Israel-Hizbollah Flare up Could be Playing With Fire

Published August 15th, 2021 - 06:33 GMT
Hizbollah supporters
Supporters of the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah on 25 May 2020 [MAHMOUD ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images]

For the first time in seven years Israel conducted cross-border operations in Lebanon, targeting Hezbollah operatives with heavy airstrikes.

The move was made in retaliation for the launch of 19 rockets into Israel from the Lebanese territory. Israel has blamed Hezbollah for the attack, and the two sides have exchanged fire several times since. This dangerous escalation has also sparked a new war of words, with both the Israeli leadership and senior Hezbollah members vowing retribution if the attacks continue.

The Israeli response deviates sharply from the country’s longstanding policy of maintaining a status quo with Hezbollah, a sentiment shared by the Iranian-backed group’s leadership as well.

Israel came out of the Second Lebanon War in 2006 weary of preemptive interventions into Lebanon, fearful of being drawn into a geopolitical quagmire and a prolonged, resource-consuming conflict. The escalation also comes at a time when Lebanon is experiencing a period of political and economic disintegration, raising the question of whether Hezbollah itself can afford such a conflict with Israel.

All of these factors point to the conclusion that last week’s attacks were far from a simple skirmish between Israel and Hezbollah, but rather the materialization of broader Israeli-Iranian rivalry in the region, with Hezbollah acting in complete unison with Tehran.

The parameters of this rivalry, however, appear to be changing due to the shift in the strategic landscape of the Middle East, which is why there has been such an outburst of violence at the Israeli-Lebanese border. Iran is now under new leadership, which is no longer incentivized to come to a modus vivendi with European powers and the United States.

The United States, on the other hand, is also reluctant to re-enter some rendition of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which Washington had unilaterally left under former President Trump.

Biden appears to be fatigued and unwilling to jumpstart the process, which would bring Iran back into the fold, as he is preoccupied with other foreign policy priorities such as the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan. Iranian willingness has all but vanished under the new leadership in Tehran. As all parties anticipate the failure of a future JCPOA, or at the very least a prolonged stalemate of negotiations, Israel and Iran are gearing for conflict.

The Raeisi doctrine

Iran’s former president, Hassan Rouhani, had channeled most of his energy into negotiating with the US and the EU.

Ebrahim Raeisi, Iran’s newly inaugurated conservative president, is unlikely to follow a similar course. Iran appears to be reverting to its traditional foreign policy doctrine of charting an independent course, strengthened by its regional proxies such as Hezbollah. Under Raeisi, the so-called “Axis of Resistance” is being given a new lease of life, with signs of an aggressive foreign policy posturing already visible.

Two weeks ago, HV Mercer Street, a merchant vessel linked to an Israeli billionaire, was struck with drones off the coast of Oman in an attack largely believed to have been carried out by Iran. Two crew members were killed, drawing a harsh response from the US and Israel.

The attack last week from Lebanon into Israel fits into a pattern, as does the assault on the vessel.

Raeisi appears to be quietly reminding Israeli security forces that Iran is back, and that the perceived acquiescence of the Rouhani years is over.

Indeed, Iran suffered several blows to its prestige under Rouhani's tenure.

The assassination of Qasem Soleimani and Israel's attacks on critical Iranian nuclear infrastructure were never truly accounted for by the Iranians. With the new leadership in Tehran, Iran is clearly preparing to assume a more active foreign policy stance. Since coming to an agreement with Western interlocutors has been severely de-incentivized for Iran, similar attacks will likely become the norm moving forward. The Israeli government also appears to have acknowledged that Iran is becoming more aggressive.

The Israeli response

Israeli strategic thinking dictates a strong policy of deterrence against Iran and its proxies.

This is most likely the rationale behind the harsh Israeli reaction to Hezbollah's shelling last week. Moreover, Israeli officials are now courting top US intelligence officials regarding possible US negotiations with Iran in an attempt to warn the Biden administration that Tehran may have enriched weapons-grade uranium. While a breakthrough between Iran and the US is unlikely, Israel is still pushing for Tehran’s isolation. Any interim deal that could in the future transform into a wider framework for Iran’s relations with the West runs counter to Israel’s self-perceived interests.

Israel’s threat perceptions have been heightened by the election of Raeisi and the most recent flare-up of violence in Gaza and the West Bank.

On top of all of this, Israel's current coalition government, led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, must try to reconcile vast political differences amongst their ranks as well as opposition from the ousted Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu is on the lookout for any opportunity to portray the Bennett-Lapid government as weak and incompetent, so Israel's current leadership must project a strong image to Israel's adversaries.

With such factors combined, Israel's pre-emptive strikes against Iranian-backed groups -- such as Hezbollah -- are likely to continue with caution, as Israel does not want to be drawn into another conflict with tensions in Gaza and the West Bank remaining high.

The Second Lebanon War overall proved to be a strategic miscalculation for Israel, with Hezbollah still firmly entrenched on its border. Israel will likely not risk such a large-scale armed incursion, but it will step up its aerial campaign against Hezbollah.

Israel is also working closely with its new allies in the Gulf in order to irk Iran in a region where Tehran sees itself as the hegemon.

A senior Bahraini minister visiting Israel last week blamed Iran for the region's troubles and came out against the nuclear deal.

In the same vein, Israel has been steadily developing ties with Azerbaijan, which again sits in Iran's sphere of influence. Azerbaijan recently opened  trade and tourism offices in Tel Aviv, marking the country’s first diplomatic representations in Israel.

The Israeli strategy now appears to be to corner Iran diplomatically by engaging with the US to prevent a nuclear deal and cozying up to countries in Iran's immediate vicinity, while pursuing active deterrence in areas of contention such as Lebanon. The return of Iran’s conservatives to power has caused an alteration of strategic calculations in the region.

The incident on the Lebanese-Israeli border is the result of shifting regional arithmetic, with more such incidents likely to follow.

Batu Coskun is a Turkish writer specializing on the Middle East.

 


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