What the Latest Israel-Hizballah Skirmish Really Means

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Like a few million other Israelis, the first thing I checked on Thursday morning was whether we were at war.

We’re not—for now. Israeli forces did not act against Hizballah or Syrian targets overnight—even though, on Wednesday, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had said: “Those behind today’s attack will pay the full price.”

Wednesday’s attack involved Hizballah’s firing from Syria of antitank missiles at two Israeli military vehicles in the Galilee, and of mortars at the Mt. Hermon ski site on the Israeli Golan Heights. Two soldiers in the vehicles were killed and seven were lightly wounded. All civilian visitors had to be evacuated from the Mt. Hermon site, where there were no casualties.

Hizballah’s attack came in retaliation for an Israel missile strike on January 18 against two vehicles of the Iran-Syria-Hizballah axis on the Syrian part of the Golan Heights. Along with others, that attack killed two major Hizballah commanders along with an Iranian general who was advising the Syrian army.

Another case of typical, tit-for-tat, cross-border violence between Israel and its foes? The U.S. State Department related to it that way, with spokeswoman Jen Psaki saying: “We support Israel’s legitimate right to self-defense” and adding: “We urge all parties to refrain from any action that could escalate the situation.”

Actually, though, there is much more here than might meet the eye in a superficial glance.

Although it is not clear to what extent Israel knew the identities of those in the vehicles it hit on January 18—and particularly if it knew that the Iranian general was one of them—that attack threw into sharp relief the fact that Iran’s axis is trying to open a front against Israel from Syrian territory.

This is particularly striking if, like me, you read a lot of analyses that say the “last thing” Hizballah now needs is a military entanglement with Israel.

Hizballah has long been heavily involved in the Syrian civil war on the Assad regime’s side, losing hundreds of fighters. It is also embattled within its home base of Lebanon where, as an offshoot of the Syrian chaos, radical Sunni militias are gaining ground.

And yet, embroiled as it already is, Hizballah is in fact—with Iran, of course, pulling the strings—doing exactly what it supposedly doesn’t need, that is, trying to open another front with Israel.

Even more indicative of this is the fact that Wednesday’s attack could have been a lot worse than it was. If, instead of the two soldiers who were killed, the casualty toll among the soldiers in the vehicles—or, for that matter, among the civilians in the Mt. Hermon area—had been higher, Israel would not now be in a gray area regarding its next move.

It would have had to react, fast, and another Middle Eastern war might now be on the TV screens.

And the only thing that explains this greater boldness by the Iranian axis is Iran’s ongoing strategic successes as it keeps building its strategic weaponry and expanding its power in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and, most recently and dramatically, Yemen, where Iran’s proxy, the Houthi militia, appears poised to take over the country.

And these developments, in turn, cannot be divorced from the general climate of appeasement and even “détente” with Iran now being pursued by the Obama administration and its Western allies.

When the achievement of a highly problematic nuclear agreement with Iran is made the supreme goal, when all other Iranian behavior is ignored, when Iran correctly perceives that its Western interlocutors are deluded and unserious about its belligerence, the result is—what we now see unfolding in the region.

And this situation, in turn, sheds light on Netanyahu’s breach of protocol, and preparedness to offend the Obama administration, in agreeing to address a Republican-dominated Congress on March 3 without first smoothing out the matter with the administration.

An increasingly confident and belligerent Iran and an imminent deal that will leave Iran a threshold nuclear power are matters of existential weight for Israel. Iran’s latest public call to “wipe out the Zionist regime” came just this week. Of course it’s preferable, as much as possible, for Israel and the Obama administration to get along—but that, too, cannot come at any price.

Whether or not the present cross-border tensions between Israel and the Iranian axis stand to escalate, the situation in the region has already gravely escalated. Israel’s first order of business is to stop Hizballah from opening an anti-Israeli Syrian front in addition to its already-existing Lebanese front. Its larger task is to survive, and to ally itself with those who are both sympathetic and attuned to reality.

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