Israel faces 'a strategic challenge of the first degree'

Liberman adds Lebanese army to list of threats on northern border

At pre-Independence Day event, defense minister tells IDF top brass to prepare for Iran-led coalition; Netanyahu skips confab

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Soldiers holding a position in a mountainous area near the eastern town of Ras Baalbek during an operation against jihadist fighters, on August 17, 2017, in a photograph taken during a tour guided by the Lebanese army. (AFP PHOTO / STRINGER)
Soldiers holding a position in a mountainous area near the eastern town of Ras Baalbek during an operation against jihadist fighters, on August 17, 2017, in a photograph taken during a tour guided by the Lebanese army. (AFP PHOTO / STRINGER)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Monday told the army’s top brass to prepare for an Iran-led threat coalescing on Israel’s northern border, which he said includes the Lebanese Armed Forces.

“A new reality is coming together against us: the Lebanese army, in cooperation with Hezbollah, the Syrian army, the Shiite militias in Syria and, above it all, Iran — all of them coming together into one front against the State of Israel, the northern front,” Liberman told the generals.

Though Israeli officials have repeatedly warned of an increasingly symbiotic relationship between the Iran-backed Hezbollah terrorist group and the Lebanese government, including the military, it is rare for Beirut itself to be included in the list of the Iranian axis’s members.

The defense minister made his remarks at an event with the IDF General Staff to mark Israel’s Independence Day on Thursday.

“This is a strategic challenge of the first degree that requires all of us — the IDF and the entire defense establishment — to go up a notch and further strengthen our readiness and preparedness,” Liberman said.

The defense minister said he was sure that the Israel Defense Forces was up to the task, referring to the military as the “best and most moral army in the world.”

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, center, raises a toast with the IDF General Staff at the army’s Tel Aviv headquarters on April 16, 2018, in honor of Israel’s upcoming Independence Day this week. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not attend the ceremony, as he does almost every year. His office said it was a scheduling issue and that he would meet with the General Staff soon.

Earlier on Monday, Liberman said in an interview with the Walla news site that Israel will not allow Russia to impose restrictions on its activities in Syria.

Liberman refused to confirm that Israel was responsible for a strike on Iranian forces at a Syrian air base last week, despite an unnamed senior military source quoted in The New York Times Monday as confirming that the Jewish state was behind it.

“We have to do our job,” Liberman said, adding that “all options are on the table.”

“We will not allow Iranian consolidation in Syria. We won’t allow any restriction when it comes to Israel’s security interests,” he continued.

At the same time, the defense minister asserted that Israel had succeeded in averting “direct friction” with Moscow and that the two countries were in constant contact, “which has proven itself.”

“We don’t meddle in Syria’s internal affairs and don’t try to fix the world,” the defense minister added. “We only deal with Israel’s security, and the Russians understand this very well.”

Photo released by Iranian media reportedly show the T-4 air base in central Syria after a missile barrage Monday. (Iranian media)

He asserted that Iran also targets Israel through its proxies Hamas and Hezbollah, terror groups that would not be able to function “for a single day” without funding from Tehran.

Liberman warned that Israel will also not allow Gaza to become an “Iranian base” either.

He said that Israel’s strategy regarding the coastal enclave entails its demilitarization, a prisoner swap deal with Hamas, and finally its rehabilitation.

“Gaza residents have to understand that they can become the Singapore of the Middle East,” he said. “As long as Hamas is in control there, there will be nothing.”

Tehran threatened Monday to deliver a response to the alleged Israeli strike, saying it would come “at the right time” and that Israel would “regret” what it had done.

“The Zionist entity will sooner or later receive the necessary response and will regret its misdeeds,” Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi told reporters in a weekly meeting, according to Iranian news media.

“The Zionist regime should not be able to take action and be exempt from punishment,” Qasemi said, adding that “the Syrian and resistance forces will respond in a timely fashion and appropriately in the region.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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