[Good morning] on a very tense Saturday in Israel’s north. Are we in the midst of an escalation in the north? The incident is not over yet and the order in which things took place isn’t clear from the reports. Israel attacked an Iranian facility deep inside the Syrian desert in the Palmira (Tadmor) region. Some Iranians may have been killed in the attack. News reports also refers to the launching of an Iranian drone from Syria into Israel, and its shooting down by an air force combat helicopter. It is important for us clarify and work out what was the order of events? Did the Air Force attack in Palmira come in response to the launch of the UAV, or why did the Air Force pilots eject from the F-16? Was is a technical problem (no), was the shooting down carried out by the Syrians or the Russians? The Russian media reports that the anti-aircraft fire that brought down the plane was that of Syrian army. Is that so? The IAF planes are capable of coping well with the systems in Syria’s possession, but if the missiles were launched by the Russian S-400 systems, then it is a completely different story, with broad implications, and we are about to face the publication of the police recommendations in the PM’s investigations. That last point needs to be said out loudly.
The following is written as a prediction that is best left unfulfilled. In face of the drums of war, one must remain resolute even if there is no certainty that the war will break out; too much is at stake. And if it does not break out now, it will break out later. This prediction will materialise in one way or another.
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The writing is already on the wall: The State of Israel will soon launch a military operation in Lebanon. Not a targeted attack on a convoy of weapons or a single factory, but the simultaneous attack on Hezbollah’s missile production and launching sites. The operation will take place at the same time as, or immediately after, a series of assassinations of known Hezbollah operatives. That organisation will, of course, react by launching a massive missile barrage at population centres in Israel, and Hamas may contribute its share in the south. Yesterday we were informed that missile interceptor systems had already been deployed throughout the country as part of a joint “drill” between the IDF and the US military. Washington has already given a green light, or so we learn from Thomas Friedman’s most recent column, a faithful mouthpiece of American foreign policy.
In a well-orchestrated event, one note cries out from all the trumpets of Israeli rule: Iran and Hezbollah have crossed a red line and if their Russian patron does not restrain them (the crux of Israel-Russia security coordination ), Israel will strike hard (and it will attack because the Russians cannot restrain them). Defence Minister Lieberman promises that “all of Beirut will be hiding in bomb shelters,” while Naftali Bennett promises that “the Lebanese will pay the price” (an explicit threat to commit war crimes), and of course this is also the finest hour of retired generals who can unhinge their tongues. “The IDF is going to use a lot of force. These places will be destroyed almost completely”, promises Major General (res) Noam Tibon, and Maj Gen (res) Amiram Levin tossed another log into the fire: “Lebanon will be destroyed.”
What is the “red line” that was crossed this time? According to Israel, the establishment of an Iranian project for accurate missiles on Lebanese territory. As far as I recall, Israel has at least three factories producing precision-guided missiles (Rafael, IAI and Elbit), but this is apparently not a sufficient pretext for a Lebanese attack. Such pretexts are an Israeli privilege. Israel has long warned its neighbour against purchasing arms (long-range precision-guided missiles), and is careful to destroy convoys that transfer such weapons into Lebanon. This is an absolutely Orwellian discourse. There is no “balance” between the precision of Israeli missiles and those in the hands of Hezbollah. Weapons “removing the balance of power” in their hands are actually weapons restoring balance. But a true balance between Hezbollah’s deterrence capability and that of the IDF is an intolerable thought for the top echelons of the Israeli defence establishment. Therefore, it is necessary to bomb any sign of any “weapons removing the balance of power”, an attack designed to destroy the balance between the two sides. This loop, to which I will immediately return, is self- defeating for Israel.
The commentators still — the emphasis is on still — see clearly that this is a war of choice. “Israel is climbing up a high horse”, wrote Alex Fishman in the 31 January Yedioth Ahronoth, “and is approaching with giant steps a ‘war of choice’: without mincing words, it’s an initiated war in Lebanon.” In regard to the putative risk of Hezbollah commencing shooing first, Maariv’s Ran Edelist commented: “There is no danger of war, Hezbollah has no motive or intent to go to war against an enemy that will overwhelm them easily after a few days of battle.” Ben Caspit also writes about a fair prospect of a “war of choice,” and an Haaretz editorial queried: “The Israeli government therefore owes Israeli citizens a precise, pertinent and persuasive explanation as to why a missile factory in Lebanon has changed the strategic balance to the extent that it requires going to war. It must present assessments to the Israeli public as to the expected number of casualties, damage to civilian infrastructure and the economic cost of going to war, as compared with the danger that construction of the missile factory constitutes.”
Pay attention to this diffident tone. Write it down, and compare it to the commentators’ tone after the first missile lands and results in causalities. When Israel enters a “war footing” journalists don their battle vests and salute the flag. Even those who doubted the operation’s reasoning would justify it openly in face of fatalities. We were always at war with the Iranian missile factory, they would tell us through clenched teeth. And of course, when the cannons roar, you have to keep quiet. Why? So as not to stop the flow of fatalities.
Israel has a long history of fabricating “grounds for war.” The Israeli-British-French conspiracy that led to the Sinai Campaign (Svers meeting ) was hidden from the public for many years, and instead it spoke of “preventing infiltration of terrorists from Sinai”. Battle plan “Great Oranim” the first Lebanon war, to replace the government in Beirut, was hidden from the public, and instead the pretext was said to be the removal of Fatah concentrations within 40 kilometres of the northern border. The escalation that led to the Six Day War was largely the fruit of Israel’s aggression against Syria — evident from Dayan’s and Ben-Gurion’s statements in the weeks before the war (documented in Tom Segev’s book 1967 and in Guy Laron’s research). The official cause was Nasser’s closure of the Straits of Tiran. But then Chief-of-Staff Rabin revealed to the Eshkol government that Nasser had promised to allow Israeli ships to pass through the straits accompanied by American warships, and stressed to the members of the government that this was “top secret” information that should not be leaked out (because it would undermine the “ground” for the war to a large extent).
Let’s return to the lie of “deterrence” against Hezbollah. In Fishman’s article, he notes: “Classical deterrence is when you threaten an enemy not to harm you in your territory, but here Israel demands that the enemy refrain from doing something in its own territory, otherwise Israel will harm it. From a historical perspective and from the perspective of international legitimacy the chances of this threat being accepted as valid, leading to the cessation of enemy activities in its own territory are slim”. I have written about the distorted perception of “Israeli deterrence” in the past:
What other country in the world sees the armament of its rivals as a pretext for a military attack? There is almost no such example in Israel’s military history before the 2000s. For many years, the Arab armies equipped themselves cheek by jowl with Israeli armament (sometimesfrom the same Uncle Sam’s swollen pockets). Israel has never considered this a pretext to bomb Cairo or Damascus. Only Hamas and Hezbollah have to make do with bow and arrows against the lethal technology of the IDF. Countries that feel threatened by the arming of their enemies do one of the two: arm themselves even better and better (for this we in Israel have no competitors) or reduce the level of risk by means of reconciliation and non–aggression agreements (on this score we are ignoramuses.) The audacity to demand that the enemy not even dare to arm itself is a unique Israeli chutzpah.
You will say: Long-range missiles that endanger the civilian population have changed the rules of the game and our level of tolerance. But again, this game is mutual, and Israel also possesses such weapons, usually more effective and lethal than its opponents. And somehow, this acquisition by Israel of weapons that endanger the lives of every Arab citizen in the Middle East is not perceived in the Arab countries as a ‘a removal of the balance of power that justifies the launching missiles at Ben-Gurion Airport or to the Kiriya Defence Headquarters at the heart of Tel Aviv.
Here is a subversive thought: In the absence of a non-belligerency agreement between Israel and Hezbollah, that organisation’s military consolidation reduces the risk of war in the north. Simple logic is derived from game theory. As long as there is a huge power gap between the IDF and Hezbollah, Israel can afford to attack targets in Syria and Lebanon dozens of times without fearing that it is endangering its home front.
Only this is an illusion, a strategic rigidity whose horizons are narrow as a rifle’s crosshairs. These attacks raise the level of hostility and fuel the enemy’s motivation to take revenge (a factor that is never understood enough by the defence establishment). Israel’s aggressive “deterrent” moves, the utter contempt for Lebanese sovereignty, sow a future calamity. And so, we have reached this explosive situation, in which Hezbollah has every reason to attack back. And therefore, of course, a pre-emptive strike is needed again, this time much larger, which risks leading to war.
On the other hand, in a scenario in which Hezbollah acquires capabilities to really threaten Israel’s home front — hundreds and thousands of long-range precision missiles — the IDF will fear striking first. The unbearable lightness of violation of Lebanese sovereignty through air strikes and bombardments will stop. Finally, Israel will be deterred. And, incidentally, Hezbollah itself will have a lot less reasons to attack us, and the feelings of hostility and retaliation will not burn as well as they do today.
Well, these are the two scenarios that play with our lives at the moment:
1) In the current scenario, Hezbollah already has about 130,000 missiles in its warehouses , of which only a few dozen are precision-guided ones. Israel’s relentless provocation — about 100 bombings over five years — has emboldened a bitter enemy across the border that is only looking for an opportunity for revenge. When the war breaks out, the IDF plans to launch a “pre-emptive strike” on all the concentrations of missiles known to it, and the air force commander admits that “it will not be over in three hours.” The defence minister mutters something about “casualties.” Allow me to translate: For several hours, perhaps a few days, thousands of missiles will be launched into Israel. According to assessments, Hezbollah is believed to be capable to launch 1,200 rockets a day. There is no defence system capable of dealing with such a threat. Yes, there will be very many losses. How many? The same assessments speaks of hundreds of Israelis killed. Yes, on the Lebanese side there will be even more losses, villages will be crushed, but this is very small comfort for our bereaved families. All this, they will explain to us again and again in the war studios, in order to prevent Hezbollah from acquiring accurate missiles.
I am sure that anyone, struck dead by a non-guided “dumb” missile, will emit a sigh of relief — their last breath — knowing that in their death they have prevented the enemy from acquiring precision-guided missiles.
2. In the second scenario, which is completely imaginary, Israel comes down from its Hubris high horse and stops dictating to all its neighbours with which weapons they are allowed to be equipped and which weapons are prohibited; Just as they do not stick their noses at Israeli arsenals. And as a result, every state and armed organisation in the region knows that as long as they do not attack across the border and violate the sovereignty of the neighbour, the neighbour will not do it to them either. That is classical deterrence, between rivals whose mutual destructive capacity is so hideous that it doesn’t even cross their minds to press the button.
And after such and such years of crazy military stockpiling, which exhausts the entire civilian budget and makes no use for it other than “deterrence,” fresh and young politicians appear on both sides of the border, with a strange idea, perhaps, that it is possible to achieve the same quiet with a smaller army. Perhaps it is possible to sign a non-aggression pact and store all those glittering missiles in the museum?
An imaginary scenario, of course. Its main drawback is that civilians are not sacrificed. There is no unnecessary spill of blood, no fire and smoke, the blood does not rush to the head, and in short: nothing conceals the veneer of the political leadership. The public is not led to slaughter, is not called to the flag, is not required to unite against an imaginary enemy, and may still demand from its leaders accountability for their own actions.
If that’s the choice, war. Translated by Yoni Molad for the Middle East News Service edited by Sol Salbe, Melbourne, Australia.