Between Beirut and Baghdad

Iran's precision missile project is, apparently, the common denominator between the mysterious explosions in Iraq and Lebanon, attributed to Israel. Could retaliatory actions by Hezbollah or Iran lead to a regional war? And how could the Iranian Foreign Minister's visit to the G7 summit affect Israel? Special column by Amir Rapaport

Would Hezbollah retaliate for the alleged Israeli attack? Hassan Nasrallah (Photo: AP)

The turbulent defense-related developments of the last few days cannot be completely dissociated from the forthcoming elections in Israel. From Iraq, through Syria and Lebanon, to the Gaza Strip: are the airstrikes, the mysterious drones and the rocket that exploded above the open-air music festival in Sderot associated – as far as any one of the parties is concerned – with the elections (and with an attempt to manipulate public opinion)?

Apart from the attacks proper – can one say that about Israel's decision to assume responsibility for the resounding attack against the villa near Damascus, where, allegedly, explosive drones had been stored, in anticipation of being launched into Israel by an Iranian force (probably as a retaliation for a previous attack against the same force in Iraq, attributed to Israel)? Was the timing of the attack attributed to Israel, against a sensitive Hezbollah target in the heart of Beirut, antedated in order to provide Netanyahu with more votes?

As in any election campaign, the question of the influence on the makers of defense-related decisions will remain open. One thing is certain: each one of the exciting events of the last week has been the outcome of a long process. Several processes have converged into a mind-boggling pace of events, which led to peak tension. In an attempt to put some order into this complex situation – what were the most important events of this week? And what are the potential scenarios that could develop as a result of those events?

The Most Important Events of the Week

1. Zarif visits G7 Summit. Somewhat surprisingly, it is precisely the event that gained the least amount of attention from the Israeli media that may be placed at the very top of the list: The Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, visited the Industrialized Nations Summit held in France. "This is not just the most important event of the week, it could very well turn out to be one of the most important events of the last few years," says Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad, Head of the Institute for Policy & Strategy (IPS) at the Hertzliya Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) and formerly the Head of the Policy and Political-Military Affairs Directorate at the Israeli Ministry of Defense. 

"The visit did not surprise US President Donald Trump, and it may turn out that it would lead to a change in his temperamental policy, in the context of which he had abandoned Syria and decided to engage in a dialog with North Korea, which presses on with its nuclear program, contrary to his previous declarations," Gilad explains. "This move could lead to a new agreement between the West and Iran, which would only refer to Iran's nuclear program but not to such other threats as Hezbollah's long-range missiles. In that case, Israel would be left alone opposite the Iranian aspirations to destroy it, and that could be a development whose severity cannot be overstated."

2. Attacks attributed to Israel in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. This refers to a series of attacks executed with unprecedented intensity. As for Iraq, mysterious explosions attributed to Israel have been occurring there over the last few weeks. The Israeli attack against the Iranian drone setup last week has been the sequel to a long series of attacks in Syria, for which Israel has assumed responsibility. But the explosions at the heart of Hezbollah's stronghold in Beirut, which occurred almost simultaneously, are the most mysterious of all. The initial presumption was that they were only intended to serve as an Israeli warning signal to the effect that Israel is about to renew the attacks inside Lebanese territory, which had been suspended, in effect, since the Second Lebanon War in 2006 (owing to a state of mutual deterrence between Israel and Hezbollah, as unpleasant to admit as this may be).

Later on, the British media reported, probably on the basis of a leak, that the attack targeted sensitive components transferred from Iran to Hezbollah in the context of the precision missile project. It seems the truth consists of both: a warning to Hezbollah of additional attacks and certain damage to the missile program. In any case, the precision missile program is, apparently, the common denominator of the wave of attacks being staged from Iraq to Lebanon.

Admittedly, the attempts to manufacture long-range missiles possessing pinpoint accuracy have been encountering countless airstrikes attributed to Israel, but Iran and Hezbollah have developed a way to manufacture "kits" fitted to "dumb" rockets that enable these rockets to engage targets accurately, using GPS guidance. Apparently, Hezbollah already has some 200 precision-guided missiles of this type. The development and acquisition process is time-consuming, but it goes on nevertheless.

The long-range, precision-guided missiles are regarded as the most substantial threat from Lebanon, mainly because each one of those missiles carries an explosive warhead weighing hundreds of kilograms, even though the longer the range from which these missiles are launched, the more likely they are to be intercepted by the Israeli missile defense systems – the Arrow, David's Sling and Iron Dome systems.

According to information made available thus far, Iran had initially attempted to consolidate the missile project on Syrian soil, but following the Israeli attacks, it moved some of the development and manufacturing activities to Iraq and Lebanon, which were supposed to be immune to Israeli attack (not as far as Israel was concerned, allegedly). Israel's strategy is to do everything to eliminate the precision-guided missiles, even at the cost of deteriorating into a war.

3. Meanwhile, in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. More of the same. Once again, rockets are launched into southern Israel. The attempt to reach a long-term agreement with Hamas, spurred by the extremely energetic encouragement of Egypt, is still unsuccessful. Hamas is attempting to keep the border with the Gaza Strip quiet, to initiate terrorist attacks "only" in the Judea and Samaria district, like the appalling attack at the spring near Dolev. Opposite Hamas, the Salafist organizations and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Iran is pouring more fuel into the fire through its messengers.

Possible Scenarios

1. Retaliatory attack by Hezbollah and Israeli restraint. This is probably the most likely scenario. Hezbollah is committed to a retaliatory attack against Israel for the attack attributed to it against their stronghold in the Dahia quarter of Beirut, among other things – because the bilateral deterrence is conceived as their achievement in the Second Lebanon War, and also because Nasrallah promised that in a speech he delivered earlier this week. Past experience has shown that Hezbollah may settle for an attack against an Israeli objective closer to the northern border. If the cost of such an attack is not too steep, in terms of casualties, Israel may restrain itself.

2. Deterioration into a large-scale war involving Israel-Syria-Iran-Hezbollah. The Prime Minister hastened to threaten this week that the states will bear the cost of an attack against Israel. This was a clear warning that Israel can stage massive attacks in Lebanon and possibly even inside Iranian territory. This scenario might definitely deteriorate into a large-scale war that would include missiles launched into the entire territory of Israel. The plus side: none of the parties has a real interest in a major flare-up. The minus side: wars can erupt even with none of the parties involved intending for them to erupt, as was the case in the Second Lebanon War or Operation Protective Edge. This scenario is not highly probable.

3. War with Gaza. According to this scenario, Hamas and the other Palestinian organizations join the "celebration" of a northern war, to make life difficult for Israel mainly owing to the need to deploy Iron Dome batteries in a countless number of focal points. The probability of this scenario is faint, for the time being.

The Legend of Guy Sela

The business media has written extensively about the death, at the age of 55, of the CEO and founder of SolarEdge – Guy Sela. His funeral, however, was a defense summit meeting much more than a business one. The reason – Guy Sela is regarded as one of the greatest legends of Israeli intelligence – from his days in Sayeret Matkal to the technological unit of the IDF Intelligence Directorate, from which he retired at the age of 40.

Sela deserves credit for daring operations and amazing ideas. His last operation was the careful planning of his own funeral, with assistance provided by the best intelligence minds of the past. He chose the location of his grave about two weeks ago, as well as the song Israeli artist Shuli Rand would perform while he is being buried. Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi said, even before Sela's death, that he kept on consulting him until the last moment.

Guy Sela retired from IDF service while he served as acting commander of the technological unit of the IDF Intelligence Directorate, owing to suspicions of mismanagement that were eventually refuted completely. Days before his death, a historical wrong was righted, and Sela was appointed, in retrospect, as the de facto commander of the technological unit, rather than just the acting commander.

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