IDF soldier on northern border. Both Israel, Hezbollah are trying to shape the 'rules of the game'
Photo: Avihu Shapira
Former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy
Photo: Gilad Kavalerchik
There is a striking resemblance between the way Israel's leaders and its enemies' leaders on the northern front express themselves, both in terms of the nature of the conflict and in some of the techniques used by the sides as they go along.
Both Israel and Hezbollah engaged last month in attempts to shape the "rules of the game" along the line separating between Israel and Syria in the Golan Heights, as well in narrative changes which both sides needed.
Several days before the incident which left Jihad Mughniyeh and an Iranian general dead, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah stated that his organization was no present in the Golan Heights. When six Hezbollah members were killed in the incident, the organization failed to deny that its people were active there. What Hezbollah was trying to conceal had been exposed. Hezbollah and the Iranians responded to the operation separately, each promising revenge.
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Israel's conduct was more complicated in the first stages. Israel did not claim responsibility for the assassination, although the conditions of its execution in broad daylight made it difficult to conceal the operators' identity. It seemed that Israel had originally aspired to "contain" the incident by denying its involvement, apparently hoping to prevent an additional deterioration that way.
But this is where two goals became more complicated: The first goal was to "contain" the incident vis-à-vis Hezbollah and the Iranians, and the second goal was to encourage the Israeli public. At first, a senior Israeli official was quoted as saying that Israel was unaware of the Iranian's presence at the site, but several days later the defense minister ruled that the general's assassination was essential.
And then came the Mount Dov incident which left two Givati fighters dead. This incident prompted Nasrallah to deliver an elaborate speech in which he created an analogy between the Golan Heights and Mount Dov incidents: They both occurred in broad daylight, they both achieved goals, and therefore the two fronts – the Golan Heights and southern Lebanon – are one.
He also declared that he was not eager to go to war at this time, but that if a war would be forced on Hezbollah, he was prepared for it and believed he would win. Nasrallah basically sought to declare that Israel and Lebanon are currently in a state of mutual deterrence.
At this stage, Israel allegedly adopted a different tactic. It declared that would not accept Nasrallah's formula that southern Lebanon and the Golan Heights share the same fate, and that it would therefore continue its work to prevent Hezbollah and the Iranians from taking hold of the Golan.
This was joined, however, by two additional moves, which are likely the significant moves as far as Jerusalem is concerned: The government spokespeople made sure to stress last week that the leaders of Syria and Lebanon were responsible for everything taking place on the other side, while the prime minister and defense minister ruled over the weekend that the main generator of the latest round was Iran, as part of the escalating comprehensive conflict between Jerusalem and Tehran. The rest were not even mentioned.
The Iranian government's senior ranks, which are analyzing the events of the recent weeks and the clear statements in Israel, may be concluding that Israel has decided to challenge Iran. The definition given to the assassination of the Iranian general cannot be interpreted in any other way. Indeed, the Iranians are saying that they have an open account with Israel and plan to settle the score.
I am not certain that there was a "look before you leap" consideration in Jerusalem, but this is the outcome right now. A military conflict between Israel and Iran on Syrian soil, if it indeed happens, will start off with favorable conditions for Israel. Iran is inferior to Israel in many strategic aspects, and a crushing defeat in Syria may critically affect its regional and international status.
But Israel will also have to take Russia's stance regarding such a war into account, as Russia is involved in the Syrian crisis through a massive supply of weapons and extensive presence on the ground. Serious security and diplomatic American backing will be more crucial than ever for the Israeli government.
These considerations may cause Israel to favor the "containment" of the recent conflict, which Nasrallah is interested in too. But "containment" is always a temporary cure.
Efraim Halevy is a former Mossad chief.