Israel convinced next big threat is coming from Lebanese chaos

Israel is now mainly trying to get other countries to act and to counter-balance the attempts by Iran to play Lebanon’s savior


Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (L) talks with Cyprus foreign minister Nikos Christodoulides (R) during a Foreign Affairs Council meeting at the EU headquarters in Brussels on July 12, 2021. (Photo by JOHN THYS / AFP) (Photo by JOHN THYS/AFP via Getty Images)

Israeli diplomacy has taken an intriguing turn over the last two weeks under the new government, spearheaded by the two main partners in the coalition.

Last week, it was rightwing prime minister Naftali Bennett choosing a surprising destination for his first trip outside Israel’s borders, with a not-so-secret visit to Jordan’s King Abdullah in Amman.

It was surprising because the tone in relations between Israel and Jordan has been steadily deteriorating for years now, with proxies of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu pushing the line that “Jordan needs us much more than we need them”.

Mr Bennett’s people were quick to emphasise this week that while that may be true, there was absolutely no reason for Israel to rub the Jordanians’ face in it, and there was much more to be gained by a different approach. Which is why the prime minister, during his meeting with the king, offered on his own initiative to increase the amount of water Israel pumps from the Sea of Galilee to Jordan each summer. Unlike the rarely mentioned security cooperation between the two countries, “that’s water in the taps of the average Jordanian family. Something that they are all aware of,” says one Israeli official. And then there’s the goodwill created by the way the prime minister surprised the king by asking for the meeting at the start of his term. There’s now a chance that there may actually be a camera at their next meeting.

Then on Monday it was his coalition partner, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, head of the centre-left section of the new government. In a meeting in Brussels with the European Union Foreign Affairs Council, he bluntly told the foreign ministers present that while he was personally in favour of the two-state solution, “unfortunately there is no current plan for this”. Lapid explained in public and private that the political situation on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides meant that any serious negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians is not feasible right now and they shouldn’t expect surprise meetings between Mr Bennett and President Mahmoud Abbas as there is little that can be achieved.

In private, Mr Lapid urged them to focus on what Israeli security officials believe is an imminent threat to the region’s security — the deepening political crisis and economic meltdown in Lebanon.

“Right now, Lebanon’s our most immediate concern,” said an Israeli diplomat this week. “Especially as there’s very little Israel can do to influence matters there and we’ve seen in the past how easily internal strife in Lebanon can suck us in.” Beyond monitoring the situation and preparing contingency plans, Israel is now mainly trying to get other countries to act and to counter-balance the attempts by Iran to play Lebanon’s savior.

Lebanese PR

This week just happened to be the fifteenth anniversary of the outbreak of the Second Lebanon War between Israel and Hezbollah. The next Lebanon crisis however would likely pull in many more actors.

Last week Defence Minister Benny Gantz made a formal offer of aid to Lebanon, writing on Twitter that “as an Israeli, a Jew and a human, my heart aches at the sight of hungry people in the streets.” It was mainly a PR gesture as there’s no way in which Lebanon under its current divided leadership could countenance receiving aid from the Zionist enemy. But Israel’s fear of Lebanon imploding is very real. The various scenarios range from bad, as in Hezbollah and its Iranian patrons deepening their hold on the country, to very bad – an attempt by Hezbollah to assert its “resistance” status and divert attention from the country’s woes by launching an attack on Israel.

In a preemptive psychological warfare strike against such an eventuality, the IDF indulged on Wednesday in its own form of Twitter diplomacy, by tweeting the coordinates and then surveillance footage of what it claims is a hidden Hezbollah weapons warehouse across the road from a school in the village of Ebba in southern Lebanon.

There are a number of reasons for this intelligence reveal. First, to disrupt Hezbollah’s plans and let them know Israel is watching closely. Second, to try and motivate the international community, especially the UNIFIL force stationed in south Lebanon, to pressure Hezbollah to adhere to UN Resolution 1701 which forbids it from storing weapons in the area. Third, to drive home the message that Hezbollah is endangering the Lebanese civilians it claims to be protecting. There’s also an attempt by Israel to try and build in advance a narrative which will somehow justify, in case of another war with , the inevitable civilian casualties when Israel bombs this and hundreds of weapon locations like it.

Playing Games

As the pandemic becomes largely the problem of the unvaccinated and those suffering from weak immune systems, armies are back in international business, especially air forces, which when they don’t have wars to fight carry out exercises with their allies. The Israeli Air Force and the Royal Air Force are on their second honeymoon together. They need a second one because when they began flying together a few years ago, the two governments were still in the old habit of not disclosing their cooperation, for fear of angering Arab allies. That fear has all but disappeared and the politicians and generals in Israel and Britain are eager to acknowledge how close they’ve become. “Britain after Brexit is much more open about what we’re doing together,” says an Israeli officer. “They are much more flexible with their alliances.”

Two weeks ago, over the skies of the Negev, Israeli, American and British F-35 Lightning stealth fighters took part in a joint exercise. The British planes had taken off from the new Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier, which was then in the eastern Mediterranean. An RAF Voyager tanker flew from Nevatim base. In the photographs released, the silvery-gray aircraft all looked the same. It was hard to distinguish between the tiny stars of David and the RAF roundels. Using the same kit increases the intimacy between the two militaries.

Next week, another joint exercise is to take place, this time at Palmachim base, Israel’s main hub for drone operations. For the first time, American, British and Israeli drone operators will be openly conducting exercises, learning from each other’s experience in the skies above Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and Gaza. As the threats in the region evolve, joint UK-Israeli operations, unthinkable since the Suez debacle in 1956, are no longer out of the question.

Ancient and modern

Just in time for Tisha b’Av, when Jews around the world will mark 1951 years since the destruction of Jerusalem, Israel’s archaeologists have announced a series of finds shedding new light on the ancient Jewish kingdoms. In Jerusalem, they found a section of the city’s wall from the First Temple period. Under the Western Wall plaza, a hitherto unknown VIP longue, just by the entrance to the Second Temple’s entrance was discovered.

A dig near Kiryat Gat came up with a 3,100 year-old pottery shard inscribed with the name Yeruba’al, the popular name of biblical judge Gideon ben Yoash. Could it have belonged to him?

These new finds raise as many questions as they solve. The near intact state in which the 2,500 year-old wall was found would seem to contradict the biblical account of how the conquering Babylonians razed the walls of Jerusalem when they destroyed the First Temple. The two tricliniums and the elaborate fountain between them indicate that the moneyed class in 1st Century Jerusalem were not afraid of ostentatious displays of wealth in one of the city’s most public spaces.

But as Dr Shlomit Weksler-Bdolach, the director of the dig, points out, the fancy hospitality suite seems to have lasted only about twenty years before it was remodelled as a massive mikve (ritual bath), the waters of the fountain being used instead by pilgrims to the temple to purify themselves. The mikve didn’t last that long either as by 70CE the Roman legions destroyed the temple and whole area was filled with massive piles of rubble that have covered it until now.

Since there is nothing about these buildings in the contemporary historic sources, we can only conjecture today over what made the Jews of Jerusalem make such a drastic change in the use of a prime piece of real estate.

Was it the result of a political struggle between the secular Romanised upper-classes and their more devout fellow-Jerusalemites? That kind of struggle would be so familiar to those living in Jerusalem today.

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