While speculation over a possible Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities intensifies, at least one influential analyst is calling on Washington to focus more on the likelihood of a new war breaking out between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia and how to prevent or contain it.
In his eight-page “Contingency Planning Memorandum” released last week by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), retired U.S. ambassador Daniel Kurtzer argued that Israel was more likely than Hezbollah to initiative hostilities and that it could “also use a conflict with Hezbollah as the catalyst and cover for an attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities.”
He also warned that, as in the 2006 war that was touched off by Hezbollah’s attack on an Israeli border patrol, “even small-scale military engagements with limited objectives can escalate into a major conflict” involving outside powers – notably Syria – with “significant implications for U.S. policy and interests in the region.”
“If the next Israeli-Hezbollah confrontation were to result in a sharp decline in Hezbollah’s military capabilities and was not accompanied by substantial civilian casualties or destruction of Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure, the result would be beneficial for U.S. interests,” he wrote. “However, such an outcome is slim.”
“The more likely unfolding of an Israeli-Hezbollah war would hold almost no positive consequences for the United States, which is focused on three Middle East priorities: trying to slow or stop Iran’s nuclear program, withdrawing combat troops from Iraq, and helping Middle East peace talks succeed,” according to his report, titled “A Third Lebanon War.”
In an e-mail exchange with IPS, the author, Kurtzer, who served as ambassador to both Israel and Egypt and specialized in the Middle East during a distinguished foreign-service career spanning three decades, stressed that he did not believe war was imminent, despite an escalation of rhetoric in recent months on both sides of the border.
“My time frame for the crisis to erupt was 12-18 months,” he wrote. “I don’t think the immediate term poses risks, but the situation could change or deteriorate rapidly and without much advance warning.”
Speculation about an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear program has grown in recent weeks, as both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his neoconservative allies have argued that recently adopted U.S. and international economic sanctions are unlikely to persuade Tehran to curb its nuclear program before it accumulates enough highly enriched uranium to manufacture a bomb.
In just the past week, since Netanyahu returned home from a summit with President Barack Obama, neoconservatives, who have been close to Netanyahu’s Likud Party since the early 1980s, have stepped up calls for Washington to provide support for Israel should it decide to carry out an eventual attack, or, better yet, for Washington to carry out its own.
Indeed, the cover story of this week’s Weekly Standard, a hard-line neoconservative publication headed by William Kristol, is titled “Should Israel Bomb Iran?” The story, by Reuel Marc Gerecht, who worked previously at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and is currently employed by another Likudist group, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) is subtitled “Better Safe Than Sorry.”
While Kurtzer’s study does not address the likelihood of such an attack, it argues that Hezbollah’s increasingly potent missile arsenal – much of it believed to be supplied by Iran, as well as Syria – and the security threat it poses to Israel may move policymakers in the Jewish state to “take preemptive military action.”
While it does not exclude the possibility that Hezbollah could launch an attack, possibly to unify its supporters, particularly after the passing of Shia cleric Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah or at the urging of an Iranian leadership eager to deflect international pressure on its nuclear program, the more likely scenario is for Israel to either initiate hostilities or “lure [Hezbollah] into a war to destroy capabilities that threaten Israel’s security,” according to Kurtzer, who also served as a key Middle East adviser to the Obama during his presidential campaign.
“The combination of … the size and quality of Hezbollah’s missile inventory; the possible acquisition of long-range, accurate missiles; and the possible upgrading of Hezbollah’s surface-to-air missile capability changes the equilibrium on the ground to an extent that Israel views as threatening,” according to the report. The report argues that Israel would likely exploit an “operational opportunity,” such as an attack against a convoy carrying long-range weapons or a storage facility in Lebanon or even in Syria that it claims Hezbollah is using.
The study noted that indicators and other warning signs of war are “already evident” and include an increase in anti-Israeli rhetoric on Hezbollah’s part and in official statements on Hezbollah from Israel – specifically, recent allegations that the group had acquired Scud missiles from Syria and that its fighters are being trained there in their use. It also pointed to heightened levels of Israeli military and civil-defense preparedness on the northern front.
If war breaks out, according to Kurtzer, Washington could suffer serious setbacks to its regional priorities, including a resumption of Syrian support for Iraqi insurgents in Iraq and the likelihood that U.S.-encouraged Arab-Israeli peace efforts would “enter another deep freeze.”
Washington’s capacity to prevent a war, according to the study, is “limited” given both Israel’s perception of the threat and the fact that Washington has no relations with Hezbollah or Iran and that Obama’s initial efforts to upgrade ties with Syria have largely stalled as a result of opposition by Republicans and the right-wing leadership of the so-called Israel Lobby.
Nonetheless, Kurtzer calls for Washington to upgrade U.S.-Israeli intelligence exchanges; reiterate U.S. support for Israel’s right of self-defense and concerns about Hezbollah’s rearmament; increase pressure on Syria to halt arms shipments to Hezbollah; support international monitoring efforts; and prepare both for the likelihood of war and its aftermath, including the possibility of launching a post-conflict diplomatic initiative to promote a broader Arab-Israeli peace process.
Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma, expressed disappointment that the study did not recommend a more assertive effort by Washington to push Netanyahu into negotiations with Syria over the occupied Golan Heights as a way of gaining Damascus’s cooperation in curbing arms supplies to Hezbollah.
“The study touches on settling the Golan issue only in passing, which is the core for Syria and could get to the root of the problem,” Landis, whose blog is widely read, told IPS. “It’s disheartening because it seems that such an august think-tank as CFR has given up on ending the Arab-Israeli conflict and is today reduced to recommending very smart methods to manage it.”
Kurtzer confirmed that, while Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “appears interesting again in negotiations [with Israel] … Netanyahu has shown no apparent interest. This could change, if progress stalls with the Palestinians or if the defense establishment [in Israel] persuades Netanyahu to switch his focus to Syria.”
(Inter Press Service)