The recent Beirut explosion and the resignation of the Lebanese government could mean that Israel will be faced with new and crucial political and defense policy choices, according to Boaz Ganor, the director of IDC Herzliya’s International Institute for Counterterrorism.
“Reality has gotten to a point,” Ganor said, where several simulated scenarios that a counterterrorism group considered could play out in the real world in months or even weeks.
For background, in April, two former top Mossad officials, two former ambassadors and a variety of think tank officials connected with the ICT and started an unprecedented three-month long “open poker” simulation of developments in Lebanon.
From day one, The Jerusalem Post was given exclusive access to follow the developments, which were shared in real time on a group Google document, as well as concluding interviews and summaries.
Also observed by IDF intelligence officials – though for obvious reasons they could not directly participate – the exercise involved 12 different parties operating in the Lebanese sphere, parties who were “played” by the former intelligence and diplomatic officials.
Unlike typical such simulations, where one party on a panel speaks at a time and then each one can individually react, this game of open poker allowed multiple parties to respond and counter each other’s ideas in real-time.
Ganor told the Post that the purpose of the exercise was to play out policy options for the political and defense establishment regarding three major scenarios, which the expert-players interacted about, each for a period of weeks, to allow moves and countermoves.
In the first scenario, Lebanese President Michael Aoun announced an emergency government to cope with the dual health-economic crisis presented by coronavirus. This crisis is exemplified not only by loss of income and infection, but by a collapse in the sufficiency of medical equipment and items needed to dig out of the crisis, as well as a wave of protests.
As part of this emergency government, he forces Hezbollah out, compelling Iran’s Shiite proxy to decide whether to lash out using its superior physical firepower or perform a strategic retreat.
In the second scenario, Hezbollah completes a military takeover of the current government, a government over which it already had significant de facto control. The group’s leader Hassan Nasrallah tells the country that it alone, with the aid of Iran, can save the nation.
Under the third scenario, no group or leader is capable of leading the country through the crisis and Lebanese society descends into complete chaos, reminiscent of the 1976 civil war.
“All three [scenarios] could become reality,” Ganor said. “Israel must be ready for all three possibilities and prepare itself the best it can for each one.”
Ganor said that all three scenarios would have a major influence not only on the future of Lebanon, but on Israeli interests and the interests of the entire region.
With the coronavirus tearing apart an already fragile Lebanese society long before the recent explosion that physically wrecked Beirut, Ganor said it was crucial to give Israel’s decision-makers lead-time knowing they could be thrown any number of curveballs.
Former deputy Mossad chief Naftali Granot played the US and former senior Mossad official Amnon Sofrin played Syria.
Former UN ambassador Ron Prosor and Egypt ambassador Itzhak Levanon played Germany and the Lebanese christian community, and Ganor played Israel and a range of other officials covering the remaining seven parties, including Hezbollah, Iran, Russia and others.
A running theme in all three scenarios is that Hezbollah finds itself in one of the most sensitive series of dilemmas it has had to maneuver through since it took de facto control of Lebanon around a decade ago.
Many Lebanese citizens, including even within its own natural Shiite camp, are less interested in any conflict with Israel and pleasing Iran than they are in surviving the simultaneous health and economic crises that have resulted from coronavirus.
In the scenarios, the most powerful local actors are Hezbollah, Israel and Iran. The Islamic Republic was expected to advise Hezbollah to conceal the scope of the harm caused by coronavirus just as the ayatollahs did in their own country.
There was also potential that Iran would try to advise Hezbollah in organizing counter-protests to any protesters challenging its hold on power and to accuse other parties of failure.
Besides those parties, Ganor said that if there was internal Lebanese fighting or external fighting between Hezbollah and Israel, that Russia would likely play the role of moderator.
Each of the scenarios likely see the US trying to leverage the situation to isolate and weaken Hezbollah and Iranian influence in Lebanon. The Saudis were also expected to act in this direction, though on some different planes of battle than the US.
Although it does not have the same ability to project power as either Russia or the US, France –
because of its historic ties to Lebanon – is expected to try to play a stabilizing diplomatic role.
In the war scenarios, the experts played out both limited and all-out conflicts between Israel and Hezbollah, including a limited invasion by Hezbollah of Israel’s northern border and rocket attacks of precise missiles on crucial Israeli national infrastructure points.
Ganor noted that Hezbollah could still mount a limited invasion even though Israel has largely neutralized its ability to carry out a surprise attack using tunnel warfare.
The ICT director said that it was “fascinating” to see how early responses to the various new crises often determined and limited future options down-the-road for many of the players.
While changing course from a failed strategy is always possible, this means that picking the correct initial strategy is important. Ganor said that he hopes the open poker exercise can help decision-makers choose better.
He also commented that it was surprising that while many of the predictions have been correct, that the consequences of the scenarios are galloping forward in real life “even faster than in the simulation.”