Escalating regional tensions or fabricating the basis for military adventures has become a common feature of Israeli politics whenever a general election is near. The same tactic was used repeatedly by several Israeli governments since the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords, in order to avoid landmark pull-outs from occupied Palestinian territories as a first step towards the Palestinians establishing their own independent state.
For sitting Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the challenge is not just to win the elections due to be held 17 September, in order to confirm his record as Israel’s longest serving premier. The veteran politician already failed to form a government upon winning the latest round of voting in April, leading the Israeli parliament to dissolve itself, the first such failure in Israel’s short history since its creation in 1948.
To make matters worse for the right-wing Likud Party leader, Netanyahu also faces very serious corruption charges, and failing to win elections in two weeks might land him somewhere else than the cabinet’s headquarters. The fate of former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, who ended up in jail over similar corruption charges after leaving office, is certainly a looming nightmare for Netanyahu.
However, the threat posed by Netanyahu’s military adventurism in recent weeks is going far beyond a limited tactic to win elections, and might easily develop into a wide-scale regional war under to banner of standing up to “the Iranian threat”.
In one week, the Israeli prime minister admitted responsibility for bombing locations in Iraq that belong to a pro-Iranian militia, claiming that Tehran has moved advanced missiles to that militia, possibly to target Israel. A few days later, Israeli warplanes bombed Hizbullah fighters based near Damascus to support Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, killing two, as well as targeting another location that belonged to a Palestinian faction inside Lebanon. An Israeli drone strike also damaged Hizbullah infrastructure in a Beirut suburb that’s known as the headquarters of the pro-Iranian Lebanese militia.
Hizbullah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, vowed to retaliate to the Israeli attacks, and on Sunday ordered his soldiers to hit an Israeli post along the border between Lebanon and Israel. The Israeli army fired back a barrage of missiles. Luckily enough, both sides appeared eager to let the hostilities subside just as quickly as they had begun.
Yet, there is no guarantee in the volatile Middle East region that the situation cannot get out of hand, especially when Israel is pushing back more assertively, and often openly, against what it claims is an Iranian threat to its security. Israel was among a few countries in the world to hail the unilateral decision by US President Donald Trump to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal signed between Iran and the former US administration of president Barack Obama, along with five other major world powers — Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany and the European Union.
When French President Emmanuel Macron sought to de-escalate the growing confrontation between Washington and Tehran during the recent G7 meeting in France, by seeking to coordinate a summit between Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the Israeli media reported that Netanyahu freaked out, and unsuccessfully tried to reach Trump by phone in order to persuade him not to approve such a proposal.
Netanyahu is clearly obsessed with his own political future, but it cannot be accepted by all parties concerned with the situation in the Middle East that the price for that is to push the entire region to an extremely dangerous war that will not be limited to one front, and will likely involve Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and the oil-rich Gulf region.
Meanwhile, Hizbullah must also recognise that the situation in Lebanon is fragile, and that its relationship with Iran should not take priority over Lebanon’s security. Therefore, any moves by Hizbullah to counter Netanyahu’s military adventures must be coordinated with other Lebanese institutions, topped with by president and the prime minister. So far, the majority of Lebanon’s diverse parties and groups have stood up against Israel’s disregard of Lebanon’s sovereignty and repeated violations of its airspace. However, a prevailing conviction is that neither Lebanon nor the entire region can risk a major military confrontation.
Netanyahu recently warned Hizbullah leader Nasrallah that he needs to “calm down”. The Israeli prime minister must recognise that he also needs to “calm down” and that winning upcoming elections cannot come at the expense of the entire region.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: War and electioneering