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The News Line: Feature ISRAEL PLANNING ATTACK ON HEZBOLLAH FEARS are growing that Israel will risk a surprise strike to cripple Hezbollah.


For more than a decade, the assessment that another war between Israel and Hezbollah would be massively destructive to both sides has helped create a mutual balance of terror resulting in a cautious calm along Lebanon’s southern border with the Zionist state.

But mounting tensions between these long-time foes have given rise to a belief among some diplomats in the region that Israel may be planning a pre-emptive strike against Hezbollah on the premise that a conflict with the Iran-backed Party of God is inevitable and that Israel would gain much by striking the first blow despite the expected heavy retaliation against its own cities.

Given a constant build-up of Iranian arms by Hezbollah, its experience in fighting conventional battles in the Syrian war and its apparent moves to control territory in the Syrian-held sector of the war-divided Golan Heights, some Israeli officials consider that a short, sharp offensive to degrade Hezbollah’s military assets and reduce the threat it poses in the short to medium term is entirely feasible.

‘The thinking in Israel about a pre-emptive attack appears to be changing,’ a Western diplomat said. ‘It seems they’re taking this possibility seriously.’ Similar views were heard recently from other diplomats in Beirut, both resident and visiting.

In April, an analysis in the Jerusalem Post claimed that some Israeli officials were ‘openly speaking about a pre-emptive war under which Israel would strike first to significantly degrade Hezbollah’s capabilities before they could be used in a full-fledged conflict.’

There has been a notable increase in recent weeks of Israeli air strikes against suspected arms shipments, including advanced weapons, inside Syria, bound for Hezbollah, underlining Israeli leaders’ view that stronger pre-emptive action is required.

‘These weapons have promoted a distinct sense of alarm inside Israel’s Kirya, their Pentagon,’ analyst Jonathan Schanzer of the Washington-based Foundation for Defence of Democracies observed on April 29. Officials say the hardware would reduce the Israeli edge significantly when the next war erupts.’

Nevertheless, while the option of a pre-emptive strike may be under discussion in Israel, it is hard to visualise the government there risking a unilateral attack against Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Israelis would have to eliminate a wide range of targets from the outset to inflict as much damage as possible before Hezbollah could retaliate with a missile arsenal Israelis claim totals some 150,000 weapons, including long-range precision systems capable of reaching virtually everywhere in Israel.

Israel did just that in the 2006 war against Hezbollah. In the first two days of fighting, its air force destroyed some of the longer-range missiles among the 13,000 the party had then but it failed to eliminate Hezbollah’s firepower completely. And these days, its arsenal is reportedly ten times greater than in 2006.

An Israeli strike would undoubtedly inflict widespread destruction and large loss of life in Lebanon, drawing swift international condemnation and straining the ability of Israel’s allies to support the surprise offensive. It is widely understood that Israel favours a short war – a week or so – to wreak as much destruction as possible to force the Beirut government to push for a ceasefire, while driving to eliminate the Party of God as a threat.

Such assessments, however, fail to appreciate that the Lebanese government, which includes Hezbollah, has little real influence over the party, which is more powerful than the Lebanese Army, or comprehend the party’s determination to prolong the fighting for as long as possible. Hezbollah knows that the longer a war lasts, the greater the domestic and international pressure on Israel from which Hezbollah could leverage a more favourable outcome.

Even if Israeli military officials can make a case for a pre-emptive strike, the political and diplomatic consequences could be disastrous for the Israeli government. However, Israeli security analyst Alex Fishman wrote in the Jerusalem Post on April 30: ‘The Iranian takeover of Syria… is no longer just Israel’s problem. There is a feeling in Jerusalem that if and when Israel is forced to put an end to the Iranian crawl into the Golan Heights, it will receive strong American backing.’

If a broader pre-emptive assault against Hezbollah in Lebanon appears unlikely, Israel could attack Hezbollah and its allies if they begin to deploy opposite Israeli lines in the Golan Heights, two-thirds of which Israel seized in 1967. Conversations with sources close to Hezbollah over the past two years, along with several unclaimed small-scale attacks against Israeli troops in the Golan since late 2013 that bore the stamp of Hezbollah, leave little doubt that Iran and its Lebanese ally seek to establish some form of bridgehead on the strategic plateau.

• An Arab-Islamic-US summit to be attended by US President Donald Trump in Saudi Arabia is being anticipated as a ‘historic event’ that could shape the future of the Middle East. Heads of state from the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Pakistan, Algeria, Morocco, Turkey, Iraq and Tunisia, among other Arab and Muslim leaders, received invitations to the summit scheduled for May 20-21.

It will be the first time a US president has visited a Muslim Arab country, in this, his first trip abroad after his inauguration. Saudi diplomatic sources said the summit aimed to establish a unified vision in the Arab and Islamic worlds to combat extremism and terrorism and to create stability, consistency and understanding in line with the global community.

An example of this would be the invitation of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. The sources said the invitation reflected a new approach in Saudi Arabia to lead Arab action without excluding any party. Saudi Arabia and Abadi’s government have been working to normalise relations, following a visit to Iraq by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir in February.

Jubeir, speaking on May 4th in Washington, said that, besides a meeting with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, a summit with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders is to take place as well as meetings involving leaders of Arab and Islamic countries during the gathering in Riyadh. ‘This visit will enhance, we believe, cooperation between the United States and Arab and Islamic countries in combating terrorism and extremism.’ Jubeir said, according to the Saudi press agency. This is an important issue for the United States’ Jubeir added. ‘Therefore, the partnership with the kingdom is very important.’

The summit comes amid efforts from Washington and Riyadh to improve and solidify long-standing relations, strained during the eight years of the Obama administration. During that time, Saudi Arabia and its fellow Gulf Arab neighbours viewed US President Barack Obama’s lack of engagement in the region, coupled with the nuclear deal signed with Iran, as a stab in the back, and the deal compromised regional security and empowered the Islamic Republic to continue what Riyadh says are Tehran’s ‘destabilising activities’ in the Gulf and beyond.

Saudi Arabia also saw the US scale back support in the conflict with Iran-allied Houthi rebels in Yemen. This was capped by the Obama administration’s decision to halt a $300 million sale of precision-guided missiles, a move unfrozen by Trump. Efforts to reaffirm ties began after Trump’s election and were capped with a meeting at the White House between the newly elected president and Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, Trump’s first meeting with a Gulf Arab official.

A senior adviser to Prince Mohammed described the meeting as a ‘historic turning point in relations,’ adding that it had ‘restored issues to their right path and form a big change in relations between both countries in political, military, security and economic issues.’

US Defence Secretary James Mattis visited Riyadh in April and it was announced by the White House that it would be reviewing the Iran nuclear deal. Besides the kingdom, Trump is to visit Israel and the Vatican before attending NATO and Group of Seven meetings on his first official foreign tour.
 
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