Israeli officials are thrilled with the national security team that US President-elect Donald Trump is assembling. And they are right to be. The question now is how Israel should respond to the opportunity they present us with.
The one issue that brings together all of the top officials Trump has named so far to his national security team is Iran.
General John Kelly, whom Trump appointed Wednesday to serve as his secretary of homeland security warned about Iran’s infiltration of the US from Mexico and about Iran’s growing presence in Central and South America when he served as commander of the US’s Southern Command.
Gen. James Mattis, Trump’s pick to serve as Defense Secretary and Gen. Michael Flynn who he has tapped to serve as his national security advisor were both fired by outgoing President Barack Obama for their opposition to his nuclear diplomacy with Iran.
During his video address before the Saban Forum last weekend, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said that he looks forward to discussing Obama’s nuclear deal with the Iranian regime with Trump after his inauguration next month. Given that Netanyahu views Iran’s nuclear program — which the nuclear deal guaranteed would be operational in 14 years at most — as the most serious strategic threat facing Israel, it makes sense that he wishes to discuss the issue first.
But Netanyahu may be better advised to first address the conventional threat Iran poses to Israel, the US and the rest of the region in the aftermath of the nuclear deal.
There are two reasons to start with Iran’s conventional threat, rather than its nuclear program. First, Trump’s generals are reportedly more concerned about the strategic threat posed by Iran’s regional rise than by its nuclear program – at least in the immediate term.
Israel has a critical interest in aligning its priorities with those of the incoming Trump administration. The new administration presents Israel with the first chance it has had in 50 years to reshape its alliance with the US on firmer footing than it has stood on to date. The more Israel is able to develop joint strategies with the US for dealing with common threats, the firmer its alliance with the US and the stronger its regional posture will become.
The second reason it makes sense for Israel to begin its strategic discussions with the Trump administration by addressing Iran’s growing regional posture is because Iran’s hegemonic rise is a strategic threat to Israel. And at present, Israel lacks a strategy for dealing with it.
Our leaders today still describe Hezbollah with the same terms they used to describe it decade ago during the Second Lebanon War. They discuss Hezbollah’s massive missile and rocket arsenal. With 150,000 projectiles pointed at Israel, in a way it makes sense that Israel does this.
Just this week Israel reinforced the sense that Hezbollah is more or less the same organization it was ten years ago when — according to Syrian and Hezbollah reports — on Tuesday Israel bombed Syrian military installations outside Damascus.
Following the alleged bombing, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman told EU ambassadors that Israel is committed to preventing Hezbollah from transferring advanced weapons, including weapons of mass destruction from Syria to Lebanon. The underlying message is that having those weapons in Syria is not viewed as a direct threat to Israel.
Statements like Liberman’s also send the message that other than the prospect of weapons of mass destruction or precision missiles being stockpiled in Lebanon, Israel isn’t particularly concerned about what is happening in Lebanon.
These statements are unhelpful because they obfuscate the fact that Hezbollah is not the guerilla organization it was a decade ago.
Hezbollah has changed in four basic ways since the last war.
First, Hezbollah is no longer coy about the fact that it is an Iranian, rather than Lebanese organization. Since Iran’s Revolutionary Guards founded Hezbollah in Lebanon in 1983, the Iranians and Hezbollah terrorists alike have insisted that Hezbollah is an independent organization that simply enjoys warm relations with Iran.
But today, with Hezbollah forming the backbone of Iran’s operations in Syria, and increasingly prominent in Afghanistan and Iraq, neither side cares if the true nature of their relationship is recognized. For instance, recently Hezbollah commander Hassan Nasrallah bragged, “We’re open about the fact that Hezbollah’s budget, its income, its expenses, everything it eats and drinks, its weapons and rockets are from the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
What our enemies’ new openness tells us is that Israel must cease discussing Hezbollah and Iran as separate entities. Israel’s next war in Lebanon will not be with Hezbollah, or even with Lebanon. It will be with Iran.
This is not a semantic distinction. It is a strategic one. Making it will have a positive impact on how both Israel and the rest of the world understand the regional strategic reality facing Israel, the US and the rest of the nations of the Middle East.
The second way that Hezbollah is different today is that it is no longer a guerilla force. It is a regular maneuver army with a guerilla arm and a regional presence. Its arsenal is as deep as Iran’s arsenal. And at present at least, it operates under the protection of the Russian air force and air defense systems.
Hezbollah has deployed at least a thousand fighters to Iraq where they are fighting alongside Iranian forces and Shiite militia, which Hezbollah trains. Recent photographs of a Hezbollah column around Mosul showed that in addition to its advanced missiles, Hezbollah also fields an armored corps. Its armored platforms include M1A1 Abrams tanks and M-113 armored personnel carriers.
The footage from Iraq, along with footage from the military parade Hezbollah held last month in Syria, where its forces also showed off their M-113s makes clear that Hezbollah’s US-platform based maneuver force is not an aberration.
The significance of Hezbollah’s vastly expanded capabilities is clear. Nasrallah’s claims in recent years that in the next war his forces will stage a ground invasion of the Galilee and seek to seize Israeli border towns was not idle talk. Even worse, the open collaboration between Russia and Iran-Hezbollah in Syria, and their recent victories in Aleppo mean that there is no reason for Israel to assume that Hezbollah will only attack from Lebanon. There is a growing likelihood that Hezbollah will make its move from Syrian territory.
The third major change from 2006 is that like Iran, Hezbollah today is much richer than it was before Obama concluded the nuclear deal with the ayatollahs last year. The deal, which cancelled economic and trade sanctions on Iran has given the mullahs a massive infusion of cash.
Shortly after the sanctions were cancelled, the Iranians announced that they were increasing their military budget by 90 percent. Since Hezbollah officially received $200 million per year before sanctions were cancelled, the budget increase means that Hezbollah is now receiving some $400 million per year from Iran.
The final insight that Israel needs to base its strategic planning on is that a month and a half ago, Hezbollah-Iran swallowed Lebanon.
In late October, after a two and a half year fight, Saad Hariri and his Future movement caved to Iran and Hezbollah and agreed to support their puppet Michel Aoun in his bid for the Lebanese presidency.
True, Hariri was also elected to serve as Prime Minister. But his position is now devoid of power. Hariri cannot raise a finger without Nasrallah’s permission.
Aoun’s election doesn’t merely signal that Hariri caved. It signals that Saudi Arabia – which used the fight over Lebanon’s presidency as a way to block Iran’s completion of its takeover of the country – has lost the influence game to Iran. Taken together with Saudi ally Egyptian President Abdel Fatth a-Sisi’s announcement last week that he supports Syrian President Bashar Assad’s remaining in power, Aoun’s presidency shows that the Sunnis have accepted that Iran is now the dominant power in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
This brings us back to Hezbollah’s tank corps and the reconstruction of the US-Israel alliance. After the photos of the US’ armored vehicles in Hezbollah’s military columns were posted online, both Hezbollah and the Lebanese Armed Forces insisted that the weapons didn’t come from the LAF.
But there is no reason to believe them.
In 2006, the LAF provided Hezbollah with targeting information for its missiles and intelligence support. Today it must be assumed that in the next war, the LAF, and its entire arsenal will be placed at Hezbollah-Iran’s disposal. In 2016 alone, the US provided the LAF with $216 million in military assistance.
From Israel’s perspective, the most strategically significant aspect of Hezbollah-Iran’s uncontested dominance over all aspects of the Lebanese state is that while they control the country, they are not responsible for it.
Israeli commanders and politicians often insist that the IDF has deterred Hezbollah from attacking Israel. Israel’s deterrence, they claim is based on the credibility of our pledge to bomb the civilian buildings now housing Hezbollah rockets and missiles in the opening moments of the next conflict.
These claims are untrue, though. Since Hezbollah-Iran are not responsible for Lebanon despite the fact that they control it through their puppet government, Iranian and Hezbollah leaders won’t be held accountable if Israel razes south Lebanon in the next war. They will open the next war not to secure Lebanon, but to harm Israel. If Lebanon burns to the ground, it will be no sweat off their back.
The reason a new war hasn’t begun has nothing to do with the credibility of Israel’s threats. It has to do with Iran’s assessment of its interests. So long as the fighting goes on in Syria, it is hard to see Iran ordering Hezbollah to attack Israel. But as soon as it feels comfortable committing Hezbollah forces to a war with Israel, Iran will order it to open fire.
This then brings us back to the incoming Trump administration, and its assessment of the Iranian threat.
Trump’s national security appointments tell us that the 45th president intends to deal with the threat that Iran poses to the US and its interests. Israel must take advantage of this strategic opening to deal with the most dangerous conventional threat we face.
In our leaders’ conversations with Trump’s team they must make clear that the Iranian conventional threat stretches from Afghanistan to Israel and on to Latin America and Michigan. Whereas Israel will not fight Iran in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the Americas, it doesn’t expect the US to fight Iran in Lebanon. But at the same time, as both allies begin to roll back the Iranian threat, they should be operating from a joint strategic vision that secures the world from Iran’s conventional threat.
And once that it accomplished, the US and Israel can work together to deal with Iran’s nuclear program.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.