Would Israel start a war to try to scuttle an Iran deal?

Trita Parsi and Paul Pillar (who is not inclined toward conspiracy theorizing, to say the least) suggest the possibility that Israel might start a war with Iranian proxy Hezbollah in order to move Congressional opinion toward rejecting a nuclear deal:

If a Congressional vote on a resolution rejecting the nuclear deal were held today,President Obama probably would prevail — possibly without even having to use his veto to defeat the attempt by Republicans and pro-Netanyahu Democrats to scuttle the historic diplomatic agreement with Tehran. Opposition arguments — from claiming that the deal is a capitulation to Iran to the notion that it is unacceptable to make a deal with a regime like that in Tehran — have not sufficiently resonated with the public to kill the agreement. This has caused some disarray in the opposition camp.

Indeed, if you are in that camp right now, it is reasonable to expect that the search is not for a new argument but for a game changing development: an event so powerful it shifts the momentum in Congress back to AIPAC, Netanyahu, Saudi Arabia and the other opponents of a nuclear deal.

Arguably, a military confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah this summer could fit that bill. The argument that the deal — and the more than $50bn that would be returned to Tehran — would strengthen Iran in the region and empower its allies would become much more potent if Israel were in an active conflict with Lebanon with Hezbollah rockets hitting Israeli cities, as was the case in 2006. Such a scenario can become the much desired game-changer that may cause many pro-Netanyahu Democrats to break with Obama.

All of this could be dismissed as speculative except for the fact that a case for a war with Hezbollah has been made in Israel for the past few months. On May 12 the New York Times reported that Israeli is preparing for “what it sees as an almost inevitable next battle with Hezbollah.” An Israeli official added in comments to the Times: “We will hit Hezbollah hard.”

Needless to say, this would be a major step for Israel to take. Starting with the most obvious red flag, there’s always the chance that the war would go badly for them. The 2006 war with Hezbollah was arguably a defeat for Israel (though it’s hard to see how Hezbollah “won,” just given the number of men they lost) and was at best indecisive. Then-PM Ehud Olmert saw his approval rating drop into single digits, something that might sink Netanyahu’s skin-of-his-teeth coalition. On the other hand, Hezbollah’s finite resources are heavily committed to the war in Syria right now, so if there were ever a time when Israel could feel confident going after them, it’s right now.

The question of US public opinion is the other big red flag for Israel. The Iran deal is popular in the US, even though most Americans aren’t sure it will work. On the other hand, Israel is also popular in the US, except that the younger you get, the more people express support for the Palestinians and the more people will say that it’s Israeli, not Palestinian, aggression that is to blame for violence between those two groups. Overall, Americans are split on how the US should respond to a Palestinian statehood push at the UN (though “abstaining,” which gets a plurality in that poll and appears to be the middle-ground position, would actually be a major defeat for the Israelis) and overwhelmingly believe that Israel’s democracy, not its Jewish-ness, is its most important quality (Israel’s government has been moving in the opposite direction).

An Israeli war with Hezbollah could move that needle in Israel’s direction, but it could also put Israel in the role of aggressor against a weaker neighbor again, as it was in many quarters during last year’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza. Given those poll figures, it’s not clear that, given a war in which Israel was seen as the clear aggressor, fence-sitters in Congress would be inclined to shift from tepidly supporting an Iran deal to rejecting one, and meanwhile Israel would risk further alienating young people in America who, barring some global catastrophe, are going to be running the country someday. The cost for Israel in Europe, where Israel-EU relations are already on thin ice over illegal West Bank settlements, could be even greater. That’s a lot to bet on the possibility that you could sway enough votes in Congress to kill a deal.

Still, it’s more likely than not that Israel is going to attack Hezbollah in the near future. With Hezbollah so tied up in Syria and with Bashar al-Assad’s survival there so dependent on Hezbollah’s assistance, it’s just too ripe an opportunity to pass up. Israeli officials have been talking up the threat from Hezbollah since Protective Edge ended, so this has clearly been on their minds for a while now. I don’t know that the possible impact on any Iran deal would be the factor that drives Israel into another war with Hezbollah, but it could be one of many factors that collectively do the trick.


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