For a few moments this week, it seemed that the years-long standoff between Israel and Hezbollah along the border with Lebanon was about to spiral out of control towards an all-out war — just two weeks before Israelis go to the polls on Sept. 17 in a do-over election.
Kornet anti-tank missiles fired by the Iranian proxy on Sunday hit Israeli targets near the border town of Avivim, destroying an Israeli military vehicle, triggering speculation and rumors of Israeli casualties. In a decoy meant to fool Hezbollah, Israeli soldiers staged a fake evacuation of casualties to a hospital.
Though it turned out that no soldiers or civilians had been injured, the incident was the latest twist in Israel’s escalating shadow war with Iran, highlighting a dangerous balancing act between deterrence and combat.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on Monday bragged that the Shiite group had successfully carried out an attack that Israel would never have tolerated previously.
“The resistance broke what has for the past dozens of years been the biggest Israeli red line. It is no longer a red line,” he said. “That has ended. There are no more red lines.”
The roots of the border skirmish go back to a provocative offensive by Israel against Iran a week earlier. In the space of 24 hours, the IDF launched attacks on Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Syria, a Shiite militia in Iraq and a Hezbollah building in Beirut. (An anonymous Israeli official confirmed the Lebanon and Iraq attacks on Tuesday.)
Israel is increasingly opening up about attacks aimed at limiting Iran’s military expansion around the region. Its previous policy was to remain mum to avoid provoking a retaliation.
“Israel is escalating on two fronts. Previously, the unwritten rule of how you fight this war is that it’s only in Syria,” said Ehud Eiran, a visiting scholar at Stanford University. “Israel is not waiting passively now. It’s being more aggressive.”
Until now, Israel has focused on preventing Iran from entrenching its military in Syria. The attack in Beirut apparently targeted an effort to manufacture precision missiles in Lebanon.
“That person in Beirut sitting in a bunker knows exactly why he’s in the bunker,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, referring to Nasrallah. “We will continue to operate against the threat of precision missiles.”
Iran has been trying to upgrade Hezbollah’s medium- and long-range rocket arsenal with GPS-guidance systems that could make the missiles accurate to within 10 meters. That could enable Hezbollah to successfully hit strategic targets like the Tel Aviv metropolitan, Ben Gurion Airport, and the Dimona nuclear reactor.
“It seems like Israel is getting intelligence that Iran is stepping up the military game,” said Joel Parker, a fellow at the Dayan Center for Near East and North Africa Studies at Tel Aviv University. He added that Iran, feeling the strain of economic pressure of U.S. sanctions, is backed into a corner and becoming more aggressive.
“They have less to lose,” he said. “If Iran is feeling pinched, then Hezbollah is going to feel pinched. The more Iran feels pinched the more they feel the need to turn up the temperature and step up its game.”
Both analysts speculated that Israeli officials might be sensing that there is currently a window of opportunity to take bold steps against Hezbollah, one likely to close in the next year.
For one, the U.S. elections next year might empower a Democratic president who may be more strict regarding what it allows Israel to do against Iran. And recently, President Donald Trump suggested he’s open to a dialogue with the Iranians. If that were ever to come about, it would also limit Israel’s room for maneuver in attacks against Tehran and its regional allies.
Israel’s security leadership may also be gambling that neither Iran nor Hezbollah wants a war right now, analysts say.
“Hezbollah is needed by the Assad regime to fight in the Idlib province. The Assad regime desperately needs Hezbollah ground fighters, and that seems to be the focus,” said Meir Javedanfar, an Iran expert and lecturer at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center.
Javedanfar added that Iran, already struggling with sanctions, would be hard pressed to back Hezbollah financially in case of a war with Israel.
Speaking on the Haaretz weekly podcast, commentator Anshel Pfeffer said Nasrallah fears the political fallout for Hezbollah in Lebanon from an all-out war with Israel. Moreover, Hezbollah isn’t ready for war with Israel after eight years of involvement in the Syrian civil war, he added.
Opposition politicians accused Netanyahu of publicizing the attacks on Iranian targets in the region to gain political points in Israel’s election campaign.
“Bibi, you’ve played politics on account of national security,” tweeted Yair Lapid, the No. 2 in the leading opposition Blue and White Party. “You’ve exploited security for your campaign, in contrast to previous prime ministers who dealt with Hamas and Hezbollah bravely, wisely and quietly.”
Intentional or not, the offensive against Iranian proxies create a rally-around-the-flag effect that helps the prime minister enhance his image as “Mr. Security,” said Ehud Eiran of Haifa University. “It provides images of him answering the red phone hotlines … he can leverage the situation to look prime ministerial.
“And,” Eiran continued, “it distracts from the reality that there are rocket attacks in the south” from the Gaza Strip.
But Infrastructure Minister Yuval Steinitz of Likud pushed back at the notion that Netanyahu had exploited the situation for political gain.
“These are baseless accusations,” he said in comments on Israeli radio station Kol Chai. “For the last four years we’ve been fighting against Iran’s entrenchment in Syria and the precision missile project in Lebanon. This fight, which the public hears very little about, has been 99 percent successful.”