Nervous Israel considers its next move


April 12, 2022

Smoke rises from shells fired from Israel in Maroun Al-Ras village, near the border with Israel, in southern Lebanon. (Reuters)

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Israel’s outgoing air force chief Amikam Norkin said this month that Israel has lost its air supremacy over Lebanon after a drone was nearly shot down by Hezbollah a year ago. Tel Aviv has an understanding with Russia whereby the latter gives the former the freedom to operate in Syrian airspace and hit Iranian and Hezbollah targets, while at the same time Israel regularly violates Lebanese airspace to conduct reconnaissance operations. However, Norkin’s testimony shows that such operations are no longer effective, so what will Israel do next?

Israel is in a tough spot. The recent attacks in Tel Aviv show the limits of its attempts to “manage the conflict” with the Palestinians. What applies to Lebanon and Syria also applies to Palestine. Israel has been trying to keep the conflict under control and contain its symptoms rather than cure its causes. But this is not working.

The best remedy would be to solve the Palestinian issue by realizing a two-state solution. However, no Israeli leader has had the courage to take this step by making concessions and relinquishing the Zionist dream of acquiring Judea and Samaria. An outsider can see that the most pragmatic solution would be to divide historical Palestine into two states and live in peace. However, the Zionist ideology is based on the return of the Jews to their ancestral homeland. Hence, the concession has a larger significance than giving up land — it requires a major shake-up of the Israeli psyche.

It is unlikely that Naftali Bennett’s fractured and incoherent coalition government, which gathers a wide spectrum of political parties whose only common denominator was a desire to oust Benjamin Netanyahu, will make such a concession due to the major popular backlash it would likely provoke. While the Arab countries at last month’s Negev summit urged Israel to resume negotiations regarding a two-state solution, Bennett rebuffed their request, claiming that the current conditions are not suitable.

The Palestinians are insisting on an end to the occupation, which is not something the Israelis are yet ready to offer. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas does not want to repeat Yasser Arafat’s mistake. Arafat went to Oslo and promised his people a state and he ended up lingering in fruitless negotiations while his people remained under occupation with no viable state on the horizon.

Israel has recently suffered attacks in its main cities. Meanwhile, America’s return to the Iran nuclear deal is imminent. With it, Iran will be emboldened, but Tehran will try to prove to its domestic audience that it did not give up on its values, meaning it is unlikely to decrease its proxy activities in the region. As for the agreement between Israel and Russia, the war in Ukraine is putting it to the test.

It is today facing an increased internal threat, while it can also no longer keep Hezbollah and the Iranian militias in Lebanon and Syria under control.

Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib

Iran was against the decision to remove Russia from the UN Human Rights Council, while Israel supported it. Previously, Russia was trying to keep Iran contained in Syria and Israel’s airstrikes were serving this purpose, but now Russia needs Tehran more than ever. Will the understanding between Israel and Russia on Syria hold? On Saturday, Israel launched a daylight attack, which is unprecedented, as all its previous strikes were conducted at night. However, Russia can threaten to revoke the understanding to get some type of support from Tel Aviv. Iran, on the other hand, which has improved bargaining power with Russia, is in a better position to sabotage such an understanding.

So Israel is today facing an increased internal threat, while it can also no longer keep Hezbollah and the Iranian militias in Lebanon and Syria under control. Therefore, what will it do? The Biden administration is not so focused on Israel. Unlike the Trump administration, it does not seem to be willing to use its capital with Arab countries to push them to normalize ties with Tel Aviv.

Israel is growing increasingly nervous about Hezbollah’s military capabilities. A preventive strike could be an option, but it is a difficult one. Last year’s Gaza war showed how public opinion is no longer in favor of Israel. Also, if Tel Aviv strikes to neutralize Hezbollah’s arsenal, the group will retaliate. Hence, it will incur huge damage before it can neutralize the pro-Iran group.

Israel is now in wait-and-see mode. It nervously awaits the signing of the nuclear deal and how Iran will act after that. No one is expecting Tehran to take it easy. On the contrary, all parties are assuming Iran will increase its activism. If so, what will Israel’s response be? Since its inception, Israel has resorted to military strikes whenever it has been faced with a threat. However, recently, with every strike, Israel has been slowly losing. Its enemies have been able to inflict more damage and it has been increasingly drawing criticism. It is unlikely that Israel’s Arab allies will support it if it strikes an Arab country.

Though the Negev summit took place to discuss creating a front to face Iran, this front will not materialize if Israel attacks Lebanon, even if that inflicts damage on Hezbollah. Who will the next casualty of Israeli insecurity be? Could it be Lebanon? Maybe, but again, if Israel takes this path, it will not be a walk in the park. It will be a hard and costly option to take.

• Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese nongovernmental organization focused on Track II.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News’ point of view


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