Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman pushed the Lebanese government into the arms of Hezbollah when he launched his menace against Lebanon’s oil and gas resources during his talk at the think-tank Institute for National Security Studies’ (INSS) 11th Annual International conference in Tel Aviv. Lieberman’s request for international energy companies not to bid on the Lebanese offshore oil and gas exploration Tender Block 9 gave no chance for the Lebanese government but to stand behind Hezbollah’s superior missile capabilities to create a balance with this Israeli threat, that is taken very seriously in Beirut.
What can Hezbollah do?
Israel disagrees over a 300 square mile triangular area of the Mediterranean that extends along the edge of the three Blocks (8,9,10), and in particular Blocks (mainly) 8 and 9 – considered the richest of all – bordering the Lebanese and Israeli territorial waters. In December, the Lebanese government approved the licenses of a consortium including the French Total, the Italian ENI and the Russian Novatek, to begin the offshore oil and gas exploration tender for two of five blocks, including block 9. This blocks 8 and 9 are contiguous to both Israel’s Tamar and Leviathan fields, creating unease among Israeli officials who would rather keep the entire field for themselves.
Although the international consortium is expected to begin its exploratory drilling in 2019, Lebanon has been defending its right over its water territory for many years without a clear stand from the United Nations, invited to take an official stand in drawing the maritime limits on the Israeli-Lebanese borders. Officially speaking, Lebanon feels fragile faced with the Israeli threat due to the lack of Lebanese Army military capability to confront the superior Israeli standing armaments. This is where and how the Israeli officials continue to push the Lebanese government towards the only non-state actor capable of defending or at least creating a balance of terror with Israel: the Lebanese Hezbollah. The same Israeli officials continue promoting fear among the Israeli population as they talk about Hezbollah’s military capabilities. Israel’s media and military officials estimate that Hezbollah’s short, medium and long-range missiles number between 100,000 to 150,000, with a fighting force of 50,000 militants. Moreover, the Hezbollah missiles’ capability is becoming much more accurate, capable of hitting targets within 1-5 metres accuracy.
Iran is inevitably supplying its Hezbollah partner in Lebanon with solid-fuel missiles of the latest generation and Syria is not be withholding its accurate and destructive anti-ship Yakhont from Hezbollah who have been actively supporting the government of Damascus during the long years of war in Syria. In addition, Iran tested last year its “Sumar” cruise missile, hinting that Hezbollah may have many surprises to reveal in the next war with Israel, apparently without necessarily looking to provoke it. Obviously, Hezbollah doesn’t need missiles with a range superior to 350-400 km range. Therefore, it can’t be ruled out that Iran is manufacturing missiles with more destructive warheads and bigger explosives (with a reduced range) to fit Hezbollah’s needs in case of war with Israel.
These somewhat scary Hezbollah weaponry capabilities and its outstanding fighting experience – gathered in Syria during years of practising various tactics in attacks (rather than defence), in urban, desert and open warfare – make Hezbollah a regional force to be taken seriously. It is obvious that – when the US and EU refrain from providing the Lebanese Army with necessary means equal to or better than the ones of Hezbollah – the Lebanese government will take advantage of this formidable force on its side and use it to stop Israel’s maritime expansion towards Lebanese waters.
What Lieberman – and many other Israeli military and political officials – are actually doing is to push the Lebanese government into the arms of Hezbollah to seek its protection, thereby increasing rather than decreasing its power and influence in the Middle East. Hezbollah – thanks to the Israeli continuous war of words– represents security and comfort to the Lebanese population (and not just to the Shia)- the only buoy to hold on to defend its “Block 9” waters. Moreover, Lieberman is only injecting more fear among the Israeli population by continuously raising awareness of the threat of Hezbollah. Hezbollah has already responded on many occasions, bringing out the possibility of hitting the Haifa Ammonia stores and its Dimona nuclear reactors, which could kill thousands of Israelis.
Some questions remain unanswered: Can the Iron Dome, Arrow and David Sling interceptor batteries deployed throughout Israel cope with thousands of rockets and dozens of M-600, “Sumar” and “Yakhont” missiles fired almost simultaneously against military and civilian targets? Can Israel afford the shutting down of its harbours and ports even if the US rushes to help bomb Hezbollah and Lebanon? Is the internal front ready to face another war when the present concentration is on rebuilding the economy?
When Lieberman argues that “Lebanese will be in the shelter like the Israelis in Tel Aviv in the next war”, he is missing the fundamental point that no shelters exist in Lebanon. This makes it necessary for the Lebanese, government and population to rally behind their only defender: Hezbollah, the only capable group with enough means to respond to any Israeli attack, and equipped to hit anywhere in Israel.
What Lieberman has managed to do is to inject more fear into the hearts of Israelis, and give another opportunity for Hezbollah to prove the need for its existence and continuity. He is aligning the Lebanese government behind a non-state actor asking for protection, and is showing Israel’s incapability to deal with the lasting threat on its borders. It is a manifestation of weakness rather than strength, particularly since Lieberman was not even asked about Block 9 during his comments at the INSS. He volunteered this information thereby stirring up a storm which will certainly overflow from this teacup. Israel is already the loser, and Hezbollah could be the winner.
Hezbollah can confidently rely on the threats from more Israeli officials which will push the Lebanese government into realising just how important it is to safeguard Hezbollah’s presence and continuity.