I was mistaken.
Two weeks ago, I wrote here that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah hates Israel but behaves responsibly, and that since he took control of south Lebanon, a stable balance of deterrence has been created on both sides of the border. "His behavior is rational and reasonably predictable. Under the present conditions, that's the best there is. Hezbollah is preserving quiet in the Galilee better than did the pro-Israeli South Lebanese Army," I wrote. But Nasrallah hastened to prove that his behavior is not predictable, when he gave instructions to attack an Israel Defense Forces patrol near Moshav Zarit and kill and kidnap its soldiers.
The mistake in my assessment stemmed, as always, from the idee fixe that what was is what will be. I believed that if Israel and Hezbollah had learned to live according to the "rules of the game" that had developed along their common border, they would be interested in maintaining the balance of power rather than violating it. The IDF, the intelligence services and the government, who have at at their disposal much better sources of information than mine, thought the same. Fact: They lowered the alert level in the north a few days before the attack in Zarit; that means that they expected quiet. But although I was in good company, the responsibility for the mistake is entirely mine.
But Nasrallah made a bigger mistake, and his mistakes are lethal. Not only because he had the same idee fixe and expected Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to behave like his predecessors, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon - in other words, to tolerate the incident in order avoid a second front in the north. And not because he did not make sure ahead of time, before he ordered the operation, that he had backing from the Arab world for a surprise attack across a recognized international border, on the pretext of "assisting the Palestinians." His principal mistake, which brought about the crisis, was that he was tempted to exploit an operational opportunity to kidnap soldiers.
Nasrallah did not resist the temptation to sting Israel and appear once again as the hero of the Arab world. He probably believed in his own rhetoric about the weakness of the "Zionist entity," and when he saw the Israeli failure in the face of the kidnappers of Corporal Gilad Shalit in Gaza, he wanted a similar success. It is hard to believe that he expected to cause such destruction, or a diplomatic process that would attempt to dismantle his organization.
The irony is that Nasrallah ought to know better than anyone that operational enticements invite dangers, and a tactical achievement is liable to be a strategic downfall. He rose to the leadership of Hezbollah in 1992 because Israel could not resist a temptation, and assassinated his predecessor, Abbas Musawi, by firing from a helicopter. Israel was punished twice for that: both by the appointment of Nasrallah, who turned out to be a more dangerous enemy that Musawi, and by the bombing of its embassy in Argentina a few weeks later.
Two years after the assassination of Musawi, Yitzhak Rabin was tempted to bomb a Hezbollah base for new recruits. Dozens of members of the organization were killed. The response was a massive terror attack on the Jewish community building in Buenos Aires. After that event, Rabin was convinced that sometimes it is a good idea to resist temptation, because the enemy is liable to hit in an unexpected place, and to cause greater pain. The bombing of the base for new recruits proved to be an own goal, and from that time until the present conflict, Israel has refrained from highly publicized operations against Hezbollah.
The present round of the conflict with Hezbollah has yet to end. But we can already learn a lesson from it. The most effective deterrence is achieved by walking on the brink, as Nasrallah has done until now. A barking and growling dog is more frightening than a dog that bites and attacks, as long as the neighbor has a pistol. And this lesson is worth remembering every time the temptation arises for another small operational achievement.
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