Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu is Playing a Dangerous Game With Iranian Allies. What if He Loses?

Photo illustration by Picturebox Creative for Newsweek; Photo of Netanyahu by Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty

With Israel's recent attacks against Iranian proxy forces in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has significantly widened his war against Tehran. He's also lifted the veil from the covert conflict in advance of Israel's elections, scheduled for September 17.

But with Israel's September 1 exchanges of fire across the Lebanese border with Iran-backed Hezbollah forces—only the second such encounter since the two sides fought a month-long war in 2006—analysts warn Israel and Hezbollah are risking an escalation in fighting that could erupt into an all-out war.

The latest cross-border fighting broke out when Hezbollah fired anti-tank missiles into northern Israel, making good on its threat to retaliate for an Israeli airstrike in Syria on August 24 that killed two Hezbollah commanders. Israel responded with several artillery salvos against Hezbollah strongholds in southern Lebanon. While Hezbollah claimed its missile hit an Israeli tank, causing casualties, an Israeli military spokesman said the missiles targeted a military ambulance and resulted in no casualties.

Netanyahu says the attacks are meant to show Israel will respond to Iranian threats via its proxy forces, from wherever they emanate. Israel is particularly concerned with Iranian efforts to supply Hezbollah with the technology to produce its own arsenal of precision-guided missiles that can hit strategic military and civilian infrastructure inside Israel. But Israeli observers say the country's leader, who faces possible indictment for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, also is counting on the attacks to draw attention away from his legal troubles.

It's a dangerous game, current and former U.S. officials say. The Israeli leader could spark a wider war that could not only sink his chances for reelection but also endanger U.S. troops in the Middle East—at a time when President Donald Trump is hoping to sit down with the Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, to negotiate a peace deal.

"These Israeli attacks are something that could get out of hand," Ambassador Dennis Ross, a former Middle East adviser to both Republican and Democratic administrations, said. "It would be folly to think there's no risk. Even if you think you can control it, the truth is, all it takes is the wrong target being hit, and you've lost control of it."

Until recently, Israel waged its war against Iranian proxies mostly in the shadows, refusing to confirm or deny some 1,000 airstrikes over the past six years against Iranian missile stores in Syria, where Tehran's Revolutionary Guard Corps have been trying to establish a new front against the Jewish state.

Hezbollah, Iran's Lebanese proxy militia, turned a blind eye to Israel's attacks inside Syria, where it has been fighting alongside Syrian and Iranian forces in that country's eight-year civil war. The reasoning: Remembering the widespread devastation that Israel caused to Lebanon's infrastructure during the 2006 war, Hezbollah, which also holds seats in the Lebanese parliament, felt it was more prudent to respond only if its own fighters were killed or if Israel hit Hezbollah targets in Lebanon. Netanyahu, who also sought to avoid another war, steered clear of Hezbollah.

But on August 24, just a few weeks before Israel's elections, the game changed and Netanyahu broke his tacit understanding with Hezbollah.

Israel took credit for an airstrike on a building in Aqraba, southeast of Damascus, from which, Israel claimed, Iranian forces were about to launch a drone attack. The Israeli army said the building served as a storehouse for drones and explosives that had been sent from Iran. Two Hezbollah members were killed. Hours later, another attack took place when a drone hit a Hezbollah building in Beirut. A Hezbollah spokesman said there was "a massive explosion and severe damage" to the group's media center. A second drone fell into Hezbollah hands before its 12-pound explosive payload could detonate. So far, Israel has said nothing about the Beirut attack, but the Israel daily Haaretz reported that the drones had targeted a critical part of Hezbollah's missile program.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah blamed Israel for both attacks and vowed revenge. "I say to the Israeli soldiers on the border, you should fear our response, starting tonight," he said.

The recent exchange of fire was limited, suggesting both sides want to avoid a wider war. Though Israel fired some 100 shells into southern Lebanon, they landed in empty fields, causing no casualties.

But Nasrallah has vowed to retaliate separately for the Beirut attack, possibly setting the stage for what could become a wider conflict that could damage Netanyahu's reelection prospects and put U.S. forces in the region in danger. According to U.S. officials, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has passed messages to Netanyahu and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri urging restraint. But Netanyahu has already inflamed matters by claiming credit for some of the latest attacks, says Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East adviser to six secretaries of state.

"It certainly bolsters Netanyahu's image as Mr. Security," Miller said. "But there's a very fine line between playing that game and turning it into a major confrontation with Hezbollah that could ultimately doom any chance of his reelection."

Miller added: "Netanyahu has got to be extremely careful. Because if Hezbollah responds and it's deadly, two things are going to happen: Netanyahu is going to be blamed... and he'll get into an escalation with Hezbollah. You don't want that. They've got a lot of rockets, and Netanyahu has no way to keep them in the ground without a major air and ground operation."

Meanwhile, a third attack took place on August 25 that could directly affect the 5,000 U.S. troops still in Iraq. A drone struck a convoy inside Iraq near the border with Syria, killing, among others, a senior commander of Iraq's pro-Iranian Popular Mobilization forces. Earlier, Netanyahu warned that any country that allows its territory to be used to attack Israel will suffer. "If someone rises up to kill you, kill him first," he tweeted, quoting a well-known saying from the Talmud.

The coffin of a victim of an August 25 airstrike in Beirut attributed to Israel. AFP/Getty

Though Israel hasn't confirmed or denied responsibility, it drew strong condemnation from the pro-Iranian Fateh Alliance, a coalition of Shiite political parties and militias which accused the U.S. of conspiring with Israel and demanded the total withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

"While we reserve the right to respond to these Zionist attacks, we hold the international coalition, particularly the U.S., fully responsible for this aggression, which we consider a declaration of war," the alliance said, according to the Associated Press.

Further complicating the situation are the Trump administration's mixed responses to Israel's attacks. First, Pompeo said he supported "Israel's right to defend itself from threats posed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps." But then the Pentagon, apparently fearing an attack on U.S. forces in Iraq by pro-Iranian Iraqi militias, issued a statement that denied any U.S. involvement in the convoy attack, as well as a July attack on an Iraqi ammunition storehouse, which U.S. officials also blamed on Israel.

"We support Iraqi sovereignty and have repeatedly spoken out against any potential actions by external actors inciting violence in Iraq," Defense Department spokesman Jonathan R. Hoffman said. "As guests of Iraq, U.S. forces operate at the invitation of the Iraqi government and comply with all laws and directions."
Miller, now vice president of the Wilson Center, a Washington think tank, said what makes the current situation so dangerous is that Israel's operations took place in air space controlled by the U.S. "You can understand why the Pentagon is so upset," he said. "The last thing they want, with 5,000 American troops deployed in Iraq, is a response against American forces by pro-Iranian militias."

Meanwhile, Trump is hoping for a sit-down with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to resolve the tensions over Trump's unilateral withdrawal last year from the landmark 2015 agreement to curb Tehran's nuclear program. Netanyahu opposes such a meeting, analysts say, concerned that if it takes place, Israeli voters are likely to blame Netanyahu for mismanaging the Israel-U.S. relationship.

But are more attacks, however risky, Netanyahu's road to re-election?

"He seems to believe that any security developments that take place up until the coming election will serve him in the end," said Mazal Mualem, a columnist for the Middle East news site, Al-Monitor. "So he is prepared to take the kinds of actions that could entangle Israel in the kind of war that he has successfully avoided until now."

Correction (9/5 11.48 a.m.): An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the September 1 exchange of fire was the first encounter between Israel and Iran-backed Hezbollah forces since 2006. It was the second such incident.