In mid-1982, Israel sought approval from the United States to launch a major offensive against the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) which was operating out of southern Lebanon during the Lebanese Civil War. Secretary of State Alexander Haig initially refused to give the green light, saying that Israel could not strike at Lebanon without a proper pretext. On June 3, 1982, the Palestinians gave them that pretext by attempting to assassinate Israel’s Ambassador to London, Shlomo Argov.

But it wasn’t the PLO – led by Yasser Arafat at the time – that shot Argov, but rather, a military faction headed by Arafat’s rival, Sabri al-Banna (aka Abu Nidal). Argov was critically injured and would remain in a coma for three months. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin called for an urgent cabinet meeting to discuss the situation in Lebanon and authorize a military invasion. When his advisers tried explaining that it was Abu Nidal’s men who pulled the trigger and not Arafat, Begin famously snapped: “Abu Nidal . . . Abu Shmidal, I don’t care. We have to [strike] the PLO!”

Israel’s 2021 Pretext

Thirty-nine years later, although the players have changed, the same logic still applies to the Lebanese-Israeli borders. This time its Hezbollah perched across the border with Israel, rather than the PLO, and Naftali Bennett at the Prime Minister’s office in Tel Aviv. Bennett replaced long-serving Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in June and has come out with strong statements against both Iran and Hezbollah, promising to tame both. Like Begin, Bennett too needs a pretext to go to war to outline the limits of his patience with Iran and prove to his own constituency that he is no less hawkish than Netanyahu. Hezbollah Secretary-General Hasan Nasrallah gave him one on August 6, 2021, by firing 16 rockets into northern Israel—the largest flare-up between the two countries since 2006.

Hezbollah didn’t immediately lay claim to the attack, and initial media reports said that unidentified Palestinian militias in the Lebanese south were responsible for the rocket fire. Indeed, that was what had happened earlier in the year, when – during the latest round of violence between Israel and Hamas in May – similar rockets were fired from Lebanon, claimed by ambiguous Palestinian groups, rather than Hezbollah.

Hezbollah not only took credit for the August strike it also released footage of the mobile rocket launcher firing rockets into Galilee.

Still, few believed that any Palestinian faction could operate out of the south of Lebanon, let alone strike at Israel, without the blessing of Hezbollah. But the Israeli army at the time was too busy with the war in Gaza to open another front with Lebanon, and that attack in May was overlooked. This time, however, Hezbollah not only took credit for the August strike it also released footage of the mobile rocket launcher firing rockets into Galilee. Israel responded with retaliatory shelling into southern Lebanon, driving the region to the tipping point of an all-out war. That came just days after Iran had attacked a merchant tanker operated by an Israeli company off the coast of Oman on July 30, killing two people.

[Israel May Benefit from Lebanon’s Economic Crisis and Growing Criticism of Hezbollah]

Who is Behind the Escalation?

Those two back-to-back attacks received their fair share of coverage during the first week of August, before being eclipsed with the recent developments in Afghanistan. They are now back in the headlines, after Naftali Bennett visited the White House on August 26 to discuss Iran and Hezbollah with US President Joe Biden.

Meanwhile, back in Lebanon, many are questioning the logic behind Hezbollah’s latest escalation, coming at a time when the country is in political paralysis, topped with a financial, economic, and security meltdown. The city of Beirut is in near complete blackout, and the Lebanese government has no money to buy fuel or provide electricity. Former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri has condemned the attack and so did the Maronite Patriarch Beshara Boutros al-Raii. Even ordinary citizens were unhappy with what happened, as Druze villages were caught on tape apprehending the rocket launcher and its crew after the attack, saying that they did not want war.

Battling freefall of its currency and a chronic shortage of basic goods, the last thing Lebanon needs is a new war with Israel.

Battling freefall of its currency and a chronic shortage of basic goods, the last thing Lebanon needs is a new war with Israel—and Nasrallah knows that—only too well. Why then did he make such a move, if it holds even the slightest chance of dragging his crumbling country into war?

One possibility is that it was not his choice and the attack was dictated  by Iran’s new President, Ebrahim Raisi. Like Bennett, he too is a hardliner who has used threatening rhetoric after his inauguration in early August. But taken more broadly, Raisi is preparing for the next round of nuclear talks in Vienna, which are yet to be fixed, and wants to increase his bargaining cards through what the self-styled “Axis of Resistance[1]” likes to describe as “negotiations under fire.” Hence, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman has made it clear that Iran’s position on the Vienna talks have not changed and that it still places the complete lifting of all sanctions as a prelude to any agreement—especially those imposed on the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei by the Trump administration in June 2019.

[Lebanon’s Economic Crisis Erodes Military Budget and Manpower]

A Need for War Medals

The Iranians feel that once through with the nuclear details, a verbal appendix will be added to the agreement – when and if it is reached – calling on Iran to reduce its military presence in countries like Syria and halt support for military groups in Iraq and Syria. It’s only a matter of time before such topics are put on the table—if they haven’t been discussed already. President Raisi wants to secure maximum concessions from the US, and greater leeway for his policies in the Arab world. To do that he needs to come across as tough and pugnacious whether in Lebanon or elsewhere. Nothing sends that message more clearly than a slight escalation from Hezbollah.

An escalation can never be carefully choreographed and always has the potential of slipping out of control.

But in the Middle East, things can go wrong and have gone horribly wrong in the past. Skirmishes on the Syrian-Israeli border famously ignited the Six Day War of 1967, and the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers triggered the Lebanon War of 2006. An escalation can never be carefully choreographed and always has the potential of slipping out of control, especially if two hardliners are responsible for it, like Ebrahim Raisi and Naftali Bennett.

Although Bennett boasts of a military background, having served through the First Intifada and in Israel’s security zone in Lebanon during the 1990s, he has never waged a battle against Israel’s enemies in which he was commander-in-chief. Nor has Ebrahim Raisi, whose career was in the Iranian judiciary, thus he never took part in high-level military operations or decisions. Both need a conflict on their CVs and war medals on their uniforms, and Lebanon is open territory for them to achieve both.

[1] The term Axis of Resistance refers to a political alliance between Iran, the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, and the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.