The IDF knows almost everything about Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, but could still be reprised by an unwanted escalation with him, former IDF intelligence analysis chief Brig.-Gen (ret.) Itai Brun told The Jerusalem Post on Monday.
Brun was reacting to a combination of an unusual Yediot Aharonot story on Friday in which current officers, many of who served under him from 2011-2015, revealed aspects of their classified assessment of Nasrallah along with the Hezbollah chief’s rejection of that article’s claims.
“The IDF knows a lot about Nasrallah. Nasrallah knows this and knows a lot about Israel, but there could still be an escalation which is different from how he usually acts,” said Brun, referring to the idea that leaders can act unpredictably even after a period in which they follow a consistent pattern.
He said that the message from IDF intelligence through the article seemed to be: “We know everything – you are exposed. Your organization is exposed. We have information superiority.”
Further, Brun, who is currently Deputy Director for Research and Analysis at INSS, said that IDF intelligence could be using the article to respond in this latest series of exchanges.
Describing how in January, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi threatened Nasrallah to try to deter him from any escalation and the Hezbollah chief’s counter threat that he has surprises for Jerusalem in the case of war which could shock Israelis, Brun said this could be the IDF’s answer: “you can’t surprise us.”
The article describes Nasrallah as obsessed with reading Israeli media coverage, with his image in Israel and in Lebanon in general and with maintaining extraordinary levels of micromanagement and control of the Lebanese state.
Moreover, the IDF intelligence officers in the article give the impression that they have tremendous penetration and insight into Nasrallah’s inner circle, method of operations and intentions.
To that extent, the intelligence officers suggest Nasrallah is very deterred and intimidated from any broad conflict with Israel and much more conservative about taking gambles than he was earlier on in his 28-year reign over the Lebanese terror group.
Brun, who likely formulated significant portions of the classified file during his service, confirmed that Nasrallah, “is very interested in the Israeli public, government, IDF and what they say about him” as well as his “reading obsessively everything we write and stories about him having Israeli newspapers nearby him.”
However, he said that, “Nasrallah’s main knowledge doesn’t come from reading, but from Hezbollah’s conflict with us over 28 years.”
At this point, Brun pointed out gaps in Nasrallah’s knowledge and where Israeli estimates could also be imperfect despite impressive intelligence penetration.
After conflicts with Israel in 1993, 1996, 2000, an exchange of attacks in 2003 and a kidnapping attack in late 2005, the Hezbollah chief thought that he could continue small kidnapping attack operations without risking a major fight with Jerusalem.
Brun said that Nasrallah “was really surprised, he didn’t understand the Israeli side” leading into the 2006 Second Lebanon War when then-prime minister Ehud Olmert and others replaced Ariel Sharon and those who had run the country for around five years.
In other words, Nasrallah did not intend for the major 2006 war and that war combined with his success in converting Hezbollah’s military power into more of an army, a social network and a dominant political apparatus, changed his attitude toward Israel.
The former top military intelligence official said he calls the current version of Nasrallah – “Nasrallah 4.0.”
Similarly to the current IDF intelligence officials quoted in the Yediot article, he said the Hezbollah leader is now “a supporter of the status quo. He has designed the rules of the game [in Lebanon], so now he doesn’t want to have the rules broken.”
He added Nasrallah “has changed into a more careful, wary and deliberate actor” before making significant moves regarding Israel.
In addition, Brun confirmed that Nasrallah “is overworked and spread thin” in trying to handle all the different levers of power after his main military planner, Imad Mughniyeh, was assassinated in 2008, reportedly by Israel and the US.
Another major evolution he discussed was that Hezbollah now “mostly serves the interest of the organization, thinks of its own people and institutions” as opposed to merely being “a proxy for Iran.”
All of this maintaining the pillars of his power and success in Lebanon are the same reasons why the “current IDF intelligence’s description is correct – today he is more hesitant, less ready to take risks, more restrained.”
But Brun flagged Nasrallah’s attack on an IDF convoy in the North in September 2019 when he did not know that the Israeli soldiers would avoid being killed as a sign that “he was ready for some escalation when it is important enough, though maybe not for an escalation getting out of control.”
According to the former senior intelligence official, this means the IDF cannot be complacent and feel safe that there is no scenario where Hezbollah might not shower Israel with its arsenal of rockets.
He argued that a deep understanding of a leader’s past habits is good, but is just that – their past habits – and is not a perfect indicator of their future conduct.
“I think it is not right to learn from this that we know exactly what Nasrallah will do... leaders do not have operational codes,” which perfectly predict when they might act against their usual pattern.
Brun listed off a series of examples of leaders and countries acting unpredictably, including Anwar Sadat, Mikhail Gorbachev, Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
He said that though he had not necessarily participated in such an article of sharing classified intel during his IDF service, that he had participated in conferences and that, “the world has changed. There is logic to doing it with the proper caution. So many things today are publicly revealed.”