Josef Olmert
Josef Olmert

Hizballah and Israel-Why Now and what is ahead

The winds of war are blowing yet again in the North of Israel. In fact, the very mentioning of winds of war and the North seem to be a constant feature of Israel’s security situation in the last fifteen years since the end of the Second Lebanon war in 2006.The ​current round of alarmist and aggressive voices in both countries was dramatically highlighted by the fact, that both sides took action in recent days which was in sharp contrast to what they have not done in the last fifteen years. Hizballah encouraged Palestinian groups to fire rockets at Israel, and then the Bennett-Gantz government reacted by sending the IAF to bomb targets in South Lebanon for the first time since 2006, and Hizballah retaliated by firing nineteen rockets to Israel and claiming responsibility. This too was a first since 2006.In the spirit of the Olympics just ended, we can claim an interim result of 2;1 in favor of Hizballah. Yet, statements made in Israel in the last forty eight hours by people close to the government indicate, that this result may change in the very near future. Will it? how? when?. Let us examine that, but start with presenting a context, at least of the years since 2006. In this year, the war ended in a somewhat peculiar way. There was a distict difference between results on the ground and the perceptions of what happened.

Let us remember, that the Security Council Resolution no.1701 which brought the cease fire was based on Israeli withdrawal from land taken by the IDF , not the other way around. Nasrallah himself stated after the war ended, that if he knew how it would develop, he would not have started it, and as of 2006 he hides in his bunker from where he issues bombastic statements and threats. It is also a fact, that his patrons in Iran were upset about the war and its consequences, as what happened was not initiated by them, and was not in line with their boss-client relationships with Nasrallah. Some senior Hizballah leaders who were not hiding in their bunker were killed ”mysteriously” as they say in the Middle East, but not so mysteriously really. In the Iranian system, insubordination means death. Still, the perception created in Israel by many journalists as well as experts whether genuine ones or politically motivated was, that the war was a defeat to Israel. Nasrallah did not need his oiled propaganda machine to do the job for him, as it was done by others. Many Israelis failed to understand, that this was not really the Second Lebanon war, rather the First Iran-Israel war, because Hizballah is not a Lebanese organization, though being based there. Hizballah is a Iranian-Shi’i organization which put sect over state, and that was so clearly demonstrated during the Syrian civil war starting in 2011.Contrary to the interests of Lebanon , Hizballah joined this war on the side of Bashar Assad, the same Syrian leader who finally withdrew from Lebanon in 2005, following the patriotic Lebanese Cedar Revolution, which Hizballah was not a part of. Over a million Syrian refugees moved to Lebanon in recent years, at a time when Hizballah and its political partners were in control of Lebanon. This outcome of the war, added to Hizballah maintaining the Iranian-backed belligerent cause against Israel, turned Lebanon into a pariah state, one which in recent years has become a failing state, and in these very days is on the verge of a complete collapse. So, it is IRAN and its interests and overall situation which are the main factors shaping Hizballah policies , not patriotic Lebanese interest , and that is leading us to what is happening now.

Iran is genuinely concerned about an Israeli attack , and contrary to many Israelis , they do take the statements and moves of Israeli leaders seriously. The Iranians are aware of the fact, that there is near political consensus in Israel about the nuclear program, and they are not certain about the Biden administration , despite the obvious desire of the Americans to resume the talks about this program. The Iranians are following the close American-Israeli relationships even these days, especially the visits of senior military and intelligence officials of the US and Israel in each other’s capital. The regime in Tehran is having its own internal problems, first with growing domestic opposition and then within the regime itself, and all the indications are , that the more militants represented by the new President Ra’isi and the Revolutionary Guards and backed by Supreme Leader Khamene’i have the upper hand. The combined effect of all that is a change of policy in Tehran. In the past, the regime issued bombastic anti Israel statements and threats but refrained from action, but it seems that it is in the past. Recent actions by the regime, including attacks on Israeli ships and provocations against Western powers signal a readiness to raise the
stakes. Here is where Hizballah comes to the picture.The provocations of the Lebanese arm of the Iranian army a.k.a
Hizballah are a direct reminder to Israel about the fact, that a war against Iran means a war in more than one front, and this is a timely reminder to Israel coming immediately after the recent encounter with Hamas which proved Israel’s difficulty in terms of a war in more than one front. For Hizballah, the Iran line is a diktat, and clearly it is coming at the most inopportune time for the State of Lebanon which needs reconstruction but not another war. The collision between the Druze people and the Hizballah unit which fired the rockets few days ago from a Druze-controlled area is a clear signal about what the Non-Shi’is Lebanese people think, probably also many Shi’is. To sum that up, It is my assessment, that any collision between Israel and Iran inevitably would lead to a full scale confrontation with Hizballah. No more Hizballah is Lebanese first and Lebanon is in trouble, so they will keep quiet. Hizballah is Iran first, and they will not keep quiet once ordered so by their bosses in Tehran.

So where does all that leave Israel?. Here is the Israel dilemma. Israel has no interest in Lebanon, other than making sure that this country would not be a launching pad for an attack , something which has not happened for fifteen years until now[so much for the failed war of 2006… LOL], but it could become one, IF there is a war between Israel and Iran. Therefore, Israeli policy makers should decide what is their first priority. It seems, that the choice was made already-it is Iran, and this is the right choice, but then the question is so what?. Is Israel going to make good on the threats being voiced by both Bennett and Gantz, and initiate a large anti Iranian operation, or these statements/threats are designed to put pressure on the US , not Iran, in order to have a tough American stance in the upcoming talks with Iran IF they happen?. If there is no intention to make good on the rhetoric, it is my opinion, that Hizballah will refrain from more provocative actions, and in this case, it is really not so pleasant to hear Nasrallah televised arrogance, but not a problem beyond this. IF Bennett and Gantz are serious then there is no point in initiating a premature large-scale anti Hizballah operation. That may be the other side interest, because IF Israel gets into a large-scale confrontation with Hizballah in response to provocations which are mostly of propagandist nature, then the Iranians can feel safer . Let us see IF Hizballah goes beyond the current mostly symbolic show of force and initiates more serious attacks. Then Israel has no choice, but to deal with them in a way not experienced until now. Iran would unleash the full missile force of Hizballah ONLY IF they really anticipate an imminent Israeli attack, and in this case Israel can brace itself to attacks by pro Iran elements in Yemen and Iraq. This will be the Second Israeli -Iranian war, and Iran’s own territory will be a major target. So, I pin it mostly on the delicate balance between rhetoric and action. What do the Iranians really think? .Go figure, a very IFY situation.

Gantz and Bennett hold the keys, because the game as described depends on what Israel REALLY want to do .They are d a duo that ,at least, until now give reasons to trust their overall ability to come to sensible , though not risk free decisions. They need to take into account the fact, that they were preceded by a P.M Benjamin Netanyahu his name, who lost almost every shred of credibility about Iran because of the contrast between rhetoric and action. lasting for nearly twelve years.

About the Author
Dr Josef Olmert, a Middle East expert, is currently an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina