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Is Israel-Hezbollah war inevitable?

Is Israel-Hezbollah war inevitable?

By signaling to support Tel Aviv in any such campaign, Washington may be pushing this potential conflict toward reality

Analysis | Middle East

Exchanges of fire between Israel and Lebanese Hezbollah, persistent over the past eight months, have intensified in recent weeks. The situation can escalate into a full-blown war in either of two ways.

One is for the present tit-for-tat to spin out of control in a manner that neither side plans. Escalation would be a result of the lethal logic of each side trying to deter the adversary’s future attacks by responding strongly to the most recent attack.

The other route to escalation would be an intentional resort to full-scale war by one side. Hezbollah is unlikely to be that side. Hezbollah has made clear all along that whatever it has been doing to keep the Israeli-Lebanese border heated it has done in sympathy with the beleaguered Palestinians of the Gaza Strip and in support of Hamas. Hezbollah sees no net benefit for itself of an all-out war with Israel. In the last previous such war in 2006, the group could claim some success in standing up to the most advanced military force in the Middle East but paid a substantial price in human and material costs. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah later expressed regret about the cross-border brinkmanship that led to that war.

Israel, on the other hand, may decide to launch a full war in Lebanon during the next several months, if the spinning-out-of-control scenario had not already materialized. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reportedly told Arab officials during his most recent trip to the region that he believes Israel is intent on invading Lebanon. Such an invasion would not be based on any clear-headed and objective analysis of what would be in the best interests of Israeli security. It would be more a matter of internal political and emotional factors driving Israeli behavior.

One of those factors is the situation of the approximately 60,000 Israelis who have been displaced from homes in northern Israel because of the deteriorated security situation there and have been housed in hotels in Tel Aviv or other temporary accommodations. They represent a substantial political force in favor of doing something to allow their return. Of course, outbreak of full-scale war with Hezbollah would at least for a time make the security situation in northern Israel even worse. But the hope, however misplaced, that aggressive military action would somehow lead to a long-term future of peaceful residence in the north is a pressure point on the government.

The personal political and legal situation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to be a major determinant of Israeli policy, on this issue as well as others. It has become generally accepted that Netanyahu’s hold on power and probably also his ability to dodge corruption charges will continue only as long as Israel is at war. With Netanyahu himself having recently declared that the “intense phase of the war with Hamas is about to end,” his stake in a full war on the northern front is probably stronger than ever.

Netanyahu’s tenure also depends on maintaining his governing coalition with far-right extremists, principally Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, both of whom are hardliners regarding use of military force against Hezbollah. Smotrich has called for a military invasion deep into Lebanon if Hezbollah does not meet an ultimatum for withdrawal of its forces from southern Lebanon. Ben Gvir says that even Smotrich’s demand does not go far enough, and Israel should launch a military operation aimed at destroying Hezbollah entirely.

An added factor is a strain of opinion within Israel that southern Lebanon is part of “greater Israel” that was a gift from God, and is fair game not just for military conquest but for additional Jewish settlement. This idea has been on the fringe of Israeli thought, but as with many other extreme ideas in Israel, it shows signs of inching into the mainstream.

The fact that the Netanyahu government’s stated goal in the Gaza Strip of “destroying” Hamas is — as even the Israeli military’s official spokesman now acknowledges— out of reach constitutes a source of frustration that may also help to motivate a lashing out at Lebanon. Add to that the frustration of failing to get back alive many of the Israeli hostages. An operation that can inflict serious harm on another of Israel’s Arab adversaries and can be described as aimed at letting those displaced residents of northern Israel back to their homes might help to satisfy some of the urge among both policymakers and the Israeli public to do “something” in the face of the setbacks and frustrations of the current crisis.

Israel’s devastating operation in the Gaza Strip, which has gone far beyond anything that can be construed as defense and even well beyond targeting Hamas, has been more visceral than strategic — an extended spasm of anger over the horror that Hamas inflicted on October 7. Expanding the war into Lebanon would extend this pattern. The fact that Hezbollah (and other Lebanese) are Arab and that Hezbollah has been a traditional adversary of Israel would be enough cause for expansion of the war in the minds of many frustrated and angry Israelis.

To the extent that genuine strategic considerations would underlie an Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the principal goal would not be to destroy Hezbollah — which is far out of reach — but to push its forces out of the portion of Lebanon south of the Litani River. Accompanying rhetoric would describe such an effort as supposedly buying long-term security for northern Israel.

The long, bloody history of Israeli military involvement in Lebanon strongly suggests that no such security would be bought. Israeli invaded Lebanon in 1978, and invaded it again in 1982, going all the way to Beirut. It maintained an occupation of southern Lebanon until 2000. And yet, Hezbollah is as strong today as it ever was. Hezbollah first rose to prominence in response to the 1982 invasion as the organization that was doing more than any other to defend Lebanese against Israeli incursions. Its popular support continues to rest in large part on the perceived need for such defense — a perception that any new Israeli invasion would strengthen.

The 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war gives a taste of what a new conflict might look like, but the new war is likely to be even more destructive. Hezbollah’s capacity for aerial bombardment of Israel is greater now than it was then. Estimates of the number of rockets and missiles in its arsenal vary widely but center around 150,000. Even unsophisticated projectiles could inflict much damage if through sheer numbers they overwhelm Israel’s sophisticated air defense system. Israel, of course, would be determined to inflict at least as much death and destruction in the other direction as it absorbed itself.

The Biden administration genuinely and rightly does not want to see a new Israel-Hezbollah war. Its peacemaking efforts, however, have only slim prospects for success. Although United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, which aimed to resolve the 2006 conflict but was never fully implemented, provides a framework for a possible new deal, the current circumstances for reaching such a deal are difficult. The ideas that U.S. envoy Amos Hochstein has been discussing with Israeli and Lebanese officials attempt in effect to separate the Israel-Lebanon equation from what is going on in the Gaza Strip. That may not be possible, given the negative atmospherics from the ongoing disaster in Gaza and Hezbollah’s posture of maintaining pressure in sympathy with Gaza Palestinians.

Some of the administration’s declaratory policy does not help the prospects for a peaceful resolution and probably makes matters worse. Hochstein reportedly told Arab officials in Beirut that if a full-scale war breaks out along the Israeli-Lebanese border, the United States will support Israel. The administration has conveyed the same message to Israeli officials. Whatever value such messaging may have in deterring aggressive behavior by Hezbollah, it only encourages such behavior by Israel.

If such a war does break out, then, like the Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip, much of the rest of the world will see the United States as owning the conflict. And with that perception comes all the associated ill consequences for U.S. interests, including the opprobrium, diplomatic isolation, and thirst for revenge by violent elements. Moreover, the administration’s posture will not improve the long-term security of the Israeli citizens it supposedly is trying to help.

An Israeli soldier mans a position in the northern Israeli town of Metula bordering Lebanon on October 8, 2023. photo by fadi amun Copyright: xFADIxAMUNx DSCF4542 via REUTERS

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