In 2006 I reported on the war in Lebanon, where for virtually the first time in its history the Israel Defense Forces, the IDF, realized that it was not infallible and invincible.
Not that the war was a defeat for Israel – its military is stronger than most of its neighbours combined – but its generals suddenly realized that they did not have carte blanche in the region.
Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia armed and trained by Iran, inflicted serious numbers of casualties and amounts of damage, and while southern Lebanon was devastated by the Israelis and the Lebanese people were once again the victims, the game had changed. As one senior IDF staff officer said to me afterwards, "This must never be allowed to happen again."
Israel's response at the time was initially to send in groups of Special Forces, backed by fleets of attack helicopters. They didn't use the strength that they were capable of, and they were certainly less than efficient. Their intelligence was flawed, they had no idea how well trained and dug-in Hezbollah soldiers were, and they were over-confident. Allowing troops to take cell phones with them into Lebanon, for example, was absurdly slack.
The next war in the north will likely involve prolonged artillery attacks followed by massive infantry and tank infiltration. It will not be pretty. And it's likely to happen sooner rather than later, and directly or indirectly involve Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and even Russia.
Reasserting Israeli authority
There are several factors to consider. First, in September, IDF's Northern Command conducted its largest military exercise in 20 years, involving tens of thousands of troops, tanks, aircraft and even the navy. Such planning takes an incredibly large amount of time and the manoeuvres themselves are extraordinarily costly.
The imagined enemy was Hezbollah. Israel has also attacked Syrian positions several times in recent months, partly to remind Damascus who is the boss of the block, but also to test how they will respond. Syria has always regarded Lebanon as a virtual province and Israel is determined to teach it — and Hezbollah — a lesson, and to reassert its authority.
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Second, the Sunni superpower of Saudi Arabia is in an increasingly hot war with the Shia world and in particular, Iran. Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is heir to the throne and while young, he is the effective ruler of the country. He's economically progressive, internationally connected and determined to modernize the country and also have it throw its weight around.
The civil war in Yemen, for example, is now almost three years old and had led to the deaths of at least 5,000 civilians, many of them children. Saudi Arabia backs the government, in particular with its air force, while Iran supports the Houthi rebels.
Signs of conflict
The country's involvement in Lebanon is less direct, but equally evident. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who also holds Saudi citizenship, travelled to Saudi recently where he denounced Iranian manipulation of his country and then resigned. Bin Salman has called for all Saudi citizens to leave Lebanon, which is generally an ominous warning of imminent conflict. The Saudis have also demanded that Hezbollah disarm; they will never do so of course, and the Lebanese security forces do not have the will or the ability to force them. But it is a further formal, legal prerequisite for a possible state of war.
Israel and Saudi could never form a tangible and open alliance, but they are doubtless in contact. If Lebanon were attacked by Saudi Arabia, it would provide Israel with the perfect opportunity to bring Hezbollah to account.
Several of the IDF's senior commanders have recently been replaced, including the head of the Intelligence Corps – a vital role for such an operation. A Saudi intervention would also deal with the Syrian threat, with Damascus now having the most battle-hardened army in the region due to the war against ISIS.
One of the reasons that Arab armies have fared so badly against the Israelis over the years is that they were trained more to oppress their own people than to fight foreign enemies of similar strength. Syria's military is nowhere near as well armed as Israel's, but it now has troops that will not be easy to defeat.
As for Iran itself, at one time it was the U.S. pressuring Israel and Saudi Arabia to hold back. But times have changed and the superpower now calling for peace is Russia, which enjoys a warm friendship with both Iran and Israel. But Moscow has implied that it's Iran, and by extension Syria, who it regards as its closer partner, and that's something that Israel cannot ignore. Russia won't send troops to fight Israel but it could well arm Iran, which in turn will arm its allies in southern Lebanon.
But those concerns aside, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under strong domestic pressure and drenched in scandal, and nothing distracts more effectively than a war against a despised enemy. Hezbollah fits that bill perfectly. Middle Eastern politics makes for strange bedfellows. Always has, always will.