Israeli air strike in Syria: Lies, aggression — at what cost?

From close up, the assassination of a Hezbollah commander and an Iranian general was probably preemption. In the big picture, it was definitely aggression.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Israeli Air Force pilots’ course graduation ceremony, June 26, 2014. (Photo by Haim Zach/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Israeli Air Force pilots’ course graduation ceremony, June 26, 2014. (Photo by Haim Zach/GPO)

During the Second Intifada, (late 2000-2004) Israel made a habit of carrying out “targeted assassinations” of Palestinian militant leaders. The Palestinians, in turn, had a predilection for blowing up buses and cafes. After an assassination of a high-up Hamasnik or Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades man, some Israelis and many foreigners would question whether it was a good idea, whether it was worth the risk, given the likelihood that the Palestinians would be out for revenge. The routine response from the national leadership was that these Palestinian terrorists are always trying to kill as many Israelis as they can, no matter what Israel does or doesn’t do, so targeted assassinations do not put Israelis in any more danger than they’re already in.

Yet after every targeted assassination of a major Palestinian figure, the political, military and intelligence heads would warn the public that the threat level had just gone red, so they should be on high alert, keep their eyes open.

And I would wonder: if Palestinian terrorists are not influenced by Israeli targeted assassinations, why do Israel’s authorities put the public on high alert after each one?

The answer was that Israel’s authorities – the prime minister, defense minister, IDF, Shin Bet and Mossad – were bullshitting themselves and the public. They wanted to kill big-time terrorists, and they didn’t want to be put off by the risk of major revenge attacks, so they decided that there was no risk, and peddled that bullshit to the public.

Which brings us to Israel’s air strike on Sunday in the Syrian Golan Heights, which killed an Iranian Revolutionary Guard general and six Hezbollah fighters, including Jihad Mughniyeh, son of Imad Mughniyeh, the Hezbollah military chief whom Israel assassinated seven years ago.

Another head-on contradiction

The security establishment and “Western intelligence sources” immediately put out the word that Mughniyeh “was already planning, and had prepared, more major murderous attacks against Israel in the Golan Heights. These attacks include rocket fire, infiltrations, explosive devices, anti-tank missile fire, etc., with the goal of killing soldiers, hitting Israeli communities in the Golan Heights and killing Israeli civilians,” according to Yedioth Ahronoth, echoing the general coverage.

At the same time, though, Israeli authorities were saying that Hezbollah was not expected to try to strike back too harshly for Sunday’s assassinations because it didn’t want a full-scale confrontation with Israel, certainly not now when it is so heavily preoccupied with fighting on Assad’s side in the Syrian civil war.  “Hezbollah doesn’t want a full-fledged war. It has a number of possibilities to respond in different arenas. We assume that it currently does not want full contact,” former IDF counter-terrorism head Yoram Schweitzer told AFP, in line with the Israeli assessment in the immediate aftermath of the air strike.

Once again, there is a head-on contradiction here: if Hezbollah is not likely to strike back too hard at Israel for fear of a war, why was Jihad Mughniyeh planning to light up the north with rockets, bombs and deadly infiltrations?

They can’t both be true – if Mughniyeh was planning such attacks on Israel, then Hezbollah is not afraid of war with Israel, and would be looking to hit back extremely hard for the assassinations. But if Hezbollah’s response really was likely to be muted out of fear of conflagration with Israel, then it makes no sense whatsoever that Mughniyeh was about to try to kill lots of Israelis.

So which line of bullshit was it? Was the Israeli establishment 1) artificially inflating Mughniyeh’s intentions because it wanted to kill some Hezbollah men and an Iranian general just because? Or was it 2) artificially deflating the likelihood of a major Hezbollah/Iranian retaliation because it wanted to convince itself and the public that the air strike had carried little risk?

I think the answer is 2). I find it hard to believe Hezbollah was not planning to hit Israel hard at some point because Israel, after all, has blasted Hezbollah and Syria repeatedly for the last two years, bombing convoys of Syrian advanced weapons headed for south Lebanon as well as Syrian weapons depots, and killing Syrian and Hezbollah officials along the way. In return, Hezbollah, despite its best efforts, hasn’t managed to do more than injure a few Israeli soldiers with explosive devices on the border, while Syria and Iran have done nothing.

In recent years, Israel has been trashing Hezbollah, Syria and Iran as it pleases, with the only severe counterattack being Hezbollah’s 2012 assault on a tourist bus in Bulgaria, which killed five Israelis and a local bus driver in retaliation for the Mossad’s assassination of Imad Mughniyeh and five Iranian nuclear scientists. The following year Israel began its series of aerial strikes in Lebanon and Syria, the most recent of which took place last month.

So why wouldn’t Hezbollah’s Jihad Mughniyeh, with Iran’s backing, have been planning to hit Israel now?

War of choice

It didn’t have to be this way though. Israel could have a quiet northern border if it wanted to get off the fear-and-aggression treadmill. It taught Hezbollah a very harsh lesson in the 2006 Second Lebanon War; after that it could have adopted a hands-off policy toward Lebanon, Syria and Iran and trusted its military might to deter Hassan Nasrallah’s guerrillas from any further provocations, such as the kidnapping of two soldiers that set off that war. Instead, after the war, Israel went on the offensive and stayed on it, calling this policy – what else? – self defense.

Since Sunday, the popularity of the air strike and credibility of Israel’s leadership have been going straight downhill. First, Knesset candidate and retired IDF general Yoav Galant spilled the beans by saying that such military adventures during election campaigns are not coincidental. Then “security officials,” probably Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon or IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, said out of one side of their mouth that they didn’t know Iranian Gen. Mohammed Allahdadi had been in the ill-fated convoy, while out of the other side saying that Israel did not take responsibility for the attack at all. After that, the claim that Israel didn’t mean to kill Allahdadi stopped being taken seriously.

As did the assurances that Hezbollah will probably limit its counterattack. The North is now on high alert; tanks, soldiers and Iron Domes have been pouring in; a false alarm one morning led roads to be closed and communities to be told to stay indoors; and Gantz and the commander of the Air Force have cancelled their trips abroad.

“The scene envisioned in Israel is of an especially cruel assault,” wrote Yedioth’s very astute and well-connected defense analyst Alex Fishman on Friday. “Hezbollah and the Iranians want to see blood, and lots of it. The assessment is that they will aim the attack at soldiers to extract a painful price from Israel – as many deaths and injuries as possible – to punish, avenge, teach a lesson and deter. The targeted assassinations … put them in a position of having almost no choice.”

Indeed, the weak side that is continually under attack sooner or later has no choice. But the strong side that is continually on the attack does.

Related:
Retired Israeli general suggests Syria attack timed for election effect
Israel’s ‘war between wars’ backfires
It seems Israel just picked another fight beyond its borders

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