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Israel's Lebanon border operation seen as a political move by embattled Netanyahu

Natasha Turak
Israeli forces this week launched an operation to destroy what the country's government says are Hezbollah tunnels crossing into Israeli territory from Lebanon. But critics say the timing and publicity stem from Prime Minister Netanyahu's desire to distract from weeks of negative press.

Israeli forces this week launched a major operation to destroy what the country's government says are Hezbollah tunnels crossing into Israeli territory from Lebanon.

Part of what's been dubbed Operation Northern Shield, the operation is a culmination of several years of searching for the Lebanese militant group's underground passageways, which Israel's military has been trying to locate since 2014. Israel says Hezbollah dug the tunnels as a means of attacking civilians if another war erupts between the two countries.

But despite the discovery adding new clarity to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's previous warnings of undisclosed security threats, the operation is unlikely to lead to escalation, regional experts say. Rather, many suspect Netanyahu has publicized the operation in order to boost his popularity ahead of elections and divert attention from damning corruption allegations brought against him in recent months and weeks.


'Miscalculations' possible

The discovery is significant because while Israel has found numerous tunnels dug by Palestinian militant group Hamas from Gaza, this is the first public revelation of a tunnel — 200 meters long and 25 meters deep — into Israel built by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah.

But while the operation will have political and security implications for both Lebanon and Israel, the situation is unlikely to escalate, experts at political risk consultancy Eurasia Group say.

"A major escalation between Israel and Hezbollah remains unlikely and is only slightly affected by the Israeli operation along the border," Eurasia said in an analyst report published Wednesday. "Both Israel and Hezbollah share a strong interest in avoiding conflict."

The two sides have amassed significant deterrent capability since the Second Lebanese War in 2006, which saw more than a thousand people killed in the span of a month. Israel estimates that the Shia militant group has accumulated around 150,000 missiles and rockets, which would enable it to incur far more damage on Israeli territory than it could have a decade ago.

And Israel has expanded its military doctrine to allow immediately deploying "overwhelming" military force in the event of a conflict with Hezbollah, meaning much more destructive and protracted fighting than in previous years.

Hezbollah, designated by the U.S. as a terrorist organization, is considered Lebanon's most powerful political party and militant group and wields heavy influence in the religiously diverse country.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri tweeted on Thursday that "developments in the southern Lebanon border are no reason for escalation," adding that his government was committed to UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 war.

But missteps are entirely possible, said Greg Shapland, an associate fellow at Chatham House and former Middle East analyst for the U.K.'s Foreign Commonwealth Office.

"Will the situation escalate? Neither side has an interest in letting it do so but there's always the danger of miscalculation — so yes, it could."


Political motivations?

Meanwhile, Netanyahu has come under some scrutiny for the timing and publicity of the announcement, which his critics say stems from his desire to distract from weeks of negative press. Local newspaper Haaretz and opposition politicians have called it "Operation Netanyahu Shield."

"I think the IDF activity on the border with Lebanon is dictated by military need, not by politics," Shapland said. "But the extent of the media coverage of that activity is dictated by Netanyahu's political calculations. He needs to divert attention from his domestic problems, both political and legal."

Soon to become Israel's longest-running head of state and well-loved by many Israelis for his aggressive stance on security, Netanyahu has come under fire for a raft of corruption allegations. On Sunday, Israeli police recommended his indictment on fraud and bribery charges in what's now the third corruption case pending against him. He has denied the charges.

The prime minister also faced a barrage of domestic criticism after agreeing to a cease-fire with Gaza's Hamas militants in mid-November that proved highly unpopular and prompted the resignation of Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Netanyahu justified the cease-fire by stressing that there were military threats elsewhere of greater urgency than Gaza and that warranted more IDF attention, but said at the time he could not disclose what those threats were. According to Shapland, "Publicizing what the IDF is doing on the border with Lebanon is part of that PR effort."

Eurasia made a similar assessment. "Instead of batting away concerns about Gaza and corruption, Netanyahu can focus on Hezbollah, Lebanon, and Iran, playing to his strength as the so-called Mr. Security."

While Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party has enjoyed growing popularity and elections are scheduled for late 2019, Eurasia believes the Israeli leader will call early elections in the spring before potential indictments and while his support is still strong. Netanyahu has said that if indicted, he will still run for re-election and not step down.