Jerusalem – Notwithstanding the fact that elections are just two weeks away, Israel is a country surrounded by implacable foes just waiting for the opportunity to find a chink in its armor. Thus the issues of security always remain uppermost in the public’s mind and this week’s skirmishes with Hezbollah and Syria emphasized how concerned Israel is about the Iranian attempts to arm the terrorist organization and give it a strategic advantage over Israel.
For this reason Israel sent several unmanned drones to attack both in Syria and in Lebanon and –highly uncharacteristically – took responsibility for the attacks. This sparked a huge political row within Israel, as opposition leaders charged that Netanyahu wanted to gain politically from the military attacks and therefore publicized them, while the Likud responded that it was necessary for Israel to directly warn Hezbollah and the Iranians of its capabilities and that it would not allow the Iranians to gain a foothold either in Syria or in Lebanon.
A notable exception within the opposition is Blue-And-White leader Benny Gantz. He decided to suspend all political activity during the attacks. Gantz, who has a rich military history himself as a former chief of staff, cannot accept involving sacred cows like the IDF in political embroilment. In general Gantz has eschewed political bickering and tried to run a “clean” campaign, avoiding criticizing Netanyahu and focusing instead on what he plans to do to improve the country. It is quite possible that Gantz realizes that in the most likely scenario at present, he may have to work in tandem with Netanyahu after the elections. The only problem is that, besides this not being politically astute, Gantz is only one of four leaders in the party and the others have been only too happy to lambast Netanyahu over his policies regarding the northern threat. Thus the real message emerging from Blue-and-White is a decidedly mixed message.
Hezbollah itself responded with its own attack in Northern Israel on Sunday, sending anti-tank Cornet missiles at IDF positions near Avivim. Originally it was reported that there were casualties from the attack and IDF helicopters were seen evacuating bleeding soldiers from the scene. In the end it became apparent that this was all part of a massive deception by the IDF. The soldiers had been plastered with ketchup to make them look wounded and the helicopters rushing them to Rambam hospital were also part of a decoy. This enabled the Hezbollah to crow that it had caused casualties to the IDF and gave the IDF the pretext it needed to eliminate the unit which had sent the missile.
Hours afterwards the truth emerged and even the Rambam medical staff admitted that no wounded soldiers had arrived there. Hezbollah were left with lots of egg on their faces but –being an election period as it is – some Israelis were not satisfied with this, claiming that the leak to the media prevented Israel from repeating the exercise again and unnecessarily agitated and embarrassed Hezbollah.
This overt operation by the IDF was preceded by numerous more covert operations deep inside Lebanon. The purpose of these operations has now been revealed, and security officials in Israel claim that they involved the second most significant threat to Israel after the Iranian nuclear threat, which is precision accuracy mechanisms. Hezbollah has stockpiled tens of thousands of rockets over the years and has threatened on numerous occasions to use them against Israel but with no precision accuracy mechanisms the rockets will usually land harmlessly and not cause significant damage. During the 2006 Second Lebanon War thousands of rockets were fired but most of the long-range rockets did little damage.
In recent months however Iran has been making concerted efforts to transfer GPS and other precision systems to Hezbollah which will give it the strategic capability it needs when firing rockets on Israel. It is therefore of primary importance to Israel to demolish these systems before they become operational and this is part of the reason that Israel has been so active in recent weeks both in Syria and Lebanon. Hezbollah on the other hand has been vainly trying to protect what it already has.
No side really wanted this clash to get out of hand. Israel is on the eve of its second elections this year and the last thing it needs is a conflict which will once again prevent a new government from forming, while Hezbollah is still licking its wounds from the Syrian civil war and does not want further damage to its installations. This may explain the surrealistic news story broadcast in Arabic for the Russian RT television station. The Arab-speaking reporter came to the Avivim army base just a day after it was hit by Hezbollah rockets and found it deserted. The reporter walked into the base (which is illegal), photographed army equipment including uniforms, weapon cartridges and tanks (also illegal) and walked out again.
Why would the army permit such a sensitive position near the Lebanese border to be photographed and why was it deserted? Could it be that the IDF shrewdly guessed that Hezbollah might attack such a base and therefore evacuated it beforehand? Could it be that the IDF wants Hezbollah to have a sense of victory and therefore did not reoccupy the base? Hezbollah itself hurried to announce immediately after attacking the base that from its point of view the incident was over, this despite the fact that there were no IDF casualties. It seems obvious that both sides, while maintaining their antipathy, prefer to leave the inevitable conflict between them to a later date.