An entire week passed between an attack in Damascus that has been attributed to Israel, in which a Hezbollah operative was killed, and Monday’s brief clash between the Israel Defense Forces and the Shi’ite Muslim organization. In that time the IDF made preparations for any scenario, not knowing which Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah would choose. Israel was left guessing whether Nasrallah has obtained the revenge he sought or whether it must continue to wait for the other shoe to drop.
Assessments of his possible responses were based on past experience and on the recognition that Hezbollah is a rational organization. In other words, it’s a political group, not just a military one, one that is ensnared in a web of political and economic crises. Its standing in Lebanon is based not only on its ability to provoke Israeli operations against civilian targets in Lebanon, thus jeopardizing the stability of a regime in which it is a partner. This is an organization that, like the Israeli government, must consider the reaction of Lebanon’s residents, who see it as one of the main culprits in the country’s economic collapse.
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Hezbollah holds some key Lebanese cabinet portfolios, including health, making it responsible for handling the coronavirus pandemic. The organization supports the government’s request for aid from Western countries and for a loan from the International Monetary Fund, as well as contributions from the European donor states that promised Lebanon $11 billion two years ago. Such an organization, according to analysts, cannot risk a war or a response that might lead to one. Hezbollah’s rationality obliges it to maintain not only a balance of deterrence vis-à-vis Israel, but also a balance of containment. Nasrallah plots a clear course between these two.
Israel Air Force overflights of Lebanon have become something Hezbollah contains, without mounting a response. The same goes for Israeli airstrikes in Syria, even when directed at arms convoys intended for Hezbollah or its military depots. Concerns that Hezbollah would act against Israel on behalf of Iran and respond in its stead to strikes attributed to Israel, will not be realized. With regard to deterrence, Hezbollah is operating as an organization with a separate balance sheet in its dealings with Israel, not as a representative of an enemy state. This was the case in the summer of 2006, when it abducted IDF soldiers in an operation that led to the Second Lebanon War. The operation had been intended to settle scores with Israel over its abductions of Hezbollah operatives and the incarceration of convicted terrorist Samir Kuntar.
Two months earlier, Nasrallah informed Lebanon’s then-Prime Minister Fouad Siniora that this reckoning was a matter pertaining to Israel and Hezbollah, unrelated to Lebanon’s government. Nasrallah erred, admitting much later that had he known that this would be the result of the kidnaping, he would not have gone through with it. One doesn’t have to take his words at face value, but since then the organization has conducted its operations against Israel based on the conception that deterrence must be accompanied by a measure of containment, without which he could find himself in a state of constant war against Israel, with no exit points, something which could undermine his political power in Lebanon.
The eliciting of an automatic Israeli response anytime he felt like activating the IDF in order to demonstrate his control of Lebanon’s future started working against Nasrallah, threatening his deployment of strategic missiles, an inseparable part of the deterrence balance but one that is protected by the organization’s containment policy. This policy has prevented Israeli strikes against Hezbollah’s missile bases, although these are a greater threat than the missile warehouses in Syria, which Israel strikes at will.
“Israel is as determined as ever to prevent any harm to its sovereignty, soldiers and civilians. Lebanon and Syria are sovereign states and carry full responsibility for any terrorism activity that may occur in their area,” Defense Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz said in a joint statement with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after Monday’s incident. Interestingly, he did not threaten Hezbollah, only Syria and Lebanon as sovereign states. Israel relates to this sovereignty selectively. Israel relates to Syria – where Russia is in control, with Iran assisting on the side – as it does to the Gaza Strip, entering and leaving as it pleases, clearly violating Syria’s sovereignty. It is careful, however, not to attack regime targets, lest it forfeit the license for action given by Russia. In Lebanon, another country whose sovereignty hangs by a thread, Israel treads with caution due to the balance of deterrence with Hezbollah, and because it too is committed to containment. This is how rational enemies operate.
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A balance of containment sounds less aggressive or violent than a balance of deterrence. It is characterized by restraint, caution and an ability to sustain some blows, ostensibly unbefitting a state that seeks to terrify organizations and countries in the region. But this is how Israel operates in relation to Hamas as well. Ostensibly, it strikes Gaza every time a rocket is launched from the territory into Israel, but in practice it often chooses not to respond when containment serves its political or military interests. It has accepted Hamas rule in Gaza and made it an indirect partner in the effort to obtain a tahadiya, or cessation of hostilities, while permitting the transfer of funds to Hamas leaders. There is no more talk of eliminating them. These policies in regard to Hamas and Hezbollah are essential if Israel wishes to avoid war.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Samir Kuntar was rearrested by Israel. In fact, he was arrested once, and released as part of a prisoner-exchange deal in 2008.