or Without Putin, Israel is Willing to Enforce Lebanon Redline
By David Makovsky
for Near East Policy
February 1, 2018
When Russian president Vladimir Putin hosted Israeli prime
minister Binyamin Netanyahu on January 29, they focused on the Syria war, much
as they have done in their numerous other recent meetings. Unexpectedly,
however, they also discussed potential Iranian weapons facilities in Lebanon,
which could transform rockets into precision-guided missiles capable of hitting
Israeli infrastructure and population centers. As Netanyahu told reporters after
the meeting, "The threat of accurate weapons from Lebanon is a major threat
to Israel and we will not accept it, and in this matter too, if we have to take
action, we will. "
Since Russia entered the Syria war in 2015, Netanyahu has
met with Putin seven times. Among the first issues they discussed was
establishing a deconfliction mechanism for their forces; subsequently, they have
ensured that Israel can operate against Iranian personnel and their proxies in
Syria as needed (namely, when they attempt to transfer strategic weapons
systems, operate too close to the Golan frontier, or otherwise pose a threat to
Israel). He has also sought Russian backing for a more general effort to curb
Iranian activity in the region. Moscow has not responded publicly to such
requests, however, and Netanyahu has been silent on the matter as well, saying
only that Israeli-Russian relations are "excellent" and that there is
convergence between them on key issues.
Netanyahu has also publicly raised the issue of Iranian
facilities in Lebanon before. In an August 28 meeting with UN secretary-general
Antonio Guterres, he spoke out against Iranian "entrenchment" in
Lebanon, including efforts to build missile-production sites there, stating,
"This is something Israel cannot accept. This is something the UN should
not accept." Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot offered
similar warnings about Iranian proxy Hezbollah in a January 30 speech, noting
that the group is breaking UN Security Council resolutions by maintaining a
military presence in restricted areas of Lebanon and improving its missile
When Iran established weapons facilities in Syria, Israel
reportedly responded last September by launching missiles at targets near the
western town of Masyaf. Yet despite conducting numerous strikes in Syria
throughout the war, Israel would face different challenges if it decided to
target Lebanon. Israeli officials say that Hezbollah possesses more than 100,000
rockets; this may be why they have avoided ordering airstrikes in Lebanon for
the past three years, only targeting Hezbollah weapons convoys on Syrian soil.
In August, outgoing air force commander Amir Eshel stated that Israel had struck
the group close to 100 times in the past five years, almost always in Syria.
Given Israel's apparent success in impeding Hezbollah weapons transfers from
Syria to Lebanon, Iran will likely try to establish production facilities in
Following Netanyahu's meeting with Putin, Israeli defense
minister Avigdor Liberman referred to the delicacy of striking Hezbollah inside
Lebanon, telling members of his Yisrael Beitenu Party, "We're operating all
political leverages, as well as others, to prevent missile manufacturing...The
last thing I'd want is for Israel to enter the Third Lebanon War. I think we
still have enough means at our disposal."
At the same time, IDF spokesman Ronen Manelis wrote a rare
Arabic article for Lebanese media outlets on January 28, warning readers that
they were paving the way for war by enabling Iran to turn their country into a
"pawn." In his view, Iran is no longer just transferring "arms,
funds, or consultation"—it has essentially "opened a new
branch" in Lebanon.
Thus far, Russia has offered no evidence of actively
constraining Hezbollah in Lebanon, but Netanyahu still seems keen on relaying a
message to the group and its Iranian patron via Moscow. He has also made his
warnings public through press statements in case Putin does not follow through,
apparently believing that such statements will set the predicate if Israel
decides to conduct strikes in Lebanon. As for the domestic political stakes of
going that route, the Israeli public tends to defer to military leaders on such
matters, trusting that they will take into account the potential ramifications
of retaliation and escalation.
One way or another, Netanyahu's statements make clear that
the threat of upgraded weapons-production facilities in Lebanon is a game
changer given their ability to equip Hezbollah with precision-guided missiles.
Therefore, the risk of escalation is very real if his conversations with Putin,
public warnings, and other potential diplomatic approaches fail to deter Iran.