Last week the Israeli Air Force bombed Syrian military and security positions in retaliation for an operation on the Syrian-Israeli border in the Golan Heights. Four Israeli soldiers were wounded when Hezbollah attacked their Jeep. Hezbollah it seems was looking to kidnap them. This time they failed, but, said Hezbollah sources, “We are sure we will succeed in the near future.”
Maybe. If so, it is sure to resonate throughout the Middle East. The last time Hezbollah kidnapped Israeli soldiers it touched off a monthlong conflict in the summer of 2006. After the devastation Hezbollah suffered, hundreds of its elite troops dead and billions of dollars’ worth of damage done, the party’s general secretary, Hassan Nasrallah, said that had he known how the Israelis would respond, he never would have taken their soldiers in the first place. So now that Nasrallah knows what Israeli countermeasures look like, what could he possibly be thinking?
The answer is that it’s not Nasrallah calling the shots. Hezbollah is Iran’s long arm in Lebanon. Accordingly, its activities on Israel’s northern border, taken together with the maneuvers of other Iranian allies on the southern frontier—weapons transfers to Gaza-based militants and their rocket fire on Israel—are evidence of a new Iranian boldness. Perhaps as a consequence of the interim nuclear agreement Iran struck last November with the P5+1 powers (the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany), Tehran imagines that the White House will rein in Jerusalem. But if that’s what Obama is advising, Israel isn’t paying attention. Israel’s aggressive defense suggests that if Iran keeps pushing, it may soon find itself in open warfare.
For the last year and a half, Israel has kept Iran’s allies on its borders almost totally quiet. The 2006 war that many, including Hezbollah, believed Jerusalem had lost served instead to reestablish the credibility of Israeli deterrence. To the south, Israel’s November 2012 Pillar of Defense campaign in Gaza left Hamas reeling, while the Syrian civil war and the sectarian furies it unleashed loosened the bonds that tied Iran to its chief Palestinian asset. Even as the conflict in Syria burned, Israel was careful to show that it had no stake in the outcome and would stand aside so long as neither Assad nor the rebels tried to involve it—or transfer weapons to Hezbollah.
Israel has repeatedly targeted weapons convoys moving strategic, or game-changing, arms from Syria to Lebanon, typically striking at their point of origin rather than their destination. The reasoning seems to be that with Assad under fire already and reluctant to open another front against Israel, it’s advisable to hit there rather than in Lebanon, where Hezbollah might be compelled to act to save face. Nonetheless, on February 24 the Israeli Air Force struck a Hezbollah position in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Hezbollah’s retaliatory campaign has included at least four border incidents. In one of them, Hezbollah fighters crossed several hundred yards into Israeli territory and planted IEDs.
Until last week, Israeli responses had typically been measured—firing artillery rounds into Syrian territory, for instance. The decision to target Assad’s forces now—as Israel did not do during the 2006 war, when Damascus kept transferring supplies to Hezbollah—is something of a game-changer itself, and needs to be seen in the context of Israel’s southern front.
Earlier in March, Israeli naval commandos boarded a Panamanian-flagged vessel, the Klos C, in the Red Sea carrying arms destined for Gaza, most likely intended for Palestinian Islamic Jihad but undoubtedly with the acquiescence of Hamas. If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hoped that the interdiction of Iranian arms was something like a public relations coup that would change the White House’s mind about its bargaining partner in Tehran, the administration paid little heed. “It’s entirely appropriate to continue to pursue the possibility of reaching a resolution on the nuclear program,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said after the arms seizure.
However, the fact that the administration showed itself unmoved was perhaps the key factor in Jerusalem’s strategic messaging campaign, for Washington wasn’t Jerusalem’s only intended audience. The Israeli government was also signaling to its own citizens. The message was twofold: First, Iran is a strategic threat, not merely because of its nuclear weapons program, but also because of its support for the axis of resistance on Israel’s borders, a message underscored when Palestinian Islamic Jihad rained dozens of missiles on Israeli towns. Second, the Obama administration isn’t greatly bothered by the fact that Iran doesn’t, as the president put it, “operate in a responsible fashion.”