By Ramzy Baroud
Last Tuesday, hours before a massive explosion rocked Beirut, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued an ominous warning to Lebanon. “We hit a cell and now we hit the dispatchers… I suggest to all of them, including Hezbollah, to consider this,” Netanyahu said during an official tour of a military facility in central Israel.
Netanyahu’s warning did not bode well for Israel when, hours later, a Hiroshima-like blast devastated entire sectors of Beirut. Those who suspected Israeli involvement in the deadly explosion had one more reason to point fingers at Tel Aviv.
In politics and in war, truth is the first casualty. We may never know precisely what transpired in the moments preceding the Beirut blast. Somehow, it may not even matter, because the narrative regarding Lebanon’s many tragedies is as splintered as the country’s political landscape.
Judging by the statements made and positions adopted by the country’s various parties and factions, many seem to be more concerned with exploiting the tragedy for trivial political gain than in the tragedy itself. Even if the explosion was the unfortunate outcome of an accident resulting from bureaucratic negligence, sadly, it is still inconsequential. In Lebanon, as in much of the Middle East, everything is political.
What is almost certain about the future, however, is that the political discourse will eventually lead back to Israel versus Hezbollah. The former is keen to undermine the group’s influence in Lebanon, while the latter is insistent on thwarting Israel.
But what is Israel’s plan? After decades of trying to destroy the Lebanese group, the Israeli government is keenly aware that eradicating Hezbollah militarily is no longer feasible, at least not in the foreseeable future. Hezbollah proved its prowess on the battlefield when it played a major role in ending the Israeli occupation of Lebanon in May 2000. Subsequent Israeli attempts to reassert its dominance over Lebanon’s southern border have, thus far, proven futile. The failed war of 2006 and the more recent conflagration of September 2019 are two cases in point.
Hezbollah is uninterested in inviting another Israeli war on Lebanon. The country is on the verge of economic collapse. And, while Lebanon has always been in the throes of political division and factionalism, the current political mood in the country is more destructive than it has ever been. Losing hope in all political actors, the Lebanese people have taken to the streets to demand basic rights and services, an end to endemic corruption, and a whole new social and political contract.
While stalemates in politics are somewhat ordinary occurrences, political deadlocks can be calamitous in a country on the brink of starvation. Last week’s explosion that shocked the world was a perfect metaphor for Lebanon’s seemingly endless woes.
Former Israeli Knesset member Moshe Feiglin was jubilant as he celebrated the near-demise of the Arab city. Feiglin described the horrendous explosion as a “day of joy,” adding that, “If it was us” — meaning Israel being behind the blast — “then we should be proud of it, and with that we will create a balance of terror.”
Regardless of whether or not Feiglin is speaking from a position of knowledge, his reference to a “balance of terror” remains the basic premise in all of Israel’s dealings with Lebanon generally and Hezbollah in particular. The convoluted conflict in Syria has expanded Israel’s war of attrition, but has also given it the opportunity to target Hezbollah’s interests without registering yet another aggression on Lebanese territory. It is much easier to target war-torn Syria and escape unscathed than to target Lebanon and pay a price.
For years, Israel has bombed targets in Syria. Initially, it was not forthcoming about its role. Only in the last year or so has it begun to openly brag about its military conquests. This is because the embattled Netanyahu is desperate to gain political credits while he is dogged by multiple corruption charges, which have tarnished his image. By bombing Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria, the Israeli leader hopes to garner the approval of the military elite — a critical constituency in Israeli politics.
Netanyahu’s comments before the Beirut explosion were in reference to a series of incidents that began on July 21, when Israel bombed an area adjacent to Damascus International Airport, killing, among others, senior Hezbollah member Ali Kamel Mohsen. A subsequent state of emergency on Israel’s northern border was coupled with massive political and media hype, which helped Netanyahu distract ordinary Israelis from his ongoing trial.
But Israel’s strategic interests in the Syria conflict go beyond Netanyahu’s need for a cheap victory. The conflict has the potential to yield a nightmare outcome for Israel. For decades, Tel Aviv has argued that an “axis of terror” — Iran, Syria and Hezbollah — had to be dismantled, for it represented the country’s greatest security threat. That started long before pro-Iran forces and militias began operating overtly in Syria as a result of the ongoing war.
While Israel argues that its regular bombardments of Syria are aimed largely at Hezbollah targets — such as the group’s military caches and Iranian missiles on their way to Lebanon — its involvement is largely political. As per Israeli logic, the more bombs it drops over Syria, the more relevant a player it will be when the conflicting parties engage in future negotiations to decide the fate of the country. However, by doing so, Israel also risks igniting a costly military conflict with Lebanon: One that neither Tel Aviv nor Hezbollah can afford at the moment.