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December 5, 2018 9:07 am

The Escalating Israeli Dilemma ‎in Lebanon Could Mean War

avatar by Oded Granot / JNS.org

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Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah addressing supporters in Beirut. Photo: Reuters.

JNS.org – Every few months, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah ‎makes a point of warning Israel not to attack ‎Lebanon, and makes all sorts of threats. Last week, he did so using aerial footage ‎of strategic targets in Israel, including the IDF’s ‎headquarters in Tel Aviv, captioned, “If you strike, ‎you will regret it.”

While Nasrallah’s ‎threats are mainly for propaganda ‎purposes, the most recent declarations appear to indicate that Hezbollah believed an Israeli strike was imminent. ‎These speculations were likely fueled by ‎frequent statements made by senior Israeli officials, ‎whose main concern is the growing threat posed by Hezbollah’s ‎military buildup. ‎

Hezbollah believes that Israel has been laying the groundwork for a potential strike in Lebanon, taking into account a number of indicators: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s presentation at the United Nations in September, in which he revealed that the Shiite terrorist group was increasing its missile-production facilities in ‎Beirut; the reports exposing Iranian cargo planes that delivered ‎weapons directly to Hezbollah in Lebanon; and ‎Netanyahu’s speech two weeks ago, at the height of a ‎political crisis, in which he suggested it was a “highly ‎sensitive time, security-wise.”

Hezbollah-affiliated media in Lebanon tried to ‎downplay these concerns, saying that the Israeli rhetoric ‎is designed to cause panic in Lebanon, but no one was actually able to breathe easier. ‎Clearly, neither Israel nor Hezbollah are interested ‎in another war. But recent developments on the ‎Israel-Lebanon border indicate that, given the ‎simmering tensions there, a major flare-up will soon — or eventually — occur. ‎

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The first prominent development here has to ‎do with Israel’s narrowing operational leeway ‎with respect to operating in Syria against Iranian ‎weapon shipments to Hezbollah in the wake of the ‎September downing of a Russian reconnaissance plane. The incident sparked a crisis between Jerusalem and ‎Moscow, and the Russian government decided to supply Syria with S-300 ‎missile-defense systems, which could pose a direct threat to Israeli aircraft.

The second development most likely evolved from the ‎first: It seems that Iran has come ‎to the conclusion that it would be best if it ‎delivered weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon directly, ‎thus avoiding the more vulnerable Syrian routes.‎ There is no doubt that these direct deliveries, ‎especially of equipment meant to upgrade Hezbollah’s ‎projectile arsenal with precision missiles, attests to ‎Tehran’s increasing audacity, as it appears to no longer even try to deny that it is transferring weapons to ‎Hezbollah.‎

This also attests to Nasrallah’s self-confidence, ‎which has been fueled by his success in propping up ‎Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime in ‎the Syrian civil war. The Shiite terrorist group sided with Assad on Iran’s orders, and has gained valuable military experience in ‎fighting alongside the Syrian army.‎ But, as previously noted, Nasrallah’s confidence has begun to wane amid public declarations by Israeli officials asserting that they will not allow Iran to turn Lebanon into a front with Israel.

Still, Israeli decision-makers face a complex dilemma. Hezbollah is believed to be in ‎possession of 150,000 advanced projectiles — far ‎more advanced than anything Hamas has — and ‎Nasrallah repeatedly boasts that they are capable of striking any target anywhere in Israel. ‎Moreover, a strike in Lebanon is not akin to a ‎strike in Syria. With the Syrian civil war ‎practically over, Russian President Vladimir Putin ‎has emerged as the master of the Syrian domain, ‎meaning that while Jerusalem and Moscow may have ‎conflicts, there is someone to ‎reason with if need be, and someone who can, to an ‎extent, curb the Iranians. ‎

Lebanon, on the other hand, is plagued by serious ‎political turmoil that sees Prime Minister Saad ‎Hariri (whose father, Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, was ‎assassinated by Hezbollah in 2005) and Nasrallah ‎constantly locking horns. Given Hezbollah’s considerable political clout in ‎the Lebanese parliament, Nasrallah is the real ‎master of the Lebanese domain, and there is no one ‎there who can stop him. ‎

That is why defense officials believe that an ‎Israeli operation in Lebanon, even a limited one, ‎would not necessarily meet a measured response by Hezbollah, making ‎the potential for a full-scale war, which would ‎expose the Israeli homefront to thousands of ‎missiles, far greater.

Oded Granot is a journalist and international commentator on the Middle East.

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