December 6, 2018 — Jerusalem, Israel
By Eran Lerman
For some four years, a massive Hezbollah project to build tunnels penetrating into Israeli territory has been a well-kept secret. Chiseled through rock, not burrowed through the alluvial soil of Gaza, they were designed not for a quick in-and-out abduction or murder raid, but rather for the insertion into the Galilee of significant numbers of troops from the Radwan unit—Hezbollah's special forces—and possibly foreign Shi'a fighters as well.
Hasan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's longtime leader, has often bragged in recent years that in the next war, his organization would carry out plans to conquer the Galilee, but he never elaborated on the methods he had in mind. He managed to keep things under wraps even though quite a number of operatives must have been involved. The Lebanese government – and UNIFIL, which should have detected the extensive earthworks being carried out right under their noses – were kept totally in the dark. (One prominent Lebanese leader, Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri, spoke of "alleged tunnels," which gives rise to the question just how "alleged" a physical object can be.)
On the Israeli side, too, secrecy had to be maintained for years. Destruction of such tunnels is not the kind of operation that can be immediately launched upon detection of suspected underground activity: to be successful, it must be based upon very detailed and comprehensive intelligence sources, always maintaining the element of surprise. Indeed, the nature of this intelligence was so sensitive that at least one senior officer – Brigadier General Dror Shalom, head of the Research and Analysis Division at the Directorate of Military intelligence – reportedly dissented from the view of his commanders in the crucial cabinet debate on November 7 this year, apparently fearing that premature action would give away sensitive sources. (This type of open-mindedness is an honorable IDF tradition, but a less honorable though persistent tradition involves leaks from the top about the details of cabinet discussions). Shalom was overruled, however, by the DMI and the Chief of Staff, who felt Israel could wait no longer, and once the necessary preparations were made, the operation was launched in the early hours of December 4.
It is a sad comment on the present state of Israeli public discourse that the cynics were immediately out in force. Was the Prime Minister using the rising tension in the north to deflect attention from police findings in an investigation that could lead to his (and his wife’s) indictment in a new scandal – this time involving (once again) a bid to influence media coverage in return for irregular regulatory decisions, during a period when he was also acting as Minister of Communications?
This "wag the dog" construct is in theory plausible, and not only for those obsessed with conspiracy theories. But in a country like Israel it would have been utterly impossible for any politician to take such a decision based on his personal interests, unless the key players in the defense establishment were fully convinced that the national interest also requires it at this time.
More cogently, questions were raised not about the why or even when, but rather about the "how" – the high public profile of the operation, which is, in essence, an engineering project carried out within (or rather, under) Israeli territory. The argument was that Netanyahu, who now serves as Defense Minister as well, wanted the credit for a major action to go to himself. Moreover – as he himself admitted – he was looking for ways to justify, retroactively, his decision to avoid an all-out confrontation with Hamas in Gaza, despite the prolonged suffering of the Israeli residents in the adjacent areas, who saw a barrage of rockets aimed at them, after the plagues of fire kites and explosive balloons.
U.S., European Support for Israel
However, this was not simply an excuse: it was a true reflection of Israel's order of priorities. While the actions taken at this stage are indeed technical, the possibility exists that they may require a crossing of the border, or that an unplanned incident could occur that would ignite an extensive clash with Hezbollah, the Lebanese Army, Iranians, Iranian proxies, and perhaps even what is left of the Syrian Army. Thus the IDF must be on a war footing, even if the actual likelihood that Hezbollah will launch rockets in response to the loss of their tunnels remains quite low.
The operation, which may last for weeks, requires a sustained framework of support by key international players. It may seem unnecessary: after all, it would be sheer chutzpah for Lebanon to complain about Israeli actions aimed at destroying a project which itself stands in total breach of both Israeli sovereignty and of UNSCR 1701, but stranger things have happened at the UN over the years.
This concern was apparently at the core of Netanyahu's urgent meeting with Secretary of State Pompeo in Brussels a day before the operation was launched. The U.S. has indeed given its blessing, with National Security Advisor Bolton castigating Hezbollah. Condemnations came also from Germany and other European states that don’t always support Israel in such matters. Even the Russian Embassy in Israel was authorized to tweet in support of Israel's right to defend herself. Still, much of this support could dissipate almost overnight "in the realm of the unexpected." The road so far has been smooth, perhaps because Lebanon is again agonizing over a political crisis that has prevented the creation of a cabinet, but there is no guarantee that it will not become bumpier. American and European backing will continue to be necessary.
Questionable UN Guarantees
Still, an unpleasant truth has resurfaced, one that Israelis are quite aware of but is still all too often forgotten by others in the international community (not, mercifully, by Nikki Haley, who last year roundly castigated UNIFIL's Irish commander at the time, Major General Beary, for failing to speak the truth): it is utterly useless for Israel to rely on any sort of UN guarantees for the security of the nation and its citizens. Back in 2006, I wrote (working for AJC) a warning: UNSCR 1701, which ended the Second Lebanon War, was the farthest any Israeli government had ever gone toward relying on multilateral action in the region. For the nation’s leaders at the time – Olmert, Peretz, Livni, and Peres – this seemed a reasonable choice.
But the verdict is in now on the utility of that resolution, and of the much enlarged and empowered UNIFIL it created. It is mathematical in nature. Eight to ten times as many rockets are now in the hands of Hezbollah (which the Resolution was supposed to see disarmed) than they had in 2006. The number of actions taken by UNIFIL to deny transfers of weapons, let alone to venture out and discover what Hezbollah was doing right under their noses – including the tunnels – is one round zero. Anyone who suggests that, in the context of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, we should put our security and trust in the hands of some "robust" UN-mandated international presence should bear this sad outcome in mind.
Eran Lerman is the former deputy for foreign policy and international affairs at the National Security Council in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office. Prior to that, he served as director of AJC Jerusalem.