Hard Questions, Tough Answers- Lebanon and Israel: Early Warning (July 25, 2022)


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.

Q. Some Israeli security experts are warning of a major new clash between Israel and Lebanese Hezbollah. Why? What’s at stake?

A. Early in July, Hezbollah launched intelligence drones toward Israel’s Karish offshore gas rig, which is located not far from prospective seabed gas deposits Lebanon wants to explore. The IDF shot the drones down. Now Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is threatening to launch attack drones at Karish as well as at more distant Israeli maritime gas installations.

Haaretz military correspondent Amos Harel wrote last Friday that “the attention of the Israeli political-security leadership has been fixed on the north in recent weeks. The danger of escalation with Lebanon over Mediterranean gas reserves has grown

Lebanon, which as a country is both economically broke and politically broken, has every reason to avoid conflict with Israel--over energy issues or anything else. But similar concerns didn’t stop Nasrallah from starting a war in the summer of 2006.

Q. Israel is fighting Iran in nearby Syria. The Russian military is there, too. Syria borders on Lebanon and Iran sponsors Hezbollah. How does all this factor into a possible Israel-Hezbollah clash?

A. Nasrallah heads a militant Shiite militia that was created and is armed by Iran and takes its orders from Tehran. His drive for hegemony in Lebanon is not served by political stability there. Last week, Russian President Putin and Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei met in Tehran to discuss arms and energy issues that affect their alliance. Iran is selling Russia military drones for use against Ukraine, just as it supplies drone know-how to Hezbollah for use against Israel. The arenas of conflict in question are Ukraine and Syria, and now possibly Lebanon. To complicate issues yet further, Israel regularly attacks Iranian and Iranian-proxy forces and ordnance in Syria, including Lebanese Hezbollah, while Russia looks the other way.

But recently, Putin has been sending Israel signals that he is not content with its behavior. He apparently wants to close down offices of the Jewish Agency in Russia, where Israeli emissaries deal with Russian Jewish immigration. Could Putin’s next target be Israeli military activities in Syria, where they complicate Russian-Syrian-Iranian relations? To Israel’s detriment Prime Minister Lapid, unlike his predecessors Netanyahu and Bennett, has yet to cultivate a close working relationship with Putin.

This is about as Byzantine a set of interlocking conflicts as one can imagine. If Israeli Mediterranean energy assets are attacked by Hezbollah and Israel retaliates on Lebanese territory, would Russia react against Israel in Syria? Is Russia signaling to the Biden administration, following the US presidential visit to the region, that it too can rally regional allies and that its alliance with Syria, Iran and by extension Hezbollah is solid and potentially aggressive?

Q. Lebanon and Israel are negotiating, with US mediation, an agreed maritime border between their exclusive economic zones (EEZs) that would allow Lebanon to start drilling for its own Mediterranean natural gas. Is Hezbollah preventing agreement?

A. Yes. Nasrallah is maneuvering against pressures within Lebanon to disarm Hezbollah or lower its military profile. President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Najib Mikati both are anxious to resolve the maritime border issue with Israel using the good offices of US energy emissary Amos Hochstein. But Nasrallah avows that he will accept no compromise with Israel. His aggressive bluster is intended to boost his military standing.

A clash with Israel over gas, if it could be limited from Lebanon’s standpoint, would allow Hezbollah to portray itself as guardian of Lebanese energy rights. Meanwhile Nasrallah tells his fellow Lebanese that they are suffering from a disastrous fuel shortage because of Israeli negotiating obstinacy. Israel and its (non-Hezbollah) Lebanese negotiating partners are not far from agreement on a maritime boundary that leaves Karish in Israeli EEZ waters and enables Lebanon to start drilling in its own EEZ and earning desperately-needed foreign currency--not to mention supplying its own fuel. But it looks like governance in Lebanon is so weak that Hezbollah can, through intimidation or ultimately war, prevent an agreement that does not reward it with new strategic assets.

Both Hezbollah and Israel are sending signals. Last week, Hezbollah provocatively demanded sovereignty for Lebanon over a defunct railway tunnel that straddles the Israel-Lebanon border at Rosh Hanikra, overlooking the Mediterranean. Were Israel to concur, this would move the border south, thereby in turn changing the maritime border in Lebanon’s favor. Last week, too, Prime Minister Lapid visited IDF Northern Command and flew over Karish--by way of getting to know the arena of potential conflict.

Q. Suppose, as Israeli military planners anticipate and Nasrallah threatens, that Hezbollah tries to attack Karish and possibly additional Israeli Mediterranean gas installations. How might Israel respond?

A. A direct attack on Hezbollah targets in southern Lebanon, or on key Lebanese infrastructure, would almost certainly launch Israel’s third “Lebanon war”. This would follow the pattern set by the two previous wars, the 1982 Israeli invasion with its tragic 18-year aftermath and the 2006 summer war. In both cases, Israel responded to a threat or actual attack from Lebanese soil. If something similar happens in 2022, the upshot could be all-out war that drags in Iran and possibly Russia and wreaks heavy missile destruction on northern Israel.

Alternatively, and in the hope of limiting escalation, Israel could attack Hezbollah targets in Syria, where Iran has deployed its Lebanese Shiite proxy-allies. Needless to say, this would definitively link the two arenas of conflict: Syria/Iran and Hezbollah/Mediterranean gas.

Q. Russia is a potential actor in the energy context not only in the Mediterranean but in Europe as well, where Israeli natural gas now has a ready market . . .

A. Due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resultant European Union boycott of Russian energy supplies, Europe is anticipating a dangerous natural gas deficit this winter. The Europeans are shopping around desperately for alternative gas suppliers. Italy just signed a contract with gas-rich Algeria, and more distant suppliers like Qatar are boosting their liquefied natural gas (LNG) supply potential. LNG supply requires cooling the gas and shipping it between continents rather than pumping it though overland or seabed pipelines. Israel is already pumping gas to Egypt for conversion to LNG and shipment to Europe and even the Far East. Under current geostrategic circumstances, wherein Russian gas does not reach Europe, the export potential is virtually limitless. Karish, once it comes on line in September, will pipe more gas to Egypt for reexport. To be sure, the quantities of natural gas that Israel and Egypt can supply to Europe are relatively marginal. But Europe will take whatever it can get. Lebanon has the potential, once it discovers and pumps gas from the Mediterranean, to join in this export festival. This of course will take time. But for the moment the primary obstacles are Lebanon’s miserable economic and political circumstances and ... Hezbollah.

Q. Bottom line?

A. As US President Biden discovered on his recent visit to the region and his meeting with Arab leaders, the latter are seriously concerned with a growing Iranian and Russian strategic presence. But they are also concerned with the validity of American security commitments. Accordingly, they are hedging their bets and shying away from direct commitment to a US-led anti-Iran alliance with Israel. Hezbollah’s machinations in the Mediterranean are liable to set the scene for all parties--Iran, Russia, Syria, Lebanon and Israel--to clash in a perfect storm.

(Note: Turkey is involved, too, militarily in Syria and diplomatically in Ukraine, and Turkish President Erdogan was present at last week’s Tehran summit with Putin and Khamenei. Then too, Turkey wants to buy Israeli Mediterranean gas. But that’s another story, or stories . . .)

Exactly 40 years after the outbreak of the First Lebanon War, the Israeli academic and security communities are looking for insights that might guide the country in the event of another Lebanon war. Back then, when Defense Minister Ariel Sharon more or less manipulated Prime Minister Menachem Begin into acquiescing in a disastrous invasion and occupation, Israel’s strategic decision-making mechanisms failed. Now, if Hezbollah provokes an armed Israeli response and matters escalate, Israel’s strategic decision-making will be in the hands of an experienced defense minister, Benny Gantz, and a novice prime minister, Yair Lapid, who has no substantive strategic background. Because Knesset elections are just 100 days away, Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu will exploit every political and propaganda opportunity to undermine the performance and decisions under fire of Gantz and Lapid, who themselves are contesting the election against one another.

So the Hezbollah-instigated perfect storm, if it happens, will include Israeli politics.