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Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Israel should wait before striking Hezbollah – opinion

The current tensions between Israel and Hezbollah could result in further escalation of the ongoing conflict. It could lead to a small round, or possibly another war. Israel does not want war. The IDF is much stronger than Hezbollah, yet the latter has drones and 150,000 rockets and missiles that can reach almost all of Israel. Hezbollah is a serious threat to Israel, but Israel should avoid a war and focus on other priorities. 

Hezbollah, a Lebanese group, claims it needs its weapons in order to defend Lebanon, but in reality, Hezbollah is responsible for defending Iran. Iran invested heavily in Hezbollah over the past few decades, a process aimed at deterring Israel from bombing Iran’s nuclear sites. 

In recent months, Iran’s nuclear program has made substantial progress. Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz said in early August that Israel is ready to strike Iran. Iran, by encouraging Hezbollah to challenge Israel on a limited scale, might want to remind Israel what would happen if Israel strikes Iran. 

There are protests in Iran, due to Iran’s severe economic hardships. Ambassador Dennis Ross claims the Iranian regime may seek an external crisis in order to “promote a nationalist coalescence.” Iran also faces international criticism for attacking a civilian ship as part of Iran’s conflict with Israel. 

Iran strives to preserve Hezbollah, rather than urge Israel to destroy its proxy in Lebanon. Therefore, Iran might provoke a skirmish between Hezbollah and Israel that is big enough to divert the attention of both the Iranian public and the international community, to Lebanon, short of any full-blown war. 

Hezbollah has its own reasons for avoiding a war. Hezbollah lost up to 2,000 fighters in the Syrian civil war – a huge price for the size of its organization. Hezbollah needs time to recover, so is unlikely to confront Israel at the moment. Lebanon’s low-point is another reason for Hezbollah to avoid a war. 

IN THE recent escalation, Hezbollah allowed Palestinians to fire rockets from Lebanon. Israel responded, with Hezbollah countering thereafter. Israel and Hezbollah, which strive to prevent war, managed to contain the latest friction between them. However, next time, miscalculation by one or both sides might ignite a war.

Although Israel is trying to prevent a war, it might ultimately succumb to it, if Hezbollah continues its provocations while simultaneously continuing to upgrade its arsenal. Israel is apprehensive about Hezbollah’s growing ability to produce accurate missiles in large numbers. At a certain point, Hezbollah and Iran might assume they have an opportunity to confront Israel by conducting an offensive from Lebanon. 

Israel could strike first, on its own terms, which would hopefully reduce the casualties and limit the damage Israel would have to absorb. The IDF can inflict a major blow on Hezbollah by catching it off guard as part of a preventive war or preemptive strike. A massive surprise attack might be Israel’s best chance to cripple Hezbollah. However, such an attack could have negative repercussions, including significant collateral damage to the Lebanese population, which would not have sufficient time to escape. Hezbollah has stored its rockets and missiles in about 200 villages and towns in Lebanon. If the population there got a warning to evacuate their homes, Hezbollah would know Israel is about to attack. This is a major constraint for Israel, particularly if it wishes to carry out a surprise offensive.

The 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah ended in a tie. The confrontations in the Gaza Strip since 2008, between Israel and Palestinians groups, (mostly Hamas) also ended in a draw. Israel will strive to not only win the next war, but to do so decisively and fast. A surprise attack would leverage Israel’s strength significantly in this respect. 

The Biden administration is trying to negotiate with Iran, concerning Iran’s nuclear program. It might not work, but even then the Biden administration would not bomb Iran’s nuclear sites or allow Israel to do so either. The Biden administration might tolerate an Israeli strike against Hezbollah; as long as it was confined to the destruction of Hezbollah’s most advanced missiles. The United States would still hesitate, out of concern for igniting a war. 

Israel would have to coordinate and at least inform the Biden administration about the Israeli attack against Hezbollah. Israel agreed not to surprise its American patron – let alone in vital matters, in regard to Iran. Israel must do so in order to receive US assistance, particularly if the Israeli raid results in an escalation to war. Israel would need the United States to resupply Israeli forces, such as in the air defense, which would struggle to intercept a barrage of thousands of missiles and rockets. Equally important is the fact that the United States would have Israel’s back in the international arena, such as through the UN. Israel might be accused of being aggressive, especially if many Lebanese civilians are harmed. 

DURING THE Cold War, the Soviet Union posed an enormous threat to the United States. The latter could have tried to deal with it by launching a preventive war against the Soviet Union, but instead the United States preferred to go with containment. This concept proved itself to be effective. Eventually, the Soviet Union collapsed, enabling the United States to avoid the high cost of war, even if the United States had initiated the initial strikes on her own terms.

Israel has had similar past experience. In the 1980s and 1990s, Syria was Israel’s biggest enemy. The Syrian armed forces were then quite strong. At certain intervals during that time period, Israel might have carried out a preemptive strike against Syria. The goal would have been to remove a possible threat while reducing Israeli casualties that would have resulted if the war began with a Syrian offensive. Yet, Israel did not attack. Instead, Israel waited, and this calculated risk paid off. The Syrian military gradually declined, and the civil war in Syria caused a meltdown of Assad’s forces. Israel saw how its foe became much weaker, without having to pay the price of war. Israel might repeat this approach with Hezbollah, hoping that over time, the group will decline due to other influences, such as the deep economic crisis in Lebanon, or the collapse of its Iranian patron. 

In summary, Israel should avoid a war with Hezbollah, unless it is a last resort. Currently, it is not the right time for Israel to go to war against Hezbollah.  

The writer has been dealing with and studying Israel’s national security for more than 25 years. He served in the Israeli military and later worked for the Israeli Defense Ministry as a researcher. He has a Ph.D and has published six books in the US / UK His latest book is: Containment in the Middle East, (University Press of Nebraska, 2019).

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