Playing with fire may burn more than Netanyahu’s fingers
Amid the recent vitriolic exchange of threats and rhetoric between Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, the former gave an extremely reasonable piece of advice to the latter: “Calm down.” One wonders if he was also thoughtful and reflective enough to advise himself to do the same before both sides find themselves engaged in a full-blown war, which neither wants, or can win without massive casualties.
Since the end of the 2006 war with Israel, Nasrallah has occasionally emerged from his hiding places and threatened Israel with destruction. But he knows that the capabilities his organization has acquired, were they ever to be used on a large scale, would only unleash massive and destructive retaliation from Lebanon’s southern neighbor.
Therein lies the danger of the recent escalation in the war of words and small-scale military operations, mainly carried out by Israel; that they could lead to a much bigger confrontation with unforeseen consequences. The common denominator in a number of recent military incidents in which Israel has been involved, in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, is in fact Iran; and unless Iran “calms down” it may unite forces that Israel could militarily defeat individually, but which together could pose a genuine threat.
In all the incidents last week, Israel used its air force, including drones, to either thwart attacks by Iranian proxies or hurt their capabilities and deter Iran and its non-state allies. That concentration of such events in the space of just 24 hours leads us to ask whether Israel is figuratively and literally playing with fire, and is in danger of misjudging either its own capabilities or those of the other side to retaliate.
What cannot be disputed is that Israel is changing the rules of the game in terms of scale and outreach in attempting to eliminate what it perceives as threat; and in its readiness to publicly acknowledge most of its actions, thereby abandoning years of ambiguity. Both developments put pressure on the other side to reply in kind.
Israel’s concerns at the menacing Iranian presence close to its border are genuine. Together with its proxies, Iran has the means to hurt Israel, which must respond militarily as much as diplomatically.
Cynics would link the scope and intensity of the Israeli operations, and even more so the rush to publicise them, with this month’s elections. Publicity stunts are never too far away from the calculus of the beleaguered Israeli prime minister, who must win this election for political, and even more for personal, reasons. “Mr Security,” as he likes to be regarded, hasn’t managed to quell militancy in Gaza, while in the West Bank there have been an increasing number of attacks on Israelis by Palestinian militants. Consequently, Netanyahu’s security credentials are on the wane, especially as rival political parties can boast four former military chiefs of staff in their ranks.
Leaving aside electoral considerations, for Israel to strike at targets in three different countries plus Gaza over one weekend is unusual. The drone attack on a Hezbollah military site in Beirut targeted the heart of the organization’s missile program, eliminating a planetary mixer used in the creation of solid fuel and possibly hampering Hezbollah’s development of long-range precision missiles. The other raids — on the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command, a militant group in eastern Lebanon backed by Syria’s government; and on a convoy and an arms depot of the Popular Mobilization Forces, the Iraqi state-sponsored Shiite militia also supported by Iran — are a step up in Israel’s efforts to contain Iran’s strategic threat whenever intelligence is available and the action is operationally sound. But while these attacks may be seen as part of the longer-term prevention strategy in the conflict of attrition with Iran, the airstrike in Syria to prevent an Iranian force from launching an explosive drone attack deep into Israel was more of a response to an imminent threat.
Israel may be tempted to demonstrate its superior military capabilities and indicate to Iran that it will not tolerate its hostile presence and activities; but the risk is that Tehran becomes reluctant to just sit back and absorb these attacks. There is an unsettling realization there that Israel has accurate intelligence that Tehran did not expect it to have. Before Israel becomes too complacent it may at least have to refrain from attacks such as the one in Iraq, about which America sent a clear message. “We support Iraqi sovereignty and have repeatedly spoken out against any potential actions by external actors inciting violence in Iraq,” the Pentagon said. This was a rebuke to Israel, and a warning that it should not expect US backing when it operates without consultation where US interests may be harmed.
Israel’s concerns at the menacing Iranian presence close to its border are genuine. Together with its proxies, Iran has the means to hurt Israel, which must respond militarily as much as diplomatically. The current escalation may not necessarily be a demonstration of Israel’s confidence that it can curtail the Iranian threat, but rather an overreaction based on underestimating the response from the other side, whether from Iran or from its allies.
There is a risk that by using military force to contain Iran simultaneously on different fronts, Israel is also galvanizing a front against it, which may decide that to maintain military credibility and avoid criticism from its own constituents and domestic rivals, it must act, and act rapidly and decisively. Herein lies the danger of miscalculated escalation. Israel would be well advised to avoid this, before it finds itself embroiled in a conflict for which it may not be prepared.