Why Did Israel Go for Hizballah’s Tunnels, Not Its Precision Missiles?

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu struck a high note when he first disclosed Hizballah’s secret precision missile sites near Beirut airport in a speech to the UN General Assembly on Sept. 27. He claimed the first site “was in the Ouzai neighborhood on the water’s edge, a few blocks away from the runway. The second site,” he said, “was under the Ahed Stadium,” and the third site was “adjacent to the airport itself, right next to it.”

“Israel knows where you’re doing it, and Israel will not let you get away with it,” he said.

However, after several weeks of inaction, the Prime Minister, while awarding outstanding performance certificates to Mossad personnel, on Dec. 6, sounded a less urgent note, when he remarked, “Hizballah has no more than just a few tens of precise missiles.”

On Dec. 11, Maj. Gen. Tamir Hayman, Director of Military Intelligence (AMAN), continued this downplay of the threat when he commented to a closed session of the Knesset Security Committee: “Hizballah doesn’t have the industrial capacity for upgrading and manufacturing precise missiles.” He did not go into detail on this shortcoming or refer to the 130,000 rockets and missiles stocked in the Hizballah arsenal, but his judgment backed up Netanyahu’s second evaluation and followed an attempt to defuse the threat by diplomacy

On Nov. 5, French President Emmanuel Macron’s special adviser Arelien Lechevallier – who visited Jerusalem at the same time as President Donald Trump’s special envoy on Syria, James Jeffrey – was entrusted with the mission of carrying a warning to Beirut that the Hizballah missile upgrade units must be shut down promptly, or else Israel would attack and destroy them.

Lechevalllier traveled to Beirut on Nov. 10 and handed Israel’s warning to Lebanese Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil, who passed it on to President Michel Aoun. The answer came back in one of Hassan Nasrallah’s harangues to his followers: “The path of the Resistance is decisive, strong and triumphant achieving historic victories,” he said. “Hizballah will unquestionably retaliate against any Israeli aggression against Lebanon. We are not afraid of any sanctions and will continue to hold on to our weapons and missiles.”

The next event in this war of words was Operation Northern Shield launched by the IDF on Dec. 4 for uncovering and neutralizing the tunnels Hizballah had run under the border into Israel. The precision missiles were set aside for blazing headlines on the tunnels. The Israeli government had abruptly switched focus from the high threat presented by the enemy’s precision-guided missiles to the tunnels which had been around and known to the IDF for some years, and none of which led to an outlet on the Israeli side of the border.

So why did the Netanyahu government choose to challenge Hizballah on its tunnels instead of its precise missiles and, further, reduce the provocative impact by confining the operation strictly to the Israeli side of the border?

DEBKA Weekly offers a three-part rationale for this curious decision:

1. There would be little sense in destroying the small missile upgrade workshopsin Lebanon while leaving the bigger factories Iran was building in Syria, when the former carried the high risk of triggering full-scale Lebanese-Israel war. Israeli strategists have furthermore opted to pause attacks on Iranian targets in Syria, including its precision missile factory, so long as the Israel Air Force is tied down by the Russian S-300 and S-400 air defense missiles deployed in Syria.

2. This limitation was emphasized only last week to the Israeli military delegation headed by Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva, Director of the IDF Operations Directorate, when they met their counterparts in Moscow at the Russian Defense Ministry and General Command. They discussed the terms of coordinated operations between the Israeli and Russian air force commands in Syria. But when it came to Lebanon, Moscow agreed only to advise Beirut to stick to the provisions of UN Security Resolution 1701 (that ended the Israeli-Hizballah war in 2006). This advice was an attempt by Moscow to keep relations between the Lebanese army and Hizballah in balance and restrain the former from taking orders on its operations from the latter..

On the assumption that Israel would not feel bound by Moscow in its actions against Hizballah, the Russians launched an exercise off the Syrian coast on Saturday Dec. 15 and placed the sector off limits to all air and shipping traffic. This step was taken in advance of the UN Security Council session the HIzballah tunnels opening on Wednesday, Dec. 19.

The next day, Dec. 16, the Israeli air force conducted several flights over the Lebanese-Syrian border, making the point that while it was free to fly over Lebanon it was avoiding infringing Syrian air space. This was the first time since Sept. 17, when the downing of a Russian spy plane sparked a crisis between Moscow and Israel, that Israeli warplanes had ventured into skies over northern and central Lebanon, when hitherto they had kept to the south.

That these flights went without any response from Moscow indicated that they had been coordinated with the Russian military running the exercise from the Khmeimim Air Base near Latakia.

3. The population in Israel is not ready to withstand a major conflict with Hizballah. Wide regions would be at risk if Hizballah carried out its threat to unleash an unprecedented barrage of 1,300-1,500 short- and medium-range rockets. The damage to industrial infrastructure and disruption of essential utilizes would precipitate an economic slowdown. This is to be prevented at all costs in an election year. The government’s serial crises in recent weeks may well bring forward the general election scheduled for November to May.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who assumed the defense miniser’s hat as well since earlier this month, along with the chief of staff Lt Gen. Gady Eisenkot and most of the IDF’s high command made the decision to step around an all-out conflict with Hizballah. But a substantial number of senior officers are convinced that delaying the assault on Hizballah’s precision missile capabilities at this time will cost dear in the long term even more than embarking on an all-out conflict in the present.

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