The resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri earlier this week has given Israel an opportunity to exploit the regional divide and to work on forming an Israeli-Arab alliance in the event of a military confrontation with Lebanon, political analysts say.
In his statement from the Saudi capital Riyadh, Hariri blamed his resignation on what he called Iranian meddling in Lebanese affairs through the former’s backing of Hezbollah, a movement with a military wing based in southern Lebanon.
“Iran’s arm [Hezbollah] … has managed to impose a fait accompli on Lebanon through the power of its weapons” in the last few decades, Hariri said in his televised speech on Saturday. “They have built a state within a state.
“I say to Iran and its allies – you have lost in your efforts to meddle in the affairs of the Arab world,” he continued, adding that the region “will rise again and the hands that you have wickedly extended into it will be cut off”. His language echoed Saudi rhetoric against Iran.
Shortly after the announcement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded, calling the resignation a “wake-up call to the international community to take action against Iranian aggression”.
Netanyahu added that Hezbollah’s empowerment “endangers not only Israel but the entire Middle East”.
Speaking at Chatham House in London on Friday prior to Hariri’s resignation, Netanyahu said that Israel was working “very hard” to establish an alliance with “the modern Sunni states” to counter Iran, according to the AFP news agency.
“Israel benefits from an escalation in any Arab conflict. Now, with Hariri’s resignation, it is betting on an alliance to confront Iran,” Kassem Kassir, a Beirut-based analyst with close ties to Hezbollah, told Al Jazeera.
“They are pleased with Hariri’s resignation because he headed a government with Hezbollah members. They believe that his resignation strips away from Hezbollah’s legitimacy in the government.”
On Sunday, during an interview with the BBC network, Netanyahu jumped on the bandwagon of anti-Iranian rhetoric, saying: “When Israelis and the Arabs, all the Arabs and the Israelis, agree on one thing, people should pay attention. We should stop this Iranian takeover.”
While fighting alongside Syrian government forces and other Iranian-backed groups, Hezbollah has gained an unprecedented level of tactical experience and weaponry, analysts note.
In response to Hezbollah’s growing role, Israel has carried out systematic attacks against the group and the Syrian military. Netanyahu has accused Iran of “turning Syria into a base of military entrenchment” and wanting to use “Syria and Lebanon as war fronts against its declared goal to eradicate Israel”.
Ofer Zalzburg, a senior analyst on Israel and Palestine for the International Crisis Group think-tank, said that Israel’s fear of an underground missile factory built by Iran in southern Lebanon could spark an armed conflict.
“Hariri’s resignation may make Hezbollah feel there are less domestic challenges to taking a risk vis-a-vis Israel in terms of taking forward the construction of such an underground factory,” Zalzburg told Al Jazeera.
In addition, he said, “growing Saudi-Iranian tensions may make it more difficult for Hezbollah and Israel to constrict an Israeli strike on such construction from becoming a full-fledged war – a war both parties know will exact a dramatic toll from their societies and civic infrastructures”.
In 2006, Hezbollah shocked the region when it managed to overwhelm Israel’s ground invasion of southern Lebanon and strike military and civilian targets. Hezbollah’s rocket attacks caused sizeable damage and resulted in the death of an estimated 159 Israelis, including 43 civilians, which undermined internal Israeli support for the war.
For Lebanon, Israel’s bombing campaign devastated the south’s infrastructure and led to the deaths of more than 1,100 Lebanese, the majority of whom were civilians.
But despite the intensifying discourse over the possibility of another war, some believe the prospect is far-fetched.
The turnout of the last war, coupled with Hezbollah’s metamorphosis over the years, means that a war would be a “miscalculation on Israel’s part”, Shaheen said, pointing to the group’s influential role in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq.
“They cannot ensure a win.”