April 24, 2017 - Israel’s most volatile borders, on Holocaust Remembrance Day

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Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

This week, Alpher discusses the assertions of a Hezbollah spokesman that Israel is now on the defensive, fearing Hezbollah attack; whether Israel should have launched a punitive attack on Syria after Assad's Sarin gas attack on his own people; and the recent spat in the Knesset between a mother who blamed the Netanyahu government for not retrieving the body of her son, which has been held by Hamas in Gaza since the summer 2014 war, and two Likud MKs who answered her with brutal language.

 

Q. Last week, a Hezbollah spokesman briefed journalists on the Lebanese side of the border with Israel. He pointed to Israeli construction of fortifications along the border and argued that Israel was now on the defensive, fearing Hezbollah attack. What’s behind this? Has Israel abandoned “the best defense is offense?”

A. No, not at all. The Israeli villages along the border are being fortified because Hezbollah has taken to boasting that in its next war with Israel its commandos will attack and occupy one or more of them. So the villages have to be defended. In parallel, Israel is threatening that if attacked it will go on the offensive against all of Lebanon and not just the southern Shiite area held by Hezbollah.

The Hezbollah spokesman’s bravado masks two strategic developments. One is the increasingly dominant role of Hezbollah, backed by Iran, on the Lebanese political scene. President Michel Aoun, who owes his election to Hezbollah, has embraced the armed Shiite Islamist movement as an integral part of Lebanon’s military posture. This is a new strategic departure for Lebanon, which in the past treated Hezbollah as an embarrassing and uncontrollable child. Aoun, a Maronite Christian, also backs the Assad regime in Syria.

Israel’s response to this new posture is to declare that in the event of a new war launched by Hezbollah--which would involve not only attacks on Israeli border villages but also massive rocket and missile salvos against targets deep inside Israel--the IDF will now consider the entirety of Lebanon’s infrastructure to be legitimate targets. If President Aoun declares that Hezbollah represents all of Lebanon, then all of Lebanon is at war with Israel. Obviously, Hezbollah’s spokesman last week preferred to divert attention from this aspect of a future war by portraying Israel as now being in a defensive posture.

The second strategic development is the fact that at least one third of Hezbollah’s military forces are deployed in Syria, defending the Assad regime in coordination with Iran and Russia. Hezbollah casualties in Syria number in the thousands. Accordingly, the Shiite Islamist movement is hardly in a position to launch new aggression against Israel. On the other hand, the weaponry and the combat experience gained by Hezbollah in Syria undoubtedly will render it more combat-ready against Israel in a future war launched after the fighting in Syria ends. And assuming Iranian forces remain in Syria, they are liable to play a direct role alongside Hezbollah in attacking Israel.

The bottom line is that another war with Hezbollah is not likely tomorrow. But if and when it happens, it is liable to be far more extensive and destructive than past rounds. And it is liable to involve both Syria and Iran.

 

Q. Turning to Syria, on April 7 the US fired 59 cruise missiles at the Syrian Air Force base from which a Sarin gas attack on Syrian civilians had been launched. You are writing on Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, when Israel has a special sensitivity to the Nazi use of gas to murder millions of Jews. The Assad regime has butchered hundreds of thousands of its citizens. Shouldn’t Israel have launched that punitive attack on Syria?

A. In the days between the Sarin attack in Idlib province in northwest Syria and the punitive US attack, there was indeed considerable sentiment in Israel to “do something”. President Trump’s decision to launch the cruise missile attack in effect at least temporarily relieved the Netanyahu government of the burden of this moral obligation.

Had the US not acted, Israel would have faced the following set of considerations. They remain relevant in the event of more Assad regime mass atrocities ignored by the international community.

The wholesale murder of Syrians by their leader is the worst atrocity of our times. The Assad regime is responsible. Iran, which is helping Assad and was itself the victim of gas attacks by Iraq during the 1980, has apparently done nothing to restrain the Syrian dictator. Neither has Russia. Indeed, Moscow is covering up the atrocity.

How can Israel stand by while Syrian children are gassed? The IDF is perfectly capable of attacking Syrian military installations or even regime institutions in Damascus. This would send a message of solidarity and empathy to the Arab and Muslim worlds. Just as Assad hasn’t responded to Israel’s interceptions of his weapons shipments to Hezbollah, he would not dare respond now. The Sunni Arab world, which opposes Syria and Iran, would respect Israel for taking the initiative and combating the murder of Syrian Arab civilians.

That is the rationale in favor of an Israeli military response to Syrian atrocities. The rationale against intervening argues that any actual armed intervention in the Syrian civil war would be seen by Arabs as Israel taking sides in an internal Arab affair. Israel has long been viewed by the Arab world as intent on fragmenting and weakening it in collaboration with regional minorities and in the service of imperialism and colonialism. The 1982 invasion of Lebanon in collaboration with a faction of Lebanese Christian Maronites, Israel’s support in decades past for Iraqi Kurds, and a variety of ties over the years with Lebanese and Syrian Druze are all seen as prime examples of this strategy.

Never mind that Arab conspiracy theories also at times place Israel in cahoots with Syria’s ruling Alawites as well. The Arab conspiracy mill will find a way to condemn an Israeli intervention against Assad and the Alawites. Worse, Assad and/or Iran and Hezbollah could indeed respond militarily, reckless as this might seem given their present military problems. This could start yet another war that Israel does not want. The 1982 Lebanon war is a perfect example of what was intended as a brief invasion and turned into a painful 18-year occupation. Experience teaches us that intervening in our neighbors’ conflicts proves counterproductive for Israel.

Only when an Israeli attack has been perceived as a one-off operation against a strategic threat to Israel itself--the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 and the Syrian reactor in 2007--has the Arab world largely avoided judgment. Perhaps many Arab countries also feared those reactors and the nuclear weapons they could produce. That explains why Israel’s occasional attacks on strategic weapons transfers to Hezbollah are not criticized by the Sunni Arab world.

Thus far Israel’s response to the events in Syria has been limited. It involves humanitarian medical aid to a few thousand Syrians at the border and in Israel’s hospitals, preemptive and punitive tactical fire in response to live fire against Israel at the Golan border (usually leakage from battles inside Syria), and attacks to intercept delivery by Syria and Iran of strategic weaponry to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Overall, this has been a wise policy, one tolerated by the Sunni Arab world. From Israel’s standpoint and even when looking at the recent Sarin gas massacre in Idlib, this is a case of bitter experience and realpolitik triumphing over unfettered moral and emotional reactions.

Only if a Syrian Sarin gas manufacturing plant or storage depot was identified and an attack on it could be guaranteed not to launch a deadly cloud of Sarin gas in a civilian area, might a more aggressive Israeli military response to Syria’s atrocities be justifiable as a potential win-win proposition that is worth the risk.

 

Q. Turning to the border with Gaza, last week a Knesset committee (and the country, via TV) witnessed an impassioned accusation by a mother who blames the Netanyahu government for not retrieving the body of her son, which has been held by Hamas in Gaza since the summer 2014 war. Two Likud MKs answered her with brutal language. PM Netanyahu did not rebuke them. What’s behind this?

A. I am inclined to link this incident too to Holocaust Memorial Day. One of the lessons of the Holocaust constantly discussed in Israel is that Jews will no longer be abandoned to their fate. Yet the Netanyahu government has not succeeded in retrieving the bodies of two IDF soldiers snatched during the 2014 war by Hamas and held ever since for ransom (along with two emotionally disturbed Israelis who crossed into Gaza on their own volition). Hamas demands that Israel release a large number of live Hamas terrorists in return for the soldiers’ remains, something no Israeli government wants to do.

The anguish of the families of the two soldiers is one issue. The behavior of the two Likud members of Knesset--one of them is David Bitan, the aggressive all powerful chair of the ruling coalition--is another: they broke every imaginable taboo in their disgusting remarks to a grieving mother who just wants to bury her dead son. Netanyahu, who waited four days to issue a meek rebuke to the MKs following widespread public criticism, was seemingly not upset with the brutal message they seemingly sent to the complaining parents: don’t criticize the prime minister over a reality he cannot alter.

That reality is an additional Hamas-related issue of far more strategic import. Israel has no viable strategy for dealing with Hamas. If it had one, managing the challenge of retrieving dead soldiers in enemy hands would be feasible because it would be a corollary of that strategy.

We have visited this issue several times in the past. We have noted that talking to Hamas is not realistic since Hamas won’t talk to Israel. Massive economic aid would be good for Gazans but not prevent Hamas aggression. In the end, Israel ends up periodically “mowing the lawn”.

Here a comparison between the Hezbollah and the Hamas threats is enlightening. Both Islamist movements, the first Shiite and the second Sunni, cultivate an ideology that denies Israel’s right to exist. In both cases, Israel has threatened to go all out in the event of another round of war. But Israel’s threat against Hezbollah is more credible. Destroying Lebanese infrastructure is possible without invading all of Lebanon. Withdrawal from southern Lebanon in return for an agreement with that country’s government, as in 2006, is also possible and desirable from Israel’s standpoint. So there is hope that the Israeli threat to respond to Hezbollah attack by counter-attacking against all of Lebanon has a deterrent effect.

In contrast reoccupying Gaza, as Defense Minister Lieberman has threatened, would be a different ballgame. Since the idea here is to destroy Hamas (there is no infrastructure to speak of in Gaza that is worth destroying in a war), there would be no one to negotiate with over withdrawal. The West Bank-based PLO would almost certainly refuse to be ushered in by Israeli bayonets to reestablish its rule in the Strip. Gaza with its two million indigent inhabitants would once again be Israel’s responsibility.

So while Lieberman’s threat to destroy Hamas might deter Hamas from attacking Israel, the prospect of reoccupying Gaza is a potent deterrent against precisely such a move.

As noted: no viable strategy. 

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