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What's behind renewed war jitters in Israel, Lebanon?

The saber-rattling between Israel and Lebanon – which Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman extended to Syria – has created an atmosphere similar to the one that preceded Israel's 1982 invasion.

By Correspondent / February 4, 2010

Israel Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman warned Syrian President Bashar Assad Thursday that in an event of war with Israel, "not only will you lose the war, you and your family will no longer be in power."

Rafael Ben-Ari/Newscom/File

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Beirut, Lebanon

A renewed flurry of threats and warnings between Israeli officials and the leaders of Lebanon’s militant Shiite organization Hezbollah have sparked a serious bout of war jitters on both sides of the border which are also threatening to draw in other regional players. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman publicly warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad today that getting involved in a Lebanon-Israel conflict would result in the disintegration of his regime.

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Though Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu then sought to smooth Syria's feathers, reiterating his country's desire for restarting peace talks, tensions are running high over a possible conflict with its neighbors. Israeli leaders grumble about Hezbollah’s military build-up since their month-long war in July 2006 and warn of a massive blow against Lebanon in the event of another clash. Hezbollah’s leadership remains defiant, saying they’re ready for another confrontation and confident of victory against the Jewish state.

The saber-rattling from both sides is part of the relentless psychological war between the two bitter foes, and shows that tensions continue to exist despite the fact that the border between them has experienced its longest period of calm in more than four decades. The United Nations peacekeeping force in south Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, says there is no indication that another war is imminent.

“The most important part is the continued political will and commitment of the parties to maintain the cessation of hostilities,” says Milos Strugar, a senior advisor to UNIFIL. “In all our contacts with all sides this will and commitment is continually reinforced and strongly emphasized by everyone.”

Lebanon wants to preserve newfound stability

But the worries in Lebanon are heartfelt, particularly as the country is enjoying its first period of relative political stability in five years. In 2009 Lebanon received a record 1.9 million tourists, whose spending contributed about 20 percent of gross domestic product. Another calm summer could witness yet even greater numbers of tourists visiting this tiny Mediterranean country.

Ghazi Aridi, the transport minister, said recently that the atmosphere in Lebanon is similar to the period prior to Israel’s invasion in 1982 which was widely expected for months beforehand.

“Everyone has to work for enhancing national unity and preparing the ground to face any Israeli aggression,” he said in an interview with Lebanon’s Future Television.

Despite the jitters and the rhetoric from both sides of the border, neither Hezbollah nor Israel appear anxious to embark upon a new round of fighting. Analysts suggest that the spark for a new conflict could come from an incident along the border that flares out of control, such as a rocket attack into Israel. There have been seven isolated firings of short-range rockets into Israel since 2006, all of them suspected of being the work of either Al-Qaeda-affiliated factions or rogue Palestinian groups.

Another trigger factor: Iran

The other potential trigger factor is related to developments in Iran. A move by Israel or the West to attack Iranian nuclear facilities could result in a backlash along the Lebanon-Israel border, or a preemptive strike by Israel against Hezbollah. Some analysts suggest that Iranian leaders may seek to ignite a confrontation with Israel as a means of deflating mounting internal pressure against the regime in Tehran. While Hezbollah is ideologically and financially committed to Iran, the group’s leaders also are sensitive to the interests of their Lebanese Shiite support base, which is still recovering from the 2006 war and would not relish more destruction being visited on their families, homes and livelihoods.

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