It’s summer in the Middle East, and the Arab media is again stoking speculation that war will break out between Israel and Lebanon. The typical scenario being put forth suggests that attacking Hezbollah on some pretense is a convenient way for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to escape pressures in the United States regarding the Palestinians. Repeated reports in the Lebanese press about Israeli spy rings — the latest one that was apprehended is said to have controlled an entire Lebanese cellular phone network — stoke paranoid speculation: Why all this spying, unless Israel is planning something? Then there are Hezbollah’s accusations that Israel’s recent natural gas discoveries in the Mediterranean really belong to Lebanon.
In more than 40 years of assessing the likelihood of Middle East wars, I have learned never to say never. Indeed, the last time I opined on the “low probability” of war was two days before Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait — 20 years ago this August.
Even “low probability” events sometimes end up happening. Less than a month ago, the Netanyahu-Ehud Barak duo that directs Israel’s security fortunes displayed, in its raid of the Turkish-led, Gaza-bound flotilla, an alarming propensity for escalating a seemingly low-level security situation. Now, Dan Halutz, the arrogant Israel Defense Forces chief who resigned after badly mismanaging Israel’s last campaign in Lebanon in the summer of 2006, has announced his entry into Israeli politics. He obviously assumes the public has forgotten that war. So we may be capable of repeating mistakes made only four years ago.
Back then, we didn’t expect a war with Lebanon. Then, as now, war had little or nothing to do with the government of Lebanon, which does not control its country’s territory or its fate. Israel-Lebanon violence could be ignited by Israel’s interaction with a number of more powerful actors — Syria, Iran, Hezbollah — whose least concern is Lebanon’s welfare.
To quickly review the geostrategic realities, Islamic revolutionary Iran is the patron of Hezbollah, which controls southern Lebanon, exercises veto power in the Beirut government and is armed to the teeth with Iranian rockets; both Iran and Hezbollah preach the destruction of Israel; Syria, Iran’s strategic ally, is the hegemonic power in Lebanon; both Iran and Syria are major troublemakers in Iraq.
Accordingly, the roots of a new conflict could be anything from local terrorism on the Lebanon-Israel border to the global commotion over Iran’s nuclear program. Even the next phase of America’s withdrawal from Iraq, projected for this summer, could be a trigger.
In any and all of these scenarios, someone might view a summer war involving Lebanon and Israel as just the distraction that’s called for. Israel has yet to find a successful strategy for dealing with the Islamist guerilla-terrorist enemies on its Gaza and Lebanon borders. Hence it will end up being pilloried internationally for destroying villages where Hezbollah rockets are stored and fired, while the entire Israeli civilian population from the Lebanese border to Beersheba will be exposed to heavy and seemingly unavoidable losses from rocket fire for which no government takes responsibility.
That’s why it is so unlikely that Israel would start such a war. Its Islamist enemies, Iran and Hezbollah, have few concerns about civilian losses and great interest in forcing Israel to dig itself even deeper into international isolation.
So does Syria. But Damascus is not Islamist; it wants the Golan back, and knows that only the West, not Iran, can begin to extract it from looming economic disaster. Syria is the key to reducing the danger of war in the North. Israel should take Damascus up on its repeated offer to reopen peace negotiations.
Washington is willing to help; even Ankara is still willing. Barak and the Israeli security establishment are supportive. Netanyahu refuses.
Yossi Alpher is a former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. He currently co-edits the bitterlemons family of Internet publications.