With the next election around the corner, the Israeli prime minister is manufacturing a conflict with Hezbollah to distract from his other failures
The Israeli military this week launched an open-ended operation to destroy what it called a network of “attack tunnels” built by the Lebanese movement Hezbollah, despite the government declining to identify exactly how many had been detected or how they would be destroyed.
For the past several years, according to the Israeli official narrative, the prospect of Hamas fighters emerging from tunnels armed with automatic weapons, grenades and missiles to take civilians hostage, has been the nightmare of every Israeli living adjacent to the besieged Gaza Strip. Now, the government is hyping the same threat among communities located on the Lebanese border.
“The Israeli army has launched Operation Northern Shield in order to neutralise terrorist tunnels from Lebanon,” explained Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “We are proud of the commanders and soldiers of our army who are carrying out complex operations … Anyone who attempts to harm Israel will pay a high price.”
Fire and brimstone
Naturally, analysts, pundits and even Israeli military officials have taken to the airwaves to warn of the probability of another Israel-Lebanon confrontation, which would be the first since the deadly and disastrous 2006 war.
These warnings of fire, brimstone and pending doom, however, miss the proverbial forest for the trees. Israel, and much less Netanyahu, don’t seek a war with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, and these tunnels do not pose an existential threat to Israel’s security.
At best, or in what would constitute a worst-case scenario for Israel, a mere dozen or two Hezbollah fighters could pop up from these tunnels, and then “spread out, take key positions and begin employing snipers and anti-tank missiles” against the Israeli army before being killed relatively quickly.
It’s no coincidence that Netanyahu’s anti-tunnel operation was launched just two days after Israeli police recommended he be indicted for bribery, fraud and other charges
Moreover, Netanyahu has described these tunnels as a "violation of Israeli sovereignty”. If this is the case, why has he ordered the military to attack these tunnels only on the Israeli side of the border? Since when hasn’t Israel responded to an attack on its soil with overwhelming and often disproportionate actions?
It could easily destroy the lion’s share of this tunnel infrastructure on the Lebanese side of the border, without worrying about Hezbollah dragging itself into a conflict it is not fully willing to fight, given its ongoing commitments to the Assad regime in Syria.
Ultimately, Operation Northern Shield is a cynical marketing gimmick - one meant, by design, to shield only one individual: the Israeli prime minister.
‘Operation Netanyahu Shield’
Yoel Hasson, an opposition member in the Israeli parliament, asked: “Is this Operation Northern Shield or Operation Netanyahu Shield?”
Even the Israeli public, one that is often easily swayed by warnings of cataclysmic doom, is not buying what Netanyahu is selling, with a poll showing 58 percent of voters believe the prime minister is over-hyping “security concerns” in an effort to stave off elections and keep his fragile hold on power.
It’s no coincidence that Netanyahu’s anti-tunnel operation was launched just two days after Israeli police recommended he be indicted for bribery, fraud and other charges, accusing him of “trading regulatory favours for fawning news coverage” - possibly the most damaging corruption charges against him.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech at the start of Hanukkah on 2 December (AFP)
Prominent Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avineri told The New York Times that while the tunnels constitute a “legitimate” concern, it’s “overshadowed by the fact that it’s been exaggerated, presented as a bit more than it is and working for the benefit of Netanyahu politically. Everything has to be deconstructed in terms of the election campaign.”
Saleh al-Naami, a specialist in Israeli affairs, was more assertive in his analysis, describing Netanyahu’s anti-tunnel operation as a “propaganda” stunt meant only to distract and divert attention from his failed covert operation in Gaza last month.
The politics of fear
Netanyahu has spent his entire public career weaponising the politics of fear. Whenever he faces headwinds in the polls, particularly as elections draw near, Netanyahu has used Palestinians, Iran, African migrants and Hezbollah as props in his effort to mobilise support for him and/or his government.
One only has to recall how he resorted to blatant and shameless race-baiting to pull off a come-from-behind victory in the 2015 election, as he warned: “Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves.”
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When his Likud Party was hammered in the 1992 election, Netanyahu sought to consolidate his hold on the party by hyping up the threat of Iran, warning then that Tehran was “three to five years” away from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
This is who Netanyahu is - a cynical, opportunistic politician who profits by capitalising on the Israeli public’s innermost fears. With the next election around the corner, he sees a manufactured, phoney war with Hezbollah as a way out of his political mire.
- CJ Werleman is an opinion writer for Salon, Alternet, and the author of Crucifying America and God Hates You. Hate Him Back. Follow him on Twitter: @cjwerleman
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Israeli soldiers gather at the Lebanon-Israel border wall, near an Israeli excavation site for reported cross-border Hezbollah-dug tunnels on 5 December (AFP)