Michael Williams
Distinguished Visiting Fellow
The mutual deterrence that underpinned an uneasy peace is breaking down.
A member of the Israel Defense Forces inspects security measures in Kiryat Shmona, Israel on 29 January 2015. Photo by Getty Images.

On 18 January an Israeli helicopter gunship hit a convoy of vehicles in the Syrian province of Quneitra, killing six Hezbollah operatives. A day after the attack it was disclosed that an Iranian general, Mohammed Ali Allahdadi, had also been killed in the attack. His presence in Syria will have alarmed Israel as clear evidence of high-level cooperation between Hezbollah and Iran, not only in the defence of the regime of Bashar al-Assad, but also in posing a renewed threat to Israel.

Underlining such concerns is the more overt contact between senior figures. Major General Qasem Suleimani, the legendary commander of the al-Quds force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, visited Lebanon on 29 January to meet Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah and several senior Hezbollah officials.

Suleimani has met Nasrullah many times but this was the first known meeting in Lebanon to have been publicized. The visit, symbolic in many respects, will cause concern in Israel and underline a deepening of the relationship between Iran and Hezbollah. Suleimani laid wreaths at the graves of Hezbollah fighters killed in the Israeli strike in Quneitra – he was reportedly a close friend of Imad Mughniyeh, whose son, Jihad Mughniyeh, was killed in the airstrike. (Imad had earlier been killed by Israel in a complex operation involving not only the Mossad but also, as the Washington Post has just revealed, the CIA.) The meeting came days after Nasrullah had said that Hezbollah no longer recognized the rules of engagement with Israel, a tacit rejection of the de facto understanding between the two bitter foes that has existed for years.

Tensions are now at their highest between Hezbollah and Israel since the war of 2006. For its part, Israel has bombed Iranian arms transiting Syria and bound for Hezbollah several times since the start of the Syrian war. Pointedly, in an interview published this week in the journal Foreign Affairs, President Assad underlined that this was the first incident in Golan since 1974, a remark that could be read not only as a criticism of Israel but also of Iran and Hezbollah, underlining the loss of strategic control of his own frontiers to his allies

The hope on the Israeli side must have been that Hezbollah would not seek immediate retaliation for the 18 January attack, leaving it for some future reckoning as they have so often done in the past. It was not to be. On Friday 30 January, the day after Nasrullah’s meeting with Suleimani, Hezbollah attacked an Israeli convoy in broad daylight in the Shebaa farms, an area long occupied by Israel but claimed by Lebanon, killing a major and a sergeant of the Israel Defense Forces.

In a defiant statement afterward, Nasrallah reiterated Hezbollah’s rejection of the long existing rules of the road, saying that it has the right to respond to an Israeli attack in any way or time it deems fit.

‘If Israel is banking that we fear war, then I tell it that we do not fear war and we will not hesitate in waging it if it is imposed on us,’ he continued. ‘We did not hesitate in making the decision that Israel should be punished for its crime in Quneitra even if it meant going to an all-out war,’ he revealed, an admission he may regret.

‘The Israeli people discovered that their leadership put them on the brink of war, jeopardizing their economy and security… Israel learned that it should not test us again given the Quneitra strike and Shebaa Farms operation,’ he added.

Not surprisingly, these are not the conclusions that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in Jerusalem are likely to draw. There has been a dangerous deterioration in Israel’s strategic position because of the contiguous front that has now formed on its northern border, running from the Mediterranean via the Blue Line with Lebanon and Syria’s frontline with Israel in the Golan Heights. Moreover, Israel never shrinks from retaliation when its soldiers are killed, and especially when one of them is a middle-ranking officer.

But the strategic options before Netanyahu are limited. A further strike at Hezbollah will almost certainly lead to a major war, probably eclipsing that of 2006 in its severity. Moreover, the prime minister will be conscious of the fact that any actions he takes will be scrutinized by voters in elections on 17 March.

Despite the difficulties, however, Netanyahu will know that unlike the 2006 war, when a broad section of the Arab street supported Hezbollah, such is the deep sectarianism between Sunni and Shia in the Arab world now that few Sunni Arab states would be upset by an Israeli offensive against Hezbollah, the stalwart defender of the hated Assad regime. As if on cue, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Monday that a third Lebanon war is now inevitable.

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