Israel eyes threats closer to home
By Eurasia Group analyst Geoff Porter Even as President Obama tries to open diplomatic channels with Tehran, Israel will likely try to address real and potential threats from Hamas and Hezbollah, Iran’s regional proxies. Israel has already waged war on Hamas in recent months, and military confrontation with Hezbollah is becoming more likely. Iran’s nuclear ...
By Eurasia Group analyst Geoff Porter
By Eurasia Group analyst Geoff Porter
Even as President Obama tries to open diplomatic channels with Tehran, Israel will likely try to address real and potential threats from Hamas and Hezbollah, Iran’s regional proxies. Israel has already waged war on Hamas in recent months, and military confrontation with Hezbollah is becoming more likely.
Iran’s nuclear progress and Obama administration efforts at engaging Iran’s leaders have generated high anxiety in official circles within Israel, where the Iranian nuclear program is widely considered an existential threat to the Jewish state. Israelis from across the political spectrum doubt that a new diplomatic track will persuade Iran to halt its nuclear program. Many believe that Iran will simply exploit the diplomatic process and warming relations with Washington to play for time, advancing its nuclear program beyond a point at which neither diplomacy nor military strikes can compromise Iran’s nuclear future.
For the moment, Israel seems to be giving the US diplomatic track time to produce results. But in the meantime, Israel will focus on Iran-related problems that it can address directly, like the threats posed by Hezbollah and Hamas, before these groups benefit from the added political leverage their ties with a nuclear Iran would generate. In short, Israel fears that once Iran has achieved nuclear status, Hamas and Hezbollah will feel emboldened to take a more aggressive approach toward Israel. Better to deal with those groups’ offensive capabilities now, some Israeli officials reason, than to wait until US/European diplomatic efforts fail and Iran crosses the nuclear threshold.
Because Israel officially considers Hezbollah and Hamas terrorist organizations, Israel will not open negotiations with either of them. As a consequence, Israeli policymakers may determine that further militarily action is a necessary risk. Israel severely weakened Hamas in December and January, and government officials continue to publicly underline threats from Hezbollah that continue following their six-week conflict in 2006.
A wrong step from Hezbollah in coming months would provide Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government with the pretext to strike at Hezbollah’s capabilities. Rocket fire across the Lebanese-Israeli border could provoke Israeli retaliation, just as it did in 2006 when a Hezbollah campaign unexpectedly drew a massive Israeli response. And the current Israeli government is much more hawkish than the Ehud Olmert-led government of 2006.
How might this confrontation develop? Following this weekend’s Lebanese legislative elections, Hezbollah might make good on threats to avenge the killing of member Imad Mughniyeh, which the group blames on Israel. For the moment, Hezbollah is concentrating its time and resources on its performance at the ballot box, but its leadership is unlikely to let his death go without a response. Any provocative action from Hezbollah is highly likely to draw a forceful Israeli response.
There is also a potential domestic political rationale underlying a future Israeli attack on Hezbollah. While the 2006 Israeli campaign against Hezbollah was politically damaging for Olmert’s administration (and ultimately cost defense minister Amir Peretz his job), the recent offensive against Hamas was domestically popular and bolstered support for Ehud Barak, Peretz’s replacement.
A successful strike on Hezbollah would be significantly more difficult to achieve than the recent attacks on Hamas. But if the Netanyahu government sets clear, attainable goals and successfully manages the Israeli public’s expectations, it could improve its standing. Some good news might come in handy, given the economic challenges the government now faces, problems which have undermined its popularity in recent weeks.
Netanyahu is struggling to maintain an awkward hard-right coalition despite falling tax receipts, rising unemployment, and increasing fiscal demands for social services. In a recent Knesset speech, Netanyahu emphasized that the economic challenges that Israel faces are compounded by security threats. While the global economic downturn may prevent Netanyahu from unilaterally turning Israel’s economy around, he may reckon that Israel can deal with security risks on its own.
Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media. He is also the host of the television show GZERO World With Ian Bremmer. Twitter: @ianbremmer
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