A United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) vehicle patrolling in southern Lebanon on the border with Israel is parked next to a poster showing Hassan Nasrallah, on December 9, 2018. Ali DIA / AFP
The pro-Assad axis saw great strategic success in 2018 – but Tehran has also suffered failures ■ The state of the Israeli army’s ground forces is a divisive issue Netanyahu will have to address
Operation Northern Shield, to locate Hezbollah’s tunnels under the Lebanese border, is entering its second week. So far the Israel Defense Forces has reported the discovery of three tunnels, and the excavations are continuing at several other sites along the border. This engineering effort is expected to take more than a month, and even then the army will probably have to make changes regarding preparedness at the border fence.
Benjamin Netanyahu, in his dual role as prime minister and defense minister (among his other ministries), arrived this week for a second visit to the area, where he threatened Hezbollah. (Like when he said in September that if Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah “confronts us, he’ll get a crushing blow that he can’t even imagine.”)
But it was clear that the tour was also for domestic consumption. The prime minister is preparing for Israel’s next general election due within a year, and his frequent meetings with officers and soldiers provide an ideal setting for his journey to the ballot box.
In an article last week on the website Israel Defense, Col. (res.) Pesach Malovany, a former senior official in Military Intelligence, mentions a propaganda film released by Hezbollah in 2014. The organization promised “to free Bi’ina, Deir al-Asad and Majdal Krum,” three Arab villages in the Galilee, and presented an attack plan based on no fewer than 5,000 fighters.
According to the film, the units would progress in four spearheads, from Nahariya in the west to Misgav Am in the east, with a fifth force in reserve. Cover would be provided by a heavy barrage of rockets launched by Hezbollah at the Galilee.
Israeli officials at the time dismissed this as mere psychological warfare. Even now it’s hard to imagine how Hezbollah would be able to transfer so many troops, sometimes underground in relatively narrow and short tunnels, without being discovered. Interestingly, the size of the forces that was mentioned is quite similar to the estimated number of fighters in Hezbollah’s Radwan special forces unit. When you add the tunnels that were recently revealed, it’s easier to understand how Hezbollah is thinking about the next battle.
Hezbollah’s steps are part of a change in Iran’s plans. In recent months Iran’s military intervention in Syria, including the weapons smuggled to Hezbollah in Lebanon, has ebbed due to Russian pressure.
At the same time, Moscow has pressured Israel to go easy on its air strikes in Syria since the Syrians’ accidental downing of a Russian reconnaissance plane in September. This week the Russians finally agreed to receive a military delegation from Israel, headed by the chief of the General Staff Operations Directorate, Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva, but the IDF is reluctant to state that this signals an end to the crisis.
Amid the difficulties of operating in Syria, Iran is increasing its efforts in the two neighboring countries. In western Iraq it’s deploying long-range missiles that are capable of striking Israel as well. In Lebanon it’s trying to build factories that will let it improve the precision of Hezbollah’s older rockets. These efforts are accompanied by a dispute regarding the Iranian regime’s priorities for investment, in light of increased sanctions by the United States and a protest by everyday Iranians due to the deteriorating economy.
Since the discovery of the tunnels, the General Staff has made sure to clarify that despite the media’s preoccupation with the precision-missile project, Hezbollah apparently has only a few dozen high-precision rockets capable of striking less than 50 meters (160 feet) or so from their target.
The Iranians have yet to achieve the “industrial” capability of a swift conversion to precision missiles in Lebanon. The smuggling of weapons on flights from Iran to Beirut is also being done on a small scale, far smaller than what was tried in the weapons convoys on Syrian soil.
In the north, 2018 saw a major strategic success of the axis that supported the Assad regime in Syria – a renewed takeover of most of Syrian territory and a restabilization of the government. But the Iranians also suffered failures; one is a slowdown of their efforts to entrench themselves militarily in Syria, because of Israel’s strikes in April and May. The other is the exposure of Hezbollah’s tunnel plan.
That doesn’t mean that Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds force, will lay down his arms in 2019. Israel must assume that Iran will try to attack it on other fronts. At the moment, it seems this will happen in Lebanon, with the precision-missile factories the main issue.
If in the future Tehran believes that it has a reason to attack Israel, perhaps due to American efforts to combat Iran’s nuclear programs and missiles, it’s hard to believe it will leave Hezbollah out, as it did in the confrontation with Israel in Syria this year.
In light of the billions that the Iranians have invested in Lebanon, the day will come when they demand that Nasrallah provide a better return for their money. A senior defense official, in a meeting with his European counterparts, recently said that it will be hard to maintain the quiet in Lebanon for another year.
“We’ll try to neutralize the tunnels and remove them from the equation, but the precision-missile project remains a problem for us,” he reportedly said. “Iran is trying to build a missile system in Iraq and Syria, in addition to the rockets it has already provided to Hezbollah in Lebanon and to Palestinian organizations in Gaza. For us it’s too much; the Iranians have to leave Syria entirely. It’s not enough to keep them 60 or 80 kilometers [50 miles] from the Israeli border.”
The Israeli rhetoric against Iran in the past decade has focused on the nuclear program. But the 2015 nuclear agreement and the lifting of the sanctions against Iran that ensued (some of which were recently renewed when Washington abandoned the agreement) have clarified the progress of Iran’s other efforts: to develop long-range missiles and increase its influence in the region.
The conventional military threat against Israel has waned with the collapse of the Syrian army and Israel’s closer ties with Egypt. On the other hand, the combined, hybrid threat that Iran is developing from many directions and with many means is a challenge Israel hasn’t faced in the past.
Heavy rocket barrages against civilians and strategic infrastructure, an attempt at a land grab on the border, cyberwarfare and electronic warfare, an option of opening a secondary front in Gaza, the big question of how Russia will behave – all these elements appear in the scenarios that the General Staff has practiced in recent years.
Are the ground forces, which are still partly based on a large contribution by reservists, ready for more extreme scenarios? That’s one subject of the debate with the Defense Ministry ombudsman, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brik. Brik isn’t being attacked for his ungentlemanly style and sweeping statements, but apparently the public slap in the face by his reports has triggered a positive process of investigations in the IDF and at the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
When the generals stop feeling offended, the army will discover that it’s not a bad idea to investigate itself occasionally. And the managers of large organizations tend to discover that reality is less glamorous than their high opinion of themselves.
In the army, opinions about the ground forces are divided. Have the steps by Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot to bring the IDF up to par been sufficient? Some people believe it’s lagging by decades. Eisenkot challenged the political leaders in the summer of 2015 when he published documents on IDF strategy; he tried to force the politicians into a deeper discussion on the army and its future.
In fact, from the few statements by Netanyahu on this question in recent months, it’s clear he envisions an army even more dependent on the air force, technology and intelligence. The ground forces, and the reservist system in particular, are liable to remain far behind. The prime minister, in his role as defense minister, will have to find time to discuss these controversies in depth during the first half of the coming year, when Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi takes over as chief of staff.