WASHINGTON — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a simple, straightforward message this week when he toured Israel’s border with Syria and Lebanon with top security officials.
“Our face is turned toward peace, we are ready for any eventuality, and I don’t suggest anyone test us,” he said Tuesday in a video message he posted on Twitter, the sound of helicopter blades whirring in the background.
The mixed message signaled Israel’s ambivalence about taking on the terrorist group Hezbollah 12 years after Lebanon and Israel were left gutted by a summer war.
The 2006 war was costly for both sides: Hezbollah, the preeminent militia in Lebanon, lost political capital for inviting a devastating response to its provocations along Israel’s border. Israel’s military and political class at the time paid a price for not decisively winning a war that precipitated a mass internal movement of civilians southward.
Yet the sides are making increasingly belligerent noises. Here are five factors contributing to increasing tensions along the border.
Syria may be winding down, and Iran is winding up.
The Assad regime, along with its allies Russia, Iran and Hezbollah — Iran’s proxy in the region — have the opposition in Syria’s civil war on the run. Iran and Hezbollah are striking while the iron is hot, establishing preeminence in the region. Iranian brass recently toured southern Lebanon and Tehran, according to Israeli reports, and Iran is financing a military factory in Lebanon.
Israeli officials reject a permanent Iranian presence on its border — a message that Netanyahu delivered to Russian President Vladimir Putin when they met last month in Moscow.
“I told him that Israel views two developments with utmost gravity: First is Iran’s efforts to establish a military presence in Syria, and second is Iran’s attempt to manufacture – in Lebanon – precision weapons against the State of Israel,” he said after the meeting. “I made it clear to him that we will not agree to either one of these developments and will act according to need.”
A U.S. leadership vacuum is creating anxiety.
President Donald Trump ordered a missile strike on a Syrian missile base last year after it was revealed that Syria used chemical weapons against civilians, but otherwise the U.S. engagement with shaping the outcome of Syria’s civil war has been desultory. Russia is filling the vacuum, which is stoking Israeli anxieties. Despite generally good relations between the Netanyahu and Putin governments, Israel cannot rely on Russia to advance Israeli interests in the same way it has with the United States.
“As the shape of the Syrian war changes, Israel may find its working relations with Russia undermined by Moscow’s desire to exercise influence in Syria generally from afar, and by its shifting relations with Iran,” Shoshana Bryen, the senior director at the Jewish Policy Center, wrote this week in The Algemeiner.
Absent focused U.S. leadership, Israel may strike out on its own to prevent Hezbollah from becoming the preeminent force in the nations to its north.
There are signs that the Trump administration, albeit belatedly, is noticing what its absence has wrought: Last month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said 2,000 U.S. troops currently in Syria to assist pro-Western rebels would remain stationed there to mitigate against a permanent Iranian presence in Syria.
New fences make restive neighbors.
Israel is building a wall on its northern border along a line demarcated by the United Nations in 2000, when Israel ended its 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon. Israel is building the wall in order to prevent the deadly Hezbollah incursions that spurred the 2006 war, which claimed 1,200 Lebanese lives and more than 60 Israeli lives.
But neither Lebanon nor Hezbollah accepted the demarcation as a permanent outcome, citing disputes over small patches of land that extended back to the 1949 armistice, and the Lebanese government and Hezbollah have threatened action.
Oil and gas
Lebanon last month approved a joint bid by Italian, French and Russian oil companies to explore seas off its coast. Israel claims a portion of the waters. Israeli leaders have called for a diplomatic solution to the dispute, but the competing claims are aggravating tensions between the countries.
Hezbollah, intermittently, has also threatened to attack Israeli platforms in the Mediterranean extracting natural gas.
The Gaza Strip also is restive, with an increase in rocket attacks from Hamas and Israeli retaliatory strikes after Trump in December recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. An Israel distracted by an engagement with Hamas and other terrorist groups in the south could be seen by Hezbollah as an opening to strike in the north.