Risk of conflict with Iranian-backed group given fresh impetus by Israeli, Saudi Arabian and US rhetoric against Tehran
Israel’s political and military leadership appears to have concluded that a conflict with Lebanon’s Hezbollah is becoming increasingly likely, despite months of growing warnings that a third Lebanese war would be more dangerous and deadly than the last war in 2006.
The mounting tensions on the northern border with Syria and Lebanon have increased in recent months as Israel has recognised its assumption that Hezbollah – a key ally fighting with the Assad regime – would be chewed up in a protracted Syrian conflict is badly mistaken as the war has turned rapidly in Bashar al-Assad’s favour.
Instead the Iranian-backed group appears to be emerging from the Syrian war as a battle-hardened and largely conventional military force whose missiles have been heavily resupplied by Tehran despite dozens of Israeli airstrikes on convoys and depots.
Amid threats by Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, that Israel would intervene rather than allow Iran or Iranian-backed groups to establish themselves on Israel’s border, the sense of growing risk of conflict has been given added impetus in the recent convergence of Israeli, Saudi Arabian and US rhetoric against Iran.
The Guardian view on Lebanon: great power rivalry in a tiny state
In Israel, however, the talk of war with Hezbollah has escalated. with top military and political figures detailing the probable shape of a future conflict, and Israel’s then air force chief suggesting that Lebanoncould be subjected to a huge aerial bombardment in the opening days of a campaign with civilian casualties highly probable.
“If a war breaks out in the northern arena we need to act with full force from the beginning,” Israel’s outgoing air force commander, Maj Gen Amir Eshel, told the Herzliya conference in June shortly before stepping down.
Hezbollah now has 20,000 highly trained fighters, 25,000 reservists and upwards of 100,000 missiles, according to estimates. Photograph: Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP/Getty Images
“What we could do in 34 days during the second Lebanon war we can now do in 48 to 60 hours. The growth of our strength has not been linear.
“This is potential power unimaginable in its scope, much different to what we have seen in the past and far greater than people estimate.”
Speaking at a ceremony in October, Israel’s combative rightwing defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, suggested that the Lebanese military could also be considered an enemy combatant alongside Hezbollah.
“We’re talking about Hezbollah and the Lebanese military and, unfortunately, this is the reality,” he told soldiers at Israel’s military headquarters, suggesting that the Lebanese army had lost its independence and had become an integral part of Hezbollah’s network.
“If war breaks out in the north, we have to open with all our strength from the start,” Lieberman said.
The reality, however, is that despite remarks by Netanyahu in talking up the coincidence of Saudi-led Sunni opposition to Iran and its proxies in the Middle East, the recent bellicose Saudi moves complicate issues forIsrael.
Israeli commentators – as well as the former US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro – have also warned of the risk of Israel getting sucked into a conflict on Saudi terms.
“It is plausible that the Saudis are trying to create the context for a different means of contesting Iran in Lebanon – an Israeli-Hezbollah war,”said Shapiro in an op-ed.
Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli defence minister: ‘If war breaks out in the north, we have to open with all our strength from the start.’ Photograph: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters
He added: “Israeli leaders will want to take care not to find themselves backed into a premature confrontation by the manoeuvres of their allies who sit in Riyadh.”
Shapiro has not been alone in warning of the risk. The military commentator of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Amos Harel, delivered a similar warning, not least over an unplanned escalation from “a local incident gone out of control”.
“If Saudi Arabia is deliberately stoking the flames between the sides [Israel and Hezbllah], this becomes a tangible danger.”
Other commentators have pointed to Saudi Arabian policy in Syria, Yemen and Qatar that has been as reckless as it has been ineffective, warning an intervention in Lebanon would result in a stronger Iranian influence there.
The reality, as made clear by the head of the Israeli military’s intelligence directorate, Herzl Halevi, in a speech last year is that any conflict in the north with Hezbollah would “not be simple or easy”.
Since the war in 2006 Hezbollah has emerged as the most capable and resilient non-state military actor, with 20,000 full-time and highly trained fighters, 25,000 reservists and upwards of 100,000 missiles, according to estimates.
Recent large-scale Israeli war games suggest too that any conflict could play out in an entirely different way to the last war, with 1,500-2,000 rockets being fired per day and even efforts to infiltrate Israeli communities by fighters crossing the border
Then there is the wider question of whether a limited war could be contained without bringing in other actors.
Writing in Foreign Affairs in October, Dmitry Adamsky, who teaches diplomacy and strategy at the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya, asked a question long festering in the background.
“Israeli strategists do not question the likelihood of a war with Hezbollah,” wrote Adamsky. “But they wonder how Russia, which is a comrade-in-arms with Iran and Hezbollah in Syria, would respond to such a conflict.”
Finally, if there is one thing mitigating in favour of rhetoric rather than military action, it is the reputation of Netanyahu for being as chronically risk averse as he is fond of making big threats over the years.