR campaign will have shown us that, at the very least, the government tried other means before waging war. In today’s Middle East, that is not a small feat.
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