What chance of an Israel-Hezbollah War?

Andrew Lebovich and Aaron Y. Zelin write in Foreign Policy:

The persistent rhetoric on both sides is not reassuring, but that does not necessarily mean war is going to occur anytime soon. Much of it is posturing and both sides trying to maintain their deterrence against one another. As Flynt and Hillary Leverett argued in a recent blog post, Nasrallah’s language, while aggressive, showed that Hezbollah only threatened to strike Israel if attacked first. And this week Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barack told an audience that Israel would “hold all of Lebanon responsible,” in the event of a war, but only if Hezbollah struck first. Yet in the past few years random rocket fire from Southern Lebanon into Northern Israel has notprovoked any meaningful response from the IDF. In fact, both sides have a considerable amount to lose if they do pick up arms again.

Israel’s possible calculus for war remains difficult to decipher. Despite the fact that many perceived the Second Lebanon War to be a black eye for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), the northern border has been quiet since 2006. Even as Israeli officials warn about the flow of weapons into Lebanon, the IDF have taken no overt action to disable Hezbollah’s military capabilities. Some, like long-time Middle East chronicler Robert Fisk believe an Israeli strike at Hezbollah could go hand in hand with an attack on Iran. But this theory rests on the speculation that Israel intends to attack Iran. While this speculation runs rampant through newspapers (fed in large part by Israeli threats and highly-publicized military exercises) not even reports of secret reactors have provoked Israeli action, and any Israeli strike would require at least American acquiescence, which does not seem to be in the offing. Furthermore, no convincing argument has appeared to show how, exactly, an Israeli military strike would succeed in disrupting Iran’s nuclear program or even successfully engaging Iranian targets.

Moreover, Israel has a multitude of concerns that could limit its willingness to go to war at any point in the near future. Aside from fear of suffering another draw with Hezbollah, a pre-emptive war that brings a shower of rockets on Israeli cities would have serious political consequences, especially if the reason for such a strike is unclear. If Israel makes good on some officials’ claims that any assault on Lebanon would be “disproportionate” and target the broader Lebanese infrastructure, Israel would face a further deterioration of its status in the international community, even among itsallies. But the more important question is whether Israel would be able to handle a major military operation more than three years after the Second Lebanon War? According to a recently-released Israeli State Comptroller’s report, the IDF is having trouble with recruitment and training its soldiers.

Arguments that Hezbollah plans on imminent war with Israel run into similar problems. On the one hand, since the Second Lebanon War Hezbollah has grown far stronger. Despite suffering a setback in elections last year, Hezbollah maintained its political dominance by securing veto authority over Lebanese government decisions and even political approval for the group’s stockpile of arms (not that the 2008 street battles in Beirut left the government much choice). Hezbollah hasstockpiled an estimated 40,000 rockets, some with the range to hit Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and possesses skilled military units and even air defense systems. News that Hezbollah has dispersed these rockets north of the Litani river and even in and around Beirut indicates for some, as theWashington Post recently noted, that Hezbollah is gearing up for war and wants to protect its most valuable weapons systems from quick destruction.

On the other hand, in the three years since the last war, Hezbollah has remained conspicuously quiet. This despite the unexplained explosion at the house of a Hezbollah official in October, the explosion of a suspected Hezbollah arms cache in southern Lebanon in July, the assassination in 2008 of Hezbollah hero Imad Mughniyeh, and continued Israeli provocation in the form of overflights of southern Lebanon. When Israel was busy destroying much of Gaza last January, Hezbollah did nothing.

The continued integration of Hezbollah into Lebanon’s political system also makes war less, not more, likely. Despite its independent power base, weapons and money, Hezbollah still relies on popular support, especially in the Shi’a south. Yet as Lebanon specialist Elias Muhanna (author of the popular blog Qifa Nabki) points out, the destruction likely to result from a full-scale Israeli attack prompted by a Hezbollah provocation could hurt Hezbollah’s standing with its Shi’a power base, and could cause widespread distaste with the movement if Beirut and other areas take a beating. Additionally, while Hezbollah now has formal government approval for its right to possess arms, this could prove a double-edged sword; Israel could justify a strike into Lebanon by pointing to Hezbollah’s government role, while both Hezbollah’s leadership and its March 8 allies might come under serious fire for sparking a war with Israel for no apparent gain.

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