Stirring the pot of threats Israel is facing from Iran’s nuclear program began with a speech Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered Oct. 19 at a dedication ceremony of a new road named after the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. The next day, Minister for Intelligence Affairs Yuval Steinitz published his own statement, which came out a day after The New York Times published his op-ed. He was joined by Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, who evoked the cliche, “If you want to shoot, shoot; don’t talk.”
At the same time, the Israeli media (Yedioth Ahronoth) addressed this matter with questions raised by security officials who wondered “what awoke Netanyahu in terms of the Iranian issue.” The queries were raised on behalf of top Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officials who did not quite agree with the pessimistic forecasts provided by Netanyahu and his senior ministers to the effect that the world powers, chief among them the United States, were about to reach a “capitulation agreement” with Tehran on its nuclear program.
The New York Times later published an article answering this question: It reported that US President Barack Obama was contemplating reaching an agreement with Iran that would not consist of totally lifting the sanctions but only suspending them. Such a move, the newspaper said, lies within the president’s purviews, allowing him not to seek the approval of the Congress (as opposed to lifting the sanctions). Thus, the president will be able to bypass the intractable Congress, which may or may not endorse a “bad” deal with Iran. It is believed that this information reached Israeli intelligence officials before being published in the Times, which is what set off Netanyahu, Liberman and Steinitz.
Following a talk I held Oct. 20 with a senior minister from the diplomatic-security Cabinet, further details came to light. As we discussed the possibility of early elections in Israel, the minister made a surprising comment, noting that a war in the north was more likely to break out before new elections were held. Some of Israel’s top Cabinet ministers estimate that Hezbollah and Iran are fast approaching a fateful watershed, which might prompt them to drag Israel into another confrontation, far broader than the previous ones. This assessment is based on the possibility that Iran will indeed reach an agreement with the West by November or January — an agreement that’s good for Tehran, allowing it to preserve its nuclear capability as well as the potential for a fast break — within a matter of months — toward a bomb. Such an agreement, the senior minister told me, will set Iran free from all the shackles and brakes that have restrained it thus far. We think that it might consider siccing Hezbollah on Israel.
This information comes amid many previous reports regarding the marked change in Hezbollah policy in terms of its conduct along the confrontation line with Israel — to wit, the Israeli-Lebanese border as well as the Golan Heights sector, into which Hezbollah has been infiltrating little by little. Lately, the Lebanese Shiite organization has claimed responsibly for attempted terrorist attacks in the Golan Heights, for the first time in many years. Hezbollah no longer hides behind proxy "subcontractors." It is no longer ambiguous nor does it try to go under the radar. On the contrary, it operates openly against Israel, publicly acknowledging its responsibility. It seems to have gained a great deal of confidence and is no longer apprehensive of an unexpected conflagration vis-a-vis the IDF.
What this means is that the era of Israel’s deterrence in the north is over. Achieved after the Second Lebanon War in 2006, this deterrence lasted more than eight years. Its remnants remain noticeable on the ground, but according to all indications Hezbollah has lost its brakes and its restraint and has started looking for a confrontation instead of running away from one. Until lately, most Israeli intelligence elements estimated that Hezbollah was unready to open a second front against Israel, given that it is up to its neck in the war in Syria and now in the fighting in north Lebanon. While this assessment has yet to be officially scrapped, the voices coming from top political officials in Jerusalem nevertheless point to a plausible possibility of another war with Hezbollah in the coming months.
The organization’s militants openly carry out patrols along the border. Its presence in friction-prone areas has been beefed up considerably. It is now engaged in planning and executing micro-guerrilla warfare against the IDF also on the Golan sector, while setting new rules of deterrence: Any Israeli activity that crosses Hezbollah’s "red line" will be met by an appropriate response.
As for the question whether the heavy fighting in Lebanon has not burned out Hezbollah capabilities, the senior minister told me: “On the contrary; it has gained confidence and operational experience. Now it can fight like any other state military, employing forces on a division scale or even broader, relying on intel, airborne vehicles, etc.” And there’s something else: The Israeli performance during Operation Protective Edge apparently did not impress Hezbollah. Even the threats made in recent weeks by senior Israeli officials such as chief of staff Benny Gantz and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, namely that “Israel will knock Lebanon back 70 or 80 years'' in the event of a confrontation with the IDF, make no special impression on Hezbollah.
Are we on the way to an all-out confrontation in the north? There’s no need to scurry for shelter just yet. Such a confrontation would result in casualties and devastation at proportions we have never witnessed to date. This time around, Israel, too, will sustain heavy casualties and great devastation in view of the fact that Hezbollah’s rocket capabilities are much more improved than those of Hamas. The Iron Dome missile defense system will not provide an effective and complete response to curb the rocket offensive on Tel Aviv and its environs. The last thing the blazing Middle East needs right now is an Armageddon between Israel and Hezbollah, which might also draw Syria, and possibly Iran, either overtly or covertly.
We must also bear in mind that there is another possibility, whereby Jerusalem is trying to create a warmongering spin to heat up the atmosphere, to wield pressure on the world powers to toughen their positions vis-a-vis Iran. Or maybe Jerusalem just wants to scare Israelis who are starting to move toward a socioeconomic agenda, thus making it harder for Netanyahu to get re-elected.
The truth could be composed of a colorful mosaic consisting of all the existing possibilities. In every truth there is a grain of spin, and vice versa. And yet, the possibility of a very hot winter in the north exists more than it has.
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