Lapid must proceed with caution with Hezbollah - opinion

Lapid and Biden last week worked to refine the current US position regarding Israel's initiative to prevent war with Hezbollah, and now Lapid must take the reins, gently.

 ONE WAY to keep Lapid’s national security team as stable as possible would be to wait with appointing IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi’s successor, say the writers. (photo credit: FLASH90)
ONE WAY to keep Lapid’s national security team as stable as possible would be to wait with appointing IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi’s successor, say the writers.
(photo credit: FLASH90)

In the last couple of weeks, Hezbollah launched a few attempts to attack the Karish gas field, located in the economic water of Israel. Several drones heading from Lebanon were foiled by the IAF, preventing a serious cognitive as well as kinetic achievement from Hezbollah. 

“We possess options in air, land and sea. They are all on the table. We will respond with appropriate force at the appropriate time and place. War is much more honorable than the situation Lebanon is heading to now – collapse and starvation.”

Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah

Furthermore, before last weekend, its leader Hassan Nasrallah sent direct threats toward Israel asserting: “We possess options in air, land and sea. They are all on the table. We will respond with appropriate force at the appropriate time and place. War is much more honorable than the situation Lebanon is heading to now – collapse and starvation.”

Hezbollah’s attempts to launch an attack on Karish, as well as Nasrallah’s threats mentioned above, demonstrate how these incidents should qualify as an escalation in the organization’s aggression toward the Jewish state. Once again, the question arises as to whether Israel should take this opportunity to land a pre-emptive strike on the terror group’s precise-missile project and thus strengthen Israeli deterrence – which, based on recent events, is weakening.

Currently, we suggest avoiding a pre-emptive strike, even though there is a clear indication of increasing incidents of Hezbollah against Israel. We consider Israel’s current fragile political reality and public opinion as an unsupportive setting for launching a pre-emptive attack on Hezbollah.

A Hezbollah flag and a poster depicting Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah are pictured along a street, near Sidon, Lebanon July 7, 2020 (credit: REUTERS/ALI HASHISHO)A Hezbollah flag and a poster depicting Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah are pictured along a street, near Sidon, Lebanon July 7, 2020 (credit: REUTERS/ALI HASHISHO)

Here is why: Israel’s “war between the wars” campaign refers to a set of actions (mostly covert) which Israel has conducted against its rivals in recent years. Namely, Israel’s intelligence community was credited for a number of offensive initiatives against Syria and Iran, as well as Hezbollah and Hamas, which did not result in a significant counter response and deteriorate into a full-scale war.

These covert actions include but are not limited to assassinations, cyber-attacks and airstrikes on convoys of weapons and warehouses, such as the attack on the reactor in Syria (2007), the attack on chemical weapons facilities in Syria (2020) and the breach of the Iranian nuclear archive (2018). In addition to the cognitive effect inherent in these actions, they also helped Israel prevent the endeavor of its rivals by damaging their infrastructure.

The logic behind the “war between the wars” campaign is to avoid escalation to the greatest extent possible through surgical blows, while recognizing the importance of legitimacy – both domestic and international – in initiating a war. In order for a war to be justified, a series of events or a constitutive one must have occurred.

Thus, for example, then-prime minister Arik Sharon waited for the launching of Operation Defensive Shield (2002) until he was convinced, following the severe attack on the Park Hotel, that Israeli public opinion would support this operation.

Moreover, the Second Lebanon War (2006) was preceded by a significant provocation by Hezbollah in the form of the kidnapping of IDF soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. This provocation by Hezbollah led to broad support to launch a war against the terror group. Similarly, that was also the case before the IDF’s main rounds of fighting against Gaza in recent years, with some differences in the rates of public support for each of these campaigns.

What’s next?

Despite Hezbollah attempting to launch an attack on Karish and Nasrallah’s threats above, it is not likely that Israeli public will support initiating a war against Hezbollah now. Similarly, the international community will strive to prevent a war in Lebanon, considering the dire economic situation in the country. It is also important to point out that starting a war against Hezbollah will be an irresponsible act on the part of Yair Lapid, the provisional prime minister for Israel in the current sensitive and fragile political climate.

Beyond Israel’s need not ignore Hezbollah’s latest provocation since it could be perceived as an Israeli weakness, Israeli military and intelligence elites should send a clear message in response to such aggressive actions by Hezbollah. For the time being, its attempts to launch an attack on Karish do not infringe on the sovereignty of the State of Israel, and therefore there is no reason for it to exceed the boundaries of Israel’s “war between wars” campaign. 

However, if Hezbollah will manage to attack the Karish gas field and damage it, then there will be no escape from a harsh Israeli response, even at the cost of a direct confrontation with the organization and its envoys.

Israel: Fragile political reality

On the eve of a fifth election campaign in three years, Lapid, like Ehud Olmert during the Second Lebanon War (2006), lacks experience in the security realm. Considering this reality, we believe that the prime minister now needs a stable and experienced team of experts when it comes to dealing with the national security threats looming at the doorstep of the State of Israel.

One way to keep Lapid’s national security team as stable as possible would be to wait for the appointment of the successor of IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen Aviv Kohavi, who will end his tenure shortly. While this is an organizational and administrative step and ordered by law, it could have meaningful implications, and potentially shock Israel’s national security decision-making in a sensitive period such as this.

A second means beyond the military front is the diplomatic channel. President Biden’s visit last week to the Middle East is long overdue for Lapid, but was also an opportunity for action on the diplomatic front against Hezbollah. As Israel’s foreign minister, Lapid has demonstrated considerable skills, which he can now mobilize to harness Biden to swing the weapons of sanctions against Hezbollah and make clear to the organization what would be the price Hezbollah and Nasrallah will pay if they continue to provoke Israel.

Recall the sanctions that the US Congress sought to impose on Hezbollah’s financial network in September 2021 and those previously imposed by the Trump administration against members of the Lebanese parliament, claiming that it leveraged their political position to obtain financial benefits for Hezbollah.

Lapid must seize this opportunity and the positive channel he paved with Biden last week to refine the current US administration’s position regarding an Israeli initiative for a preventive war against Hezbollah, in case of a “rainy day” or when the conditions for it are optimal for Israel – whichever comes first.

Dr. Pnina Shuker is a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Security and Strategy (JISS), and is a lecturer at Bar Ilan University. Twitter: @pnina_shuker.

Dr. Ben Aharon is an Associate Researcher at Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF). He is a historian of international relations specializing in the Cold War in the Middle East. His main areas of interest are Israel’s diplomatic and political history, memory, intelligence history and counter-terrorism. Twitter: @EldadBenAharon.