Next Israeli Arab War Could Begin in Beirut

By David Eshel
Tel Aviv

Israel’s next war could be fought on several fronts and result in far more destruction and casualties on all sides than recent conflicts.

So said outgoing Israeli military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin in an address to the Knesset in November. Yadlin believes that despite an unprecedented period of calm for Israel right now—primarily due to its deterrence, alliances with Egypt and Jordan, and peace in the West Bank—there is a strong possibility of a major escalation of hostilities with two neighbors, Lebanon and Syria.

The flashpoint would be an attempt by Hezbollah to overthrow the Lebanese government, with backing from Syria and Iran. An overthrow could be triggered if an investigation by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) assigns responsibility for the 2005 murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri to Hezbollah. The STL was created to investigate the killing, and will try defendants in an international court. At press time, STL reported that it would release a draft indictment of those responsible in the “near future.”

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has made it clear that he will not accept any indictment of Hezbollah members, and questioned the credibility of the tribunal. Should Hezbollah gain control of the country, it would absorb the Lebanese military and its assets and be in a position to menace Israel with its own arsenal of 40,000 rockets, many of which are capable of reaching urban areas including Tel Aviv. Political analysts say Israel would not tolerate such a threat, and sporadic battles would erupt on the border, leading to an all-out war with Lebanon that could eventually include attacks by Syria and by Hamas in Gaza.

According to Israel TV, Hezbollah conducted a secret exercise on Oct. 28 throughout the country to test its militia’s readiness for what leaders call “zero hour”—asserting their grip on Lebanon.

The regional fallout from a war between Israel and Lebanon, Syria and Gaza would be enormous, especially since Iran is likely to play a role in arming and supporting Israel’s enemies. Saudi Arabia and Jordan have also expressed concerns about the stability of Lebanon and the regional impact should Hezbollah take over the country.

In August, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah traveled to Damascus to confer with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Abdullah’s objective was to explore ways of preventing an eruption of violence in—and from—Lebanon. Riyadh is worried about Tehran using Hezbollah to provoke war with Israel, a war Iran would exploit to further its regional aspirations to the detriment of Saudi interests.

A few years ago, King Abdullah of Jordan warned that a “Shia crescent” was being established across the region. He was referring to the growing influence of Shiite-dominated Iran in Iraq, its support of Hezbollah in Lebanon and the evolving alliance between Tehran and Damascus. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s triumphal visit to Lebanon in October and the threat of Hezbollah’s takeover of that country could make the Jordanian king’s warning become reality.

There is no doubt that Hezbollah is at the zenith of its power and influence in Lebanon. By demonstrating a willingness to press its advantages and hold the specter of violence over the country if it doesn’t get what it wants, the Lebanese government appears to be marching, at least somewhat, to the beat of ­Hezbollah’s drum.

There are, however, obstacles that Hezbollah and its backers must overcome before expanding power in Lebanon. Some Syrian officials are far from enthusiastic about Hezbollah’s grand embrace of Ahmadinejad in October. Iran’s efforts to expand its influence in the Middle East are resented and resisted by most governments, and there is no guarantee that Tehran would be able to operate unmolested in the region should war break out. Assad’s Alawite minority regime is strong and bolstered by Iran, but rules by force over an increasingly dissatisfied Sunni majority, which includes the Moslem Brotherhood and other anti-government organizations.

Moreover, Tehran and Damascus were able to work with each other so long as it was clear that Iran was not encroaching on the influence of Syria in Lebanon. Damascus expects Tehran to refrain from inserting itself too far into Lebanese affairs and wants Lebanon to remain a Syrian protectorate.

However the situation develops, Israeli leaders are preparing for war while hoping that this current period of peace, however strained at times, continues.

Photo: IDF

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