Friday, January 30, 2015

The best of enemies - New ‘rules of the game’ are emerging on the Golan

If Hezbollah and Israel avert a major confrontation of the kind that took place in summer 2006, it would show that both sides still have an enduring tendency to accept “rules of the game” to govern their contentious relationship.

In the aftermath of Hezbollah’s attack on Wednesday, which led to the death of two Israeli soldiers, many in Lebanon held their breath. Would this be a repeat of the last war between Israel and the party, which significantly reduced the number of Hezbollah attacks against Israeli forces? Apparently not, as both sides interpreted the latest operation against Israeli troops in the context of a longstanding “deterrence dialogue” and avoided a major conflagration.

According to reports on Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth website, Hezbollah sent a message to Israel via the UNIFIL commander, Maj.-Gen. Luciano Portolano, saying that it did not seek an escalation. It described the attack as an “eye for an eye” — retaliation for Israel’s killing two weeks ago of Hezbollah members and Iranians, including a senior Revolutionary Guards commander, Mohammed Allahdadi, near Quneitra in the Golan Heights.

The Israeli attack near Quneitra was regarded as a transgression of “red lines” in the relationship between Israel and Hezbollah — and beyond that Israel and Iran. Allahdadi was not engaged in anti-Israel activity. While he could have been planning it, preemptive strikes are outside the unwritten rules of the game between Israel and Hezbollah. Subsequent reports that the general was being tracked through his cell phone suggested his was a targeted killing.

According to unconfirmed media reports, Israel, realizing the implications of its actions, anticipated a response and was prepared to absorb it. That it did not engage in massive retaliation after the Hezbollah attack, unlike Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government nine years ago, may indicate that these reports were true.

The details of Hezbollah’s operation are worth examining. The party conducted it near Ghajar. Ghajar is a predominantly Alawite village on the western edges of the Israeli-occupied Golan. Half the village is inside Lebanese territory. By attacking there, Hezbollah was playing on the ambiguities of the place, even as the party sought to reaffirm that it had opened a new front on the Golan.

Iran and Hezbollah have revived tensions on the Golan for several reasons: In order to conduct periodic attacks against Israel, after these were more or less suspended following the 2006 Lebanon war. In that way Iran could maintain pressure on Israel at a time of continuing Israeli threats against its nuclear program.

Hezbollah, in turn, saw an opportunity to hit Israel while simultaneously shielding Lebanon, in particular the Shiite community, from Israeli retaliation. And Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria, while it may not be happy with the Golan being transformed into an Iranian card, sees advantages in maintaining instability there. It reminds Israel that things were good under the Assads, who ensured the plateau was the quietest of Israel’s borders — a message especially useful for Assad’s political survival.

Israel immediately grasped the implications, and while it has said it would not allow the Golan to be turned into a new line of confrontation, there is not much it can do. After all, it was the Israelis who first opened a Syria front against Hezbollah by bombing weapons shipments to the party passing through the country. More likely, Israel will accept a low level of violence as it did in the Shebaa Farms area before 2006, and will think twice before engaging in preemptive actions or targeting Iranian figures in the future.

Nor is such tolerance new. In 1996 the Israelis agreed to what was known as the April Understanding, an informal agreement that governed Hezbollah-Israel combat in southern Lebanon. The understanding was designed, primarily, to limit civilian casualties, but its implications greatly transcended this.

Negotiated by the United States, the agreement effectively legitimized Hezbollah’s resistance to Israel and put the party on par with a state, imposing rules that Israel would come to accept. On several occasions, for instance, when Israel violated the understanding by hitting civilian areas, its leaders abided Hezbollah retaliation targeting Israeli civilians.

Not surprisingly, after the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 Hezbollah viewed the April Understanding as a model of sorts, its spirit to be replicated in other contexts. The Golan has provided them with such an opportunity. Israel may not be happy with the consequences, but its willingness to absorb the killing of two soldiers on Wednesday apparently shows a different face.

Rules of the game, no matter how deadly, have the advantage of providing predictability. Moreover, at a time when the United States is looking to normalize relations with Iran, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu benefits from showing to the world that Iran and its allies continue to threaten Israel.

Hezbollah can delight in what happened on Wednesday. It engaged in brinksmanship, and apparently pulled it off. Netanyahu warned of a new Gaza in Lebanon, but his focus was on containment. The rules on the Golan are still being defined, but Hezbollah took a step closer in imposing a new reality on Israel that its leaders had said they would not accept.  

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