Analysis

Israeli Army Can Defeat Hezbollah in Massive Drill, but Reality Is More Complicated

Military says it will no longer settle for deterring Hezbollah, which replaced Syria as No. 1 threat on Israel's borders. But the directives it gets are never that explicit

IDF reservists sitting atop tanks as they maneuver during a drill at a military zone near Kibbutz Revivim.
IDF reservists sitting atop tanks as they maneuver during a drill at a military zone near Kibbutz Revivim. Reuters

On September 6, 2007, this week a decade ago, there was a mysterious attack in eastern Syria. Then-U.S. President George W. Bush, a series of senior officials in his administration and many media outlets – essentially, all possible sources except the Israeli media, which is prohibited from going into detail about the matter – later reported that Israel Air Force jets had attacked and destroyed a nuclear facility that North Korea had built for the Assad regime.

The large-scale Israel Defense Forces drill being conducted by Northern Command for a week and a half, starting Tuesday, reflects some of the changes that have occurred on Israel’s northern border in the 10 years since. The bombing in Syria may have taken place a year after the Israeli army’s disappointing performance against Hezbollah during the Second Lebanon War, but at the time Israel still saw Syria as a serious enemy.

The strategic reality in 2017 is totally different. The Syrian army has been almost totally eroded by six-and-a-half years of civil war; Hezbollah is the primary enemy and Lebanon is the most worrisome battleground for Israel. Syria is now considered a secondary arena, one that might be part of a future war with Hezbollah under certain circumstances (like enhanced Iranian activity along the border with Israel on the Golan Heights), or that could expedite its breaking out.

This corps exercise is the first of its kind in 19 years. On the eve of the 1982 Lebanon War, the general staff dissolved the corps command, believing it to be an archaic, unnecessary headquarters, only to restore it hastily immediately after the war. Taking part in this exercise will be tens of thousands of regular and reserve soldiers, but what’s important about it is the drilling of dozens of brigades and especially the training of the commanders, from the company commanders on up.

The objective set for this exercise for the commander of the Northern Corps, Maj. Gen. Tamir Heyman, is to defeat Hezbollah. This time the talk is not of inflicting significant harm to Hezbollah, to deter it, or to quash its desire to fight until the next round of violence. This is a positive development; it’s good that the Israeli military is speaking clearly both within and without. But one must take all this with the proper caution. It’s much easier to declare victory in an exercise than in a war, whereas the direction in which things develop at the moment of truth is to a large extent dependent on the dialogue between the general staff and the political echelon.

The cabinet and the security cabinet, as was made very clear during the recent conflicts in Lebanon and Gaza, aren’t eager to set detailed or ambitious goals for the military. In many cases the general staff has been forced to derive the objectives of a campaign through the creative interpretation of the overly general guidelines it received from above. That’s one of the reasons behind the decision two years ago by IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot to publish a document on the military’s strategy that for the first time addressed these issues publicly. This time, it seems, at least most of the ministers in the security cabinet will make an effort to watch parts of the exercise, after most were absent from the general staff exercise last year.

Hezbollah is aware of the Israeli military’s preparations for the exercise and is expected to do its utmost to analyze Israel’s plans and assess its capabilities. Despite the soothing messages emerging from Israel, which stress that this is no more than a drill (with the Lower Galilee serving as “south Lebanon”), one can assume that regional anxieties will rise over the coming 10 days. Israel will seek to utilize the exercise to deliver a deterrent message: Despite Hezbollah’s improved capabilities over the past 11 years, the increase in the Israeli army’s aerial, intelligence, technological and ground maneuvering abilities is significantly greater. If Hezbollah makes the mistake of thinking that its achievements in the Syrian war have prepared it for success against the Israeli army, it will pay a heavy price.

The background for the exercise is the dramatic change in the regional picture. The war in Syria is far from over, but President Bashar Assad’s regime has been saved from defeat by Russian and Iranian intervention and by massive Hezbollah assistance, which blocked the rebels’ progress and in recent months even restored some key territories to Assad’s hands.

The Israeli intelligence community is still having a hard time assessing how Russia will act in the event of a war with Hezbollah. In Syria, Moscow and Hezbollah are in the same camp supporting the Assad regime, but the Russians are maintaining an open and friendly line of communication with Israel. If there were a war, Russia might try to deter Israel from pummeling Hezbollah, but it could also be that the Russians (in a situation in which America’s influence and regional involvement is waning) could be the ones to supply a diplomatic path out of the crisis.

In recent weeks there have once again been reports, which first surfaced in March, regarding efforts by Iran and Hezbollah to build factories in Lebanon to produce precision missiles. The idea that the producer of these dangerous weapons would be in close proximity to their end-users is of concern to Israel, but it seems as if there was some exaggeration about the immediacy of this threat. Israeli warnings have deterred Iran. Israel will apparently need to continue combining public declarations, diplomatic pressure and “below the radar” deterrent operations to keep this threat from ever coming to fruition.

In his memory

In one of those minor Twitter provocations that happen almost daily here, someone on the Israeli ight-wing fringe demanded that a criminal investigation be opened into the case of the late Mossad head Meir Dagan. Dagan, it was claimed, committed no less than treason in his contacts with the Americans regarding Israel’s plans to attack Iranian nuclear installations.

Eizenkot’s made the decision to call this exercise Or HaDagan (“The light of Dagan”), after Meir Dagan – whose last miltiary position was head of the Northern Corps – long before this minor storm erupted. Still, it’s a nice gesture to a true patriot, who, according to foreign reports, also played an active and important role in the decisions made by the Olmert government that preceded the attack in Syria, 10 years ago this week.