Monday, February 27, 2017

Hezbollah flexes its muscles- Prof. Eyal Zisser

by Prof. Eyal Zisser

Nasrallah's belligerent statements  do not indicate a desire for confrontation with Israel, but rather the direct opposite

In a recent series of speeches and media interviews, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah has reaffirmed his vow to attack the ammonia plant in the Haifa Bay and the nuclear reactor in Dimona should a confrontation with Israel erupt. Lebanese President Michel Aoun, the Christian general who once welcomed then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon to Beirut, now serves as Nasrallah's pet in the city's presidential palace. Aoun, in contrast to the line Lebanese governments and presidents had taken up until now, said Hezbollah's weapons arsenal was essential to Lebanon's defense, which he said was too great a task for an army the size of Lebanon's.

In Israel, reactions to Nasrallah's belligerent statements were decidedly calm -- an indication above all of concerns that the situation could deteriorate to a new round of fighting that would break the silence that has prevailed along the Israeli-Lebanese border since the end of the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot even went so far as to tell the Knesset that Hezbollah was facing a financial crisis, and more significantly, a crisis of morale, as a result of its involvement in the fighting in Syria and that as a result, Hezbollah was not interested in a confrontation with Israel. Eizenkot is right when he points to the heavy price Hezbollah has paid for its involvement in Syria. The fighting has killed and wounded thousands of its fighters and burdened the Shiite terrorist organization with expenses that its sponsor, Iran, is finding it difficult to finance. But the balance of Hezbollah's involvement in Syria is more complex. Alongside the losses, its people are gaining a certain operational experience, although admittedly, they have not excelled in their military performance in Syria. And more importantly, the Iran-Hezbollah axis now enjoys Russian protection.

The Russians are certainly not the ones behind the transfer of the most advanced missile in the region, the Yakhont, to Hezbollah. But given the recent media reports that Syria had transferred such weapons to Hezbollah, Moscow seems to have chosen to keep its eyes partially shut. One way or another, in the moment of truth, Israel will need to grapple with Hezbollah's arsenal of missiles, and when it does, military morale will not be an issue.

So the problem with Eizenkot's remarks lies in the fact that he, of all people, should know that wars between Israel and its opponents tend to break out when neither side is interested in them or believes they will soon break out. The Second Lebanon War, as well as the rounds of fighting between Israel and Hamas, broke out in complete contrast to assessments, and more importantly, in complete contrast to the desire on both sides to maintain their shared border.

Nasrallah's belligerent statements, then, do not indicate a desire for confrontation with Israel, but rather the direct opposite: a fear of such a confrontation and a desire to prevent it. The same is true of Israel's response, which affirms restraint and a sense that Israel has the ability to deter the organization. The problem is that too many things can go wrong along the way. So, for example, Israel is continuing to attack Hezbollah targets in Syrian territory, according to reports in the media. It is very possible that at a certain point, someone on the other side -- whether Russia or Damascus, Tehran or Nasrallah -- will decide they will no longer abide such attacks.

The Syrian regime is also prepared to take back the Syrian Golan Heights, and the significance of such a move would be an Iranian presence, as well as a Hezbollah presence, on Syria's border with Israel. Although no one is interested in an all-out war, in recent years, both sides have shown they will not hesitate to send each other messages of a violent nature. Israel attacks Hezbollah targets in Syria, as the terrorist organization carries out terrorist attacks on Shebaa Farms or even against Israeli tourists in Bulgaria. These attacks indicate a willingness to take risks, in the hopes that someone will stop at the last minute. But this is not what ultimately happened in the past, and hence the concern.

Prof. Eyal Zisser


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