Maybe you thought that the discovery of tunnels built by Hezbollah under the border between Lebanon and Israel would generate a full-scale debate about the deadly nature of the threat from the terror group and its Iranian masters. But if so, you haven’t been paying much attention to the political atmosphere in Israel or the way the Jewish state and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are covered in the international press.
The first mention of the tunnels in The New York Times came in an article with the headline “Suspected of Crimes, Netanyahu Is Also Suspected of Fear-Mongering.” The upshot of the piece was to frame the issue as merely a distraction from the prime minister’s legal troubles after the Israeli police recommended that he and his wife, Sara, be indicted on corruption charges.
The charges against Netanyahu are serious. Or rather, it might be said that this latest problem is more serious than two previous cases where the police also recommended his indictment. Netanyahu is accused of aiding a wealthy crony’s acquisition of the Bezeq Company. Bezeq owned a popular website Walla News that, in return for the prime minister’s ability to use the government’s regulatory power in its favor, provided positive coverage for him and his government. It remains to be seen whether Israel’s attorney general will accept the police recommendation that an actual crime was committed and a conviction can be obtained. The same is true about two more frivolous charges in which the police also sought indictments.
The debate about these accusations has played into the discussion about whether the government will wait to hold a new election next fall, when Netanyahu’s government’s term expires, or if he will move for an early election. The presumption is that if he were to be indicted—something that is by no means certain in any of the three cases—he would wish to enter into legal combat forearmed with the endorsement of the voters. That is because, to the horror of his opponents, every poll predicts Netanyahu’s coalition will be easily re-elected.
Israeli politics is just as nasty, personal and partisan as it is in the United States. So it was hardly surprising that cynics in the Israeli opposition and media, as well as their foreign counterparts, would interpret the furor over the tunnels as an attempt to change the subject from accusations of corruption.
Indeed, the announcement of the tunnels was treated as an example of the prime minister exploiting the fears of Israelis. When Israeli forces went to work this week seeking to destroy the tunnel that was found and to detect the many others that have not yet been discovered, a Zionist Union Knesset member mocked it as really being an “Operation Netanyahu Shield,” rather than “Operation Northern Shield,” as the army had dubbed it.
Others saw the fuss about the tunnels as nothing more than an example of a politician following the script of the 1997 movie “Wag the Dog,” in which a U.S. president manufactures a small foreign war to cover up a sex scandal. President Bill Clinton was accused of doing the same thing when he launched missiles at terrorist targets in Afghanistan and Sudan during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
But the notion that what’s going on at the Lebanese border is some sort of politicized scam is outrageous. As important as the political battles over Netanyahu’s future may be, they are not to be compared to the large-scale mayhem Hezbollah and Iran are plotting.
The facts about the tunnels and what they represent cannot be denied.
We already knew that Hezbollah—a terrorist group that holds sway over much of Lebanon, and is believed to act only in coordination with and at the behest of theocrats that rule Iran—is armed to the teeth and is thought to have at least 130,000 rockets and missiles pointed directly at Israel.
Hezbollah has supplied shock troops for Iran’s campaigns in Syria, where they have ensured the survival of the brutal Bashar Assad regime by intervening in the civil war in that devastated country. While Israel has actively sought to interdict Iran’s attempts to increase Hezbollah’s arsenal, there is little doubt that they are more dangerous today than they were in the summer of 2006, when their rockets rained down on northern Israel, setting off a panicked evacuation of the region.
Since that war, the threat of an even more devastating retaliation by Israel against Lebanon has deterred Hezbollah. But Netanyahu and other Israelis know that in spite of the outrage the Lebanese people would feel if Hezbollah and Iran started another war, the only ones who will make that decision are Iranian Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Hezbollah’s chief Hassan Nasrallah.
Ironically, it was only a couple of weeks ago that Netanyahu was being roasted by many of the same critics for acting to de-escalate a growing conflict with Hamas in Gaza after terrorists there launched more than 450 rockets at Israeli targets. Netanyahu was characteristically cautious about being goaded into an all-out military conflict against Hamas. His decision was based in part on the fact that Israel has no good options in Gaza. But he was also mindful of the possibility that Iran and Hezbollah might respond to an Israel counter-offensive in Gaza by making it a three-front war via attacks from their positions in Syria and Lebanon.
That’s why—irrespective of Netanyahu’s prospects for staying in office, which are probably quite good—it’s absolutely vital that it do everything in its power to destroy tunnels constructed to infiltrate the border and spread terror inside Israel. It’s also important for those who care about peace and the Jewish state to make it clear to Iran and Hezbollah that the world will back Israel’s right to defend itself. As important as the political war on Netanyahu might be, the ongoing war of its enemies on Israel takes precedence.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.