WASHINGTON — Early in the Trump administration, top officials were worried that Israel could not defend itself against Hezbollah, with one National Security Council staffer warning that this could lead to a devastating Middle East war, according Bob Woodward’s new book.
In “Fear: Trump in the White House,” the veteran Washington Post journalist details how an intelligence analyst assigned to the Middle East portfolio in February 2017 expressed deep anxiety about Hezbollah’s expanding military arsenal.
The Iranian-backed terrorist organization, Derek Harvey insisted, was substantially stronger than during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, rendering Israel militarily vulnerable — unable to defend itself against an onslaught of projectile attacks.
“Hezbollah was a perfect proxy for Iran to use to pressure and attack Israel, whose air bases could be pummeled with rockets,” Woodward writes in his 357-page bombshell book. “Israel’s defenses of Iron Dome, David’s Sling and Arrow missiles would be inadequate.”
Shortly after taking up his NSC seat, Harvey, a former Army colonel and Iran hawk, arranged a meeting with US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner.
“Harvey’s number-one worry in the Middle East was Hezbollah,” Woodward writes of that conversation.
“Sensitive intelligence showed that Hezbollah had more than 48,000 full-time military in Lebanon, where they presented an existential threat to the Jewish state,” he continues. “They had 8,000 expeditionary forces in Syria, Yemen and region-wide commando units.”
Sitting in Kushner’s small office just outside the Oval Office, Harvey pointed out that “Hezbollah had a stunning 150,000 rockets. In the 2006 war with Israel they’d had only 4,500.”
Harvey argued that the accumulation of these assets increased the possibility of a catastrophic war that would embroil the United States and cause wider unrest.
“An Iranian-Israeli conflict would draw in the United States and unhinge efforts to bring regional stability,” he emphasized, according to Woodward.
Kushner reportedly agreed that Hezbollah needed to be addressed in a stronger way following implementation of the Iran nuclear deal. Harvey told him that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps was “integrated into the Hezbollah structure,” with Iran funneling roughly $1 billion into the organization each year.
Harvey eventually sent a backgrounder to President Trump, who, at the time, was weighing pulling the United States our of the nuclear accord but had not yet. (He eventually did last summer.)
“Trump was given a Reader’s Digest version of the Hezbollah briefing,” Woodward writes, adding that Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo agreed strongly with the case Harvey was making, whereas Secretary of Defense James Mattis, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and then-National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster agreed with its contents only in “a matter-of-fact way.”
“Harvey felt the others did not appreciate the degree to which the fundamental balance of power had shifted,” Woodward writes. “Another Arab-Israeli war would come home to Israel as no attack ever had. A full-scale assault could impact their ability to actually fight.”
“Harvey underscores this to Kushner strongly: The new Trump administration was unprepared for what could happen,” Woodward adds.
Following these conversations, Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer reportedly wanted Harvey to travel to Israel to meet with the country’s top military brass, but McMaster, his boss at the time, would not allow it. “McMaster said Harvey couldn’t go, though he gave no reason,” Woodward says.
Harvey did end up meeting with senior Israeli officials from the Mossad in Washington that July, but no plan for countering Hezbollah’s growth ever materialized.
“McMaster, angry with Harvey, would not let him move forward.”
Later that month, McMaster fired Harvey. The former national security adviser was eventually ousted himself by President Trump in March 2018.
While no new formal agreement was ever made between the US and Israel vis-a-vis Hezbollah — at least not publicly — administration officials felt a deal reached with Saudi Arabia on Trump’s May 2017 trip there addressed the issue, with the president announcing a $110 billion arms deal with the royal kingdom, a fierce adversary of Tehran.