Does Israel want another war in Lebanon and/or Gaza? Certainly, the Israeli posture toward both Lebanon and Gaza has grown increasingly provocative. Violations of Lebanese airspace by Israeli military aircraft are not new, but have increased dramatically in recent weeks. For the past several weeks, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri has been warning of escalating Israeli threats against Lebanon. On a state visit to Italy, Hariri said explicitly that Israel is seeking war with “Lebanon, Syria, and Iran.” Likewise, last month, Syrian President Assad said that Israel is “pushing the region toward war.” Israel also appears to be stepping up the pace of its military incursions in Gaza and engaging in more skirmishes with HAMAS fighters there. Mabhouh’s assassination in Dubai indicates that Israel has not abandoned its policy of targeted killings, and is now prepared to violate longstanding agreements with European countries not to forge these countries’ passports in order to facilitate Mossad operations.
Why is Israel doing these things? Three possible explanations suggest themselves.
First, it is possible — though, in our view, not likely — that Israel is deliberately laying the predicate for major military action against Hizballah and/or HAMAS later this year. Israeli intelligence estimates that Hizballah has more than replenished its military stockpiles since the 2006 war, and has acquired longer-range and more capable rockets that significantly increase the damage it could do to Israel in a conflict. In the wake of last year’s elections in Lebanon, Hizballah showed that it remains indispensable to the country’s political stability, and Hariri’s government has formally endorsed Hizballah’s weapons as an integral part of Lebanon’s national security posture. Israel also believes that HAMAS is rebuilding its military capabilities in Gaza. Politically, Egyptian efforts to force HAMAS to accept a blatantly pro-Fatah “unity” agreement have blown up, damaging the credibility and standing of both Egypt and Fatah in the eyes of many Arab observers. Under these circumstances, it is not wholly implausible that the Israeli security establishment (the IDF, the intelligence services, and the Foreign Ministry) and the Netanyahu Government calculate that Israel needs to strike before the region’s two most prominent resistance groups — as well as their chief regional backers, Syria and Iran — grow even stronger.
But all-out war in the Levant during the next several months is a high-risk and potentially high-cost option for Israel. Consequently, Israel may have adopted a more aggressive posture toward Lebanon and Gaza with the aim of bolstering what Israeli military commanders like to describe as their country’s deterrent edge. Current and former senior Israeli military officers tell us that, in the view of the Israeli security establishment, Israel’s military initiatives in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008-09 — along with its 2007 air attack on an alleged nuclear facility in Syria — actually “worked.” As Nasrallah himself acknowledges, the Israeli-Lebanese border has been quiet since 2006. Furthermore, since the 2008-09 Gaza war, HAMAS has been substantially observing a ceasefire with Israel. Against this backdrop, the Israeli security establishment — now with the backing of the decidedly right-leaning Netanyahu government — may well calculate that a more aggressive day-to-day posture toward Hizballah, HAMAS, and Syria could extend the deterrent benefits of the Israeli military’s most recent engagements.
Finally, Israel’s more aggressive posture toward Lebanon and Gaza may be part of a broader strategy for dealing with the Obama Administration regarding Iran. This strategy grows out of two assessments that seem to be becoming consensus positions among political and policymaking elites in Israel.
- First, conversations with a range of Israeli interlocutors indicate that there is profound skepticism within the Israeli establishment that President Obama will deal effectively with Iran. Israeli elites do not expect that there will be successful diplomacy with Iran over its nuclear program; likewise, they do not expect international sanctions to effect significant change in Iran’s nuclear activities.
- Second, at the same time, Israeli politicians and national security experts judge that it is increasingly likely Obama will be a one-term President.
Given these assessments, Israeli political and policymaking elites anticipate that the next two years in U.S.-Israeli relations will be — as an Israeli colloquialism puts it — “garbage time,” particularly with regard to the Iranian nuclear issue. For the Israeli security establishment and the Netanyahu Government, the strategic priority for the “garbage time” will be to prepare the ground so that the United States will be more favorably disposed to the imperative of eventual military action to contain the Iranian nuclear threat. (This could mean preparing the ground so that President Obama’s successor will be inclined to support military action against Iran. It could also mean preparing the ground so that, if Israel decides it must strike before President Obama’s term is over, public opinion and the political establishment in the United States are so strongly supportive of military action against the Islamic Republic that Obama cannot effectively oppose an Israeli unilateral initiative.)
The Israeli agenda to prepare the ground so that the United States will be more favorably disposed to the imperative of military action has several interlocking elements.
- The Israeli government and the pro-Israel lobby in the United States will continue pressing for a “maximalist” U.S. agenda in whatever nuclear talks with Iran that might take place — including a complete suspension of Iran’s fuel cycle activities. This position clearly reflects the strategic preferences of the Israeli government; if pursued by the United States, it also would undercut any prospects for a nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic.
- The Israeli government and the pro-Israel lobby in the United States will continue to push for tougher sanctions against Iran. While Israeli political and policymaking elites are deeply skeptical that sanctions could actually leverage Iranian decision-making about the nuclear issue, they nonetheless believe that it is necessary to go through the process of debating and imposing sanctions on the Islamic Republic in order to focus U.S. and Western opinion on the futility of sanctions and the imperative for military action against Iranian nuclear threats.
- Alongside these steps, the Israeli security establishment and the Netanyahu government will work through multiple channels to condition American policymakers and public opinion to be more receptive to the possibility of military action against the Islamic Republic.
- And, of course, the Netanyahu Government will continue to be unforthcoming on the Palestinian issue. The position clearly reflects the government’s strategic and political preferences; it also is calculated to compound Obama’s image in the United States as a foreign policy “failure” in addition to his domestic policy breakdowns.
- In this context, keeping tensions relatively high between Israel, on one side, and Hizballah, HAMAS, Syria, and Iran could also fit into the Netanyahu Government’s emerging “garbage time” strategy.
We are inclined to believe that Israel’s current actions reflect both the IDF’s interest in boosting Israeli deterrence and the Netanyahu Government’s interest in pursuing its “garbage time” strategy. But, even if the Netanyahu Government is not deliberately seeking to spark a military confrontation in the next few months, Israel’s more aggressive posture increases the risk of such a confrontation. This is a situation that cries out for “adult supervision” of Arab-Israeli security affairs. Is the Obama Administration up to the task?
Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow. Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs. Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy. In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. The text above is an excerpt from an article published in The Race for Iran on 25 February 2010 under a Creative Commons license.