The late Shimon Peres, Israel’s former president and prime minister, wasn’t very fond of his country’s intelligence agencies. Peres used to mock the agency chiefs for failing to correctly identify crucial developments in the Middle East. He would have smiled earlier this month, when it turned out that Israeli intelligence had once again been taken by surprise. This time, they missed the latest developments in Lebanon, beginning with the bombshell resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri under pressure from Saudi Arabia.
Two Israeli cabinet members confirmed that the government had no idea about Hariri’s plans: “To be fair, neither did the Americans or anybody else, for that matter,” one minister told me.
Israel initially supported Hariri’s resignation and blamed Iran for meddling with Lebanese affairs — a set of talking points which was remarkably similar to the official Saudi line. But those first public statements masked considerable Israeli confusion about Saudi Arabia’s recent moves. Soon after Hariri’s resignation, Israeli ministers stopped addressing the crisis publicly. The Israelis are aware that Hariri’s move was coerced by the Saudis, but are still having a hard time figuring what Riyadh’s game plan is.
On Thursday, a Saudi newspaper published a rare interview with Israeli military chief Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot that confirmed that basic Israeli line. Eizenkot confirmed that the Saudis and Israelis see eye-to-eye when it comes to Tehran, describing Iran as the “largest threat to the region.” But he also poured cold water on the prospect that a confrontation between Hezbollah and Israel was imminent, saying “I don’t see a high chance for this at the moment.”
Both military and academic experts in Israel tend to explain the Saudis’ sudden burst of activity as an effort by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to consolidate power domestically and show strength across the region, where he is intent on curbing Iranian influence. But the Israelis are wondering whether the 32-year-old prince is up for such an ambitious agenda: He has, after all, not only removed Hariri and arrested dozens of Saudi princes and businessmen accused of corruption, but is also attempting to isolate Qatar, pressuring Egypt over the details of the Palestinian reconciliation agreement, and confronting zealous Saudi clerics at home.
Israeli generals in particular are suspicious of the Saudis’ military capabilities.“They have money, but they don’t have actual significant hard power,” said one senior military official. “They were only willing to fight in the periphery of the campaign against [the Islamic State] and have failed miserably in the Yemen war. It’s amazing for us to see how slowly they’ve adapted to dealing with guerilla warfare.”
Since Salman’s series of surprise moves, some analysts have suggested that the Saudis, with the Israeli government’s consent, are intentionally pushing Israel and Hezbollah to another military confrontation. Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah was quick to pick up on the notion of a secret Zionist-Wahhabi conspiracy to destroy Lebanon in his speech last Friday, but the idea that Israel is colluding in Saudi’s recent moves remains far-fetched. It is true that both Saudi Arabia and Israel are now on the same side when it comes to blocking Iranian influence; some Israeli analysts even joke that Israel has unofficially become a moderate Sunni state. But there is still a long way from shared interests to an Israeli prime minister agreeing to risk soldiers’ lives in a war about which little could be definitively said beyond that it would result in Saudi political gains.
History also argues against a joint Saudi-Israeli war to alter Lebanon’s political order. Israel has tried and failed in the past to force political arrangements on Lebanon — most famously with Ariel Sharon’s 1982 war against the Palestine Liberation Organization. The Saudis, meanwhile, have twice been disappointed by Israel’s refusal to militarily intervene on their behalf — first by not bombing Iran’s nuclear sites and then by refraining from actively supporting Sunni rebel groups in their fight against the Assad regime during the Syrian war.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has always been extremely risk-averse when it comes to foreign entanglements. In almost 12 years in office, he has only initiated two operations in the Gaza Strip — one of which was rather limited in scope — and only after he was directly provoked by Hamas. By comparison, his predecessor Ehud Olmert went to war in Lebanon in 2006, in Gaza in 2008, and managed to bomb a Syrian nuclear plant in between.
It is hard to imagine Netanyahu, who only once has acknowledged the dozens of Israeli air force strikes against Hezbollah’s weapon convoys in Syria, now deserting all caution and doing the Saudis’ bidding. If Hezbollah does not want war at this stage, why should Israel initiate one now? A war of choice is always an extremely delicate issue in the Israeli political arena — and with Netanyahu already facing enormous pressure because of his legal troubles, he would have to be uncharacteristically careless to choose such a path.
The fact that neither Israel nor Hezbollah are planning to launch a war, of course, is no guarantee that a conflict will not occur. Israel constantly seems two mistakes away from war in both Lebanon and Gaza. The prospect of an accidental war in Lebanon is the scenario the army is practicing for and what Israeli officials repeatedly brief their American counterparts about. But the Israelis are also aware of the consequences of another conflict in Lebanon: unprecedented devastation on the home front as a result of a massive rocket campaign by Hezbollah against both the civilian population and strategic infrastructure. In response, Israel would probably hit Lebanese state infrastructure, hoping to force Hezbollah to stop — and therefore risk criticism from the international community. Israeli officials have increasingly equated Lebanese state institutions with Hezbollah: Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman recently said that Lebanon’s army has become a wing of the militant group.
The greatest threat to stability on Israel’s borders right now isn’t Saudi Arabia’s plotting, but Iran’s attempts to solidify its military power in Syria. In the last few weeks, Netanyahu and Lieberman repeatedly warned that they will not allow the Iranians to build military bases in Syria or deploy Shiite militias close to Israel’s border on the Golan Heights. These are Israel’s new red lines in Syria — and here, more than in Lebanon, may be the place where a new serious military conflict may begin.