It happens just about every year around spring: When the sun starts shining, Israeli security experts start spouting the odds of another war breaking out in the summer.
Maybe it’s because of the unusually warm weather we had this week, but this year these rumblings seem to have started ahead of schedule, with talk of a Third Lebanon War. One possible cause could be the growing tension from the precision-missiles factory Hezbollah is building near Beirut. The threat might be real, but declarations and threats won’t be enough to thwart it.
In the three years since Operation Protective Edge ended, the IDF has focused its energies on preventing Hezbollah from growing stronger.
The minor military incidents that take place between wars have become the IDF’s prime preoccupation. According to reports from Syria, Israel Air Force attacks there have become routine, and not even the Russians seem have accepted the new status quo.
Iran and Hezbollah have finally realized that all their shipments that pass through Syria will be exposed to attacks by Israel Air Force jets.
The attempt by Iran to build a precision-missiles factory in Syria was thwarted by Israel last September (according to reports in the foreign media).
As a result, Hezbollah decided to try to circumvent Israeli counterterrorism activity by moving the factory to Lebanese soil.
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Unlike in Syria, Israel operates in Lebanon under a different deterrence equation that is dictated by Hezbollah.
Four years ago, in February 2014, the Israel Air Force attacked a weapons depot in a Lebanese town near the Syrian border. Hezbollah declared that it would not tolerate such attacks, and one month later followed through on its threat and detonated an explosive charge on an IDF convoy on Mount Dov (Shebaa Farms).
Thankfully, there were no casualties.
Immediately following the attack, Hassan Nasrallah, secretary- general of Hezbollah, announced that this would be the equation from now on: every time Israel attacked Lebanon, there would be an attack on Israel’s northern border in response. For some reason, Israel has accepted these game rules and refrained from attacking any locations in Lebanon. Nasrallah’s mouthpiece, journalist Ibrahim al-Amin, makes sure in his articles to remind us every few months that this equation is still valid and volatile.
OVER A YEAR ago, Israel began monitoring preparations by Iran to construct a missile factory in the Beirut area. The threat is clear: missiles from such a factory would give Hezbollah the ability to attack strategic sites in Israel with the precision pinpointing a specific house, and would arm the terrorist organization with hundreds of newly built missiles every year. We can assume that Israel searched for ways to thwart the construction of this factory, but an article published this week by IDF Spokesman Brig.-Gen. Ronen Manlis in the Arab media indicates these efforts were unsuccessful.
When Israel has the ability to operate clandestinely, it doesn’t make public declarations and threats. The publication of this unusual article signals that Israel has despaired of its attempts to stealthily thwart construction of the factory, and that it’s seriously considering carrying out an aerial attack. This is a very serious dilemma: An Israeli attack would provoke Hezbollah to retaliate on Israel’s northern border, which could easily escalate into a Third Lebanon War, which neither Israel nor Hezbollah are interested in starting.
This is the message that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brought to Russian President Vladimir Putin: The continued construction of the factory will lead the region to the brink of war. It’s hard not to be impressed by the way Netanyahu managed to connect with the Russian president. There is a lot more here than just the protection of mutual interests – Putin personally holds Netanyahu in high esteem and he also has a special relationship with Israel, which he views as a country with a strong cultural ties to Russia. Netanyahu’s ability to receive an audience with Putin now, especially the same week in which he met with the US president, is a great strategic asset for Israel.
Putin respects Israeli interests with regards to Syria, Russia’s new sponsored state.
He’s not allowing the Iranians to get too close to the Golan Heights, and has held back from intervening when the Israel Air Force carries out missions there. But with all due respect for Netanyahu, Putin can’t really (and probably has no desire to) intervene in what is happening in Lebanon. He will pass on the Israeli message to his partners in Tehran and Beirut, perhaps with an aside that Russia has no interest in a conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, but the chances that he’ll order them to halt construction of the factory is remote.
WHILE NETANYAHU is trying to push forward with quiet diplomacy in Moscow, back at home a noisy group of individuals concerned about Israel’s security are already pointing toward the next war.
Hezbollah doesn’t need these descriptions. Its leaders understand quite well that it won’t be the same organization and Lebanon won’t be the same country after the next war. It would hurt the Lebanese to a much greater extent and push Lebanon back a few decades.
Hezbollah might not win the next round of violence, but it could succeed in putting the Israeli people through an extremely difficult period like it hasn’t experienced since the War of Independence. It could deliver a severe blow to the Israel’s civilian and military populations, and possibly even temporarily occupy a few Israeli communities. The face of Israeli society could be drastically changed, leading a certain percentage of Israelis to wonder if they have a future here.
Both sides well understand the power that such destruction would have, and so Israel and Hezbollah are both deterred from entering into conflict. Hezbollah is also not really prepared to go to war today – it would prefer first to bring back its 6,000 soldiers who are currently stationed in Syria to Lebanon, but it might be some time before that’s possible. And yet, even in its limited capacity, Hezbollah is managing to conduct a damaging campaign against Israel.
Therefore, I recommend that all the Israeli leaders who have been going on lately about attacking Lebanon think carefully about how such a war might end, and whether the heavy price we’d have to pay as a society would make it worthwhile.
The missile factory in Lebanon might turn out to be the most difficult dilemma Netanyahu will ever have to face. If you look at how previous prime ministers dealt with such issues, the most common mode of action was inaction. That is just human nature: People judge the failure to make a decision more leniently than making a wrong decision.
All leaders prefer to avoid decision-making over making a decisive move, and Netanyahu’s talents in this area are far superior to those of his predecessors.
The thing is – in this case, not making a decision regarding the Iranian missile factory could have incredibly devastating consequences.Translated by Hannah Hochner.
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