WASHINGTON - While speculation over a possible Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear
facilities intensifies, at least one influential analyst here is calling on
Washington to focus more on the likelihood of a new war breaking out between
Israel and Lebanon's Hezbollah militia and how to prevent or contain it.
In his eight-page "Contingency Planning Memorandum" released last week by the
Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), US ambassador Daniel Kurtzer (retired)
argued that Israel was more likely than Hezbollah to initiate hostilities and
that it could "also use a conflict with Hezbollah as the catalyst and cover for
an attack against Iran's nuclear facilities".
He also warned that, as in the 2006 war that was touched off by
Hezbollah's attack on an Israeli border patrol, "even small-scale military
engagements with limited objectives can escalate into a major conflict"
involving outside powers - notably Syria - with "significant implications for
US policy and interests in the region."
"If the next Israeli-Hezbollah confrontation were to result in a sharp decline
in Hezbollah's military capabilities and was not accompanied by substantial
civilian casualties or destruction of Lebanon's civilian infrastructure, the
result would be beneficial for US interests," he wrote. "However, such an
outcome is slim."
"The more likely unfolding of an Israeli-Hezbollah war would hold almost no
positive consequences for the United States, which is focused on three Middle
East priorities: trying to slow or stop Iran's nuclear program, withdrawing
combat troops from Iraq, and helping Middle East peace talks succeed,"
according to his report, entitled "A Third Lebanon War".
In an e-mail exchange with Inter Press Service (IPS), the author, Kurtzer, who
served as ambassador to both Israel and Egypt and specialized in the Middle
East during a distinguished foreign-service career spanning three decades,
stressed that he did not believe war was imminent, despite an escalation of
rhetoric in recent months on both sides of the border.
"My timeframe for the crisis to erupt was 12-18 months," he wrote. "I don't
think the immediate term poses risks, but the situation could change or
deteriorate rapidly and without much advance warning."
Speculation about an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear program has grown in
recent weeks, as both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his
neo-conservative allies here have argued that recently adopted US and
international economic sanctions are unlikely to persuade Tehran to curb its
nuclear program before it accumulates enough highly enriched uranium to
manufacture a bomb.
In just the past week, since Netanyahu returned home from a summit in
Washington with President Barack Obama, neo-conservatives, who have been close
to Netanyahu's Likud Party since the early 1980s, have stepped up calls for
Washington to provide support for Israel should it decide to carry out an
eventual attack, or, better yet, to carry out its own.
Indeed, the cover story of this weeks Weekly Standard, a hardline
neo-conservative publication headed by William Kristol, is entitled "Should
Israel Bomb Iran?". The story, by Reuel Marc Gerecht, who worked previously at
the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and is currently employed by another
Likudist group, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) is sub-titled
"Better Safe Than Sorry".
While Kurtzer's study does not address the likelihood of such an attack, it
argues that Hezbollah's increasingly potent missile arsenal - much of it
believed to be supplied by Iran, as well as Syria - and the security threat it
poses to Israel may move policymakers in the Jewish state to "take preemptive
While it does not exclude the possibility that Hezbollah could launch an
attack, possibly to unify its supporters, particularly after the passing of
Shi'ite cleric Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah or at the urging of an Iranian
leadership eager to deflect international pressure on its nuclear program, the
more likely scenario is for Israel to either initiate hostilities or "lure
[Hezbollah] into a war to destroy capabilities that threaten Israel's
security," according to Kurtzer, who also served as a key Middle East adviser
to the Obama during his presidential campaign.
"The combination of the size and quality of Hezbollah's missile inventory; the
possible acquisition of long-range, accurate missiles; and the possible
upgrading of Hezbollah's surface-to-air missile capability changes the
equilibrium on the ground to an extent that Israel views as threatening,"
according to the report. The report argues that Israel would likely exploit an
"operational opportunity", such as an attack against a convoy carrying
long-range weapons or a storage facility in Lebanon or even in Syria that it
claims Hezbollah is using.
The study noted that indicators and other warning signs of war are "already
evident" and include an increase in anti-Israeli rhetoric on Hezbollah's part
and in official statements on Hezbollah from Israel - specifically, recent
allegations that the group had acquired Scud missiles from Syria and that its
fighters are being trained there in their use. It also pointed to heightened
levels of Israeli military and civil-defense preparedness on the northern
If war breaks out, according to Kurtzer, Washington could suffer serious
setbacks to its regional priorities, including a resumption of Syrian support
for Iraqi insurgents in Iraq and the likelihood that US-encouraged Arab-Israeli
peace efforts would "enter another deep freeze".
Washington's capacity to prevent a war, according to the study, is "limited"
given both Israel's perception of the threat and the fact that Washington has
no relations with Hezbollah or Iran and that Obama's initial efforts to upgrade
ties with Syria have largely stalled as a result of opposition by Republicans
and the right-wing leadership of the so-called Israel Lobby.
Nonetheless, Kurtzer calls for Washington to upgrade US-Israeli intelligence
exchanges; reiterate US support for Israel's right of self-defense and concerns
about Hezbollah's re-armament; increase pressure on Syria to halt arms
shipments to Hezbollah; support international monitoring efforts; and prepare
both for the likelihood of war and its aftermath, including the possibility of
launching a post-conflict diplomatic initiative to promote a broader
Arab-Israeli peace process.
Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma, expressed
disappointment that the study did not recommend a more assertive effort by
Washington to push Netanyahu into negotiations with Syria over the occupied
Golan Heights as a way of gaining Damascus' cooperation in curbing arms
supplies to Hezbollah.
"The study touches on settling the Golan issue only in passing, which is the
core for Syria and could get to the root of the problem," Landis, whose
www.syriacomment.com blog is widely read here, told IPS. "It's disheartening
because it seems that such an august think tank as CFR has given up on ending
the Arab-Israeli conflict and is today reduced to recommending very smart
methods to manage it."
Kurtzer confirmed that, while Syrian President Bashir al-Assad "appears
interesting again in negotiations [with Israel], Netanyahu has shown no
apparent interest. This could change, if progress stalls with the Palestinians
or if the defense establishment [in Israel] persuades Netanyahu to switch his
focus to Syria."
Jim Lobe's blog on US foreign policy can be read at www.lobelog.com.