Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paraded diagrams of alleged weapons sites in Lebanon at the UN General Assembly, but when diplomats toured those sites, no weapons were found. Is Israel priming the international community for a strike?
Gebran Bassil is not normally known for diplomatic elan.
In 2014 at the UN, he made an inappropriate gesture about a female aide when meeting with Emirati officials. More recently in Beirut he is reported to have called Lebanon’s house speaker a ‘thug’, which ignited tensions between Christians and Muslims here; and then there was the ‘Hardtalk’ TV interview.
And so the move by Bassil on October 1st to conduct a tour for diplomats of sites which Israel claims are used for Hezbollah weapons, was unexpected.
Israel’s prime minister had earlier taken centre stage at the UN assembly and, with diagrams, shown world leaders a number of locations both in Iran and Lebanon, which he claimed were weapons factories.
One location, in Tehran, a Euronews journalist visited and found it to be a rug cleaning business which social media seized upon to ridicule Netanyahu.
Lebanon, a country that Israel daily enters illegally with fighter jets – and which the UN can do nothing about – fought back.
This week the foreign minister took a posse of diplomats and journalists on a tour of the alleged sites as a way of showing the world that Israel’s disinformation has its limits.
The stunt raised more questions than answers and left experts divided. Many western journalists continued the narrative that an airstrike from Israel, or indeed a war, at some point was “inevitable”and that this latest coup de theatre of Netanyahu’s was proof that one was underway. But academics who have a better understanding of geopolitics, although agreeing on the idea of a strike, disagree over Israel’s longing to destroy Hezbollah.
“A second match (a sequel to the 2006 summer war) between Israel and Hezbollah is inevitable. The Israelis seem determined to neutralise Hezbollah’s missile capabilities,” says Dr Hilal Khashan of the American University of Beirut (AUB).
“War is more likely to break out after the end of the Syrian war. Israel has no intention of destroying Hezbollah. In fact, both Hamas and Hezbollah are useful for Zionist ideology that relies heavily on continuously identifying a foreign source of threat to the survival of Israel."
Given that an outright war with Hezbollah is also unthinkable in terms of implications – both in Lebanon and the region – Hezbollah’s weapons sites provide ample political fodder for Netanyahu, whether they are in Syria or Lebanon.
This argument however further enhances the theory that Israel will inevitably strike one of these such sites one day and it is preparing international support to justify such an attack.
The AUB academic also believes that the recent change in Syria – with Russia's S300 delivery now making it much harder for Israel to strike Hezbollah and Iranian positions – is also making Lebanon more of a target, although he believes Hezbollah’s restraint and calm will probably hold it back from a retaliatory strike.
But rather there might be a plan for a longer term and more sizeable military response.
"I do not think, however, that Russia’s installation of S-300 batteries in Syria will deter Israeli air attacks, which they can launch from relatively safe areas,” he adds.
“The Russian move in Syria has been calculated since they did not send the more lethal S-400 missiles...Hezbollah’s military options are quite limited because they understand the consequences of attacking Israel. Most likely they will repeat the cliched ‘reserve the right to retaliate at a time of our choosing’. The departure of Hezbollah and the IRGC from the Golan ceasefire line will make it extremely difficult for them to answer an Israeli attack even for face-saving purposes.”
And this is Netanyahu’s gamble: Hezbollah remaining the cooler, calmer ‘partner’ in the silent war.
But there are other issues. Russia, for example, may well not standby and allow such strikes given that Hezbollah is its ally in Syria and that Russia has investments in Lebanon in the energy sector.
“Such a scenario is always there,” argues Dr. Ali Bakeer, a geopoliticalanalyst, “and if Russia is serious about preventing further Israeli strikes against Iranian targets in Syria then Israel might shift the playground to Lebanon if Hezbollah managed to receive critical Iranian weapons via Syria.”
Even without Russian air support, it still represents a remarkable gamble from Netanyahu given that Hezbollah now has around 100,000 rockets of the latest technology from Iran, which are much more precise than those kept in 2006.
Hezbollah also has battle hardened fighters (from Syria) and now a new dynamic in Lebanon from the president, in that in a future war with Israel, the Lebanese army will not (like in2006) stand by, but rather engage with the enemy.
Not everyone agrees with the theory though of an ‘inevitable’ strike. Some believe the stakes are too high and, like western countries and the Soviet Union during the cold war, will not risk one.
But the Hezbollah weapons ‘threat’ both in Syria and in Lebanon is becoming more of a public relations subject with Israeli’s prime minister, given that Israel has been preparing for war with Hezbollah and has even taken steps on its border in preparation of one.
How then can Israel complain about the weapons capability of its enemy when it is in a state of war?
The Israeli allegations and threats don't exist in a vacuum, and Hezbollah’s leader contributed to triggering them. Last month, Hassan Nasrallah boasted that the Hezbollah had obtained "highly accurate" missiles, despite Israeli efforts to keep them out of reach.
Speaking to an impressive number of ambassadors on Monday, Bassil said that Nasrallah's statement, "doesn't mean that those missiles are present in the vicinity of Beirut airport."
He accused Israel of trying to "justify another aggression" against Lebanon by spouting"pure lies and that, "Lebanon will not accept the UN to be used as a platform to assault Lebanon."
He said this to ambassadors ahead of the tour of the locations, which also included a sports stadium and a factory producing toilet paper. Netanyahu claims that the sports ground had an underground weapons facility, although the group of 70 diplomats only found locker-rooms when they burrowed into the facility.