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Israel, Lebanon's Hezbollah agree to avoid confrontation, but for how long?

After two days of rockets first from Gaza and then from the Lebanese border, tensions seem to have calmed, at least temporary.
Israeli soldiers deploy in an open area near Kibuttz Malkia, in northern Israel bordering Lebanon, on April 7, 2023. - On April 6, the Israeli army said more than 30 rockets had been fired from Lebanese territory into Israel in the largest escalation on the northern border since Israel and Hezbollah fought a 34-day war in 2006. (Photo by JALAA MAREY / AFP) (Photo by JALAA MAREY/AFP via Getty Images)

TEL AVIV — Israel’s Army Radio reported Friday afternoon that the Israeli military (IDF) cleared residents of the Gaza border area to resume their normal activities after a night of rocket fire from the Strip and also from Lebanon and ensuing Israeli strikes on Hamas targets in Gaza.

According to UNIFIL and Israeli authorities, Israel and Hezbollah both signaled on Friday they are not seeking war. “Nobody wants an escalation right now,” Israeli army spokesperson Lt. Col. Richard Hecht told reporters early Friday.

Although Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah met in Beirut with senior Hamas officials on Thursday just hours before the missile strike on Israel, Israel retaliated with airstrikes only against Palestinian Hamas targets in southern Lebanon late Thursday, not against Hezbollah. Surprisingly, official Israeli statements on the rocket fire from Lebanon did not blame Hezbollah. According to Haaretz, Israel's security cabinet was even told it was not certain Hezbollah knew of the attack in advance. Clearly, Israel would like to distance Hezbollah from these recent developments, but why? 

On March 13, a Lebanese assailant managed to enter Israel and placed explosives at central Israel's Megiddo and badly wounded an Israeli driver. That event precipitated the current crisis, with Israeli intelligence assessing an increasing boldness among its enemies.

The Megiddo incident clearly indicated that Hezbollah is getting bolder in its operations against Israel. Hezbollah has manufactured thousands of rockets and missiles in recent years. The IDF would rather not openly confront a stronger and bolder Hezbollah. For its part, the Lebanon-based group is becoming increasingly coordinated with Hamas, but apparently also not ready to start a war with Israel. 

While Israel avoided blaming Hezbollah for the rockets, few doubt Nasrallah’s involvement or at least support. In recent speeches and statements, Nasrallah has seemed gleeful over the domestic turmoil across the border prompted by the government’s push to weaken Israel’s top court.  

The consequences of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s erosion of Israeli democracy with the support of a government unprecedented in its extremism and top-heavy with inexperienced provocateurs have clearly undermined the hard-won deterrence that maintained relative calm along the Lebanon border for 17 years. But while the Lebanon-based group is thought to be increasingly coordinated with Hamas, Hezbollah is apparently not ready yet to open a full-out war against Israel. 

While a tense calm prevailed along the border with Lebanon on Friday as well as along the southern border with the Gaza Strip, from where missiles were fired into Israel both on Wednesday and Thursday, all eyes were on Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, where Muslim worshipers were gathering for prayers on the third Friday of Ramadan. The scenes of Israeli police entering the holy site and clashing with worshipers who had barricaded themselves there are believed to have sparked the attacks from Lebanon and Gaza. 

Based on intelligence and expert assessments, Israel had prepared for weeks for the prospect of escalation on all three fronts during Ramadan. Yet Netanyahu, long touted for his expertise on security matters and his pragmatism on such issues, still fired Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on March 26 for issuing a public warning about the dire consequences of the government’s judicial overhaul on Israel’s security. Harsh criticism by pro-democracy Israeli groups and strong pressure from Washington seem to have forced Netanyahu to keep Gallant in office for now. 

While in political exile for 18 months, Netanyahu and his acolytes attacked the center-right government that ousted them from power and accused it of selling out to the Islamist Ra’am party in return for its support. Arguing that the Arab party had tied the government’s hands in responding to terrorism, Netanyahu and company repeatedly called for a right-wing government. 

That wish, which came true three months ago, has shown yet again that extreme right-wing governments are unable to deal effectively with terrorists and other enemies, fueled as they are by bravado and lacking international legitimacy.

History demonstrates that it is often centrist or center-left governments that wage war, while peace is maintained by right-wing governments, such as that of Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who made historic peace with Egypt. Distinctly hawkish Prime Minister Ariel Sharon only gained international legitimacy for the 2002 Operation Defensive Shield that took control of Palestinian cities in the West Bank after Israel suffered hundreds of terrorist attacks and deaths. It was also Sharon who disengaged from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

Netanyahu does not have a shred of legitimacy left. The US administration is shunning him and his persistently high popularity has been plunging. Friends and foes believe he is no longer in control and is being manipulated by radical family members and ultra-nationalist allies. This is the price of extremism. 

Netanyahu’s domestic woes, the civilian and military harsh reactions to his extremism and the distancing of the Biden administration have all facilitated the return of the old anti-Israeli coalition — the alliance stretching from Tehran through Damascus and Beirut and all the way to the seat of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.

Netanyahu’s rash decision to fire an experienced defense minister, a major general with decades of combat and command experience, in the midst of serious security concerns and spreading disobedience among reservist pilots and soldiers, was bewildering. Intelligence organizations including US intelligence agencies must be trying to understand what has happened to Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, known for years as a predictable and cautious statesman whose bluster was rarely matched by his actions. 

The prime minister’s caution regarding retaliation for the rocket salvos from Lebanon notwithstanding, Netanyahu’s conduct in recent weeks clearly show that his control is deteriorating among the hard-line and ultra-religious members of his government and Knesset coalition.  

Could the new escalation change anything? The combination of the mass pro-democracy protests, the expected economic and diplomatic fallout of his constitutional reforms and the threat from Hezbollah and Iran that has been brewing since the Second Lebanon War could theoretically turn things around. On the other hand, if Netanyahu has indeed lost control of his government, it simply might be too late.

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