Analysis

How Israel Can Prevent a Third Lebanon War

The Israeli interest and lessons of long-past wars demand serious discussion of diplomatic alternatives

Hezbollah supporters cover their faces with portraits of leader Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut, Lebanon, on June 23, 2017.
Hussein Malla/AP

These very days, the Iran-Assad-Hezbollah axis, with the help of Russia, is wrapping up its conquest of the Syrian arena before going on to creating a “Shi'ite crescent” stretching to the shores of Lebanon. Meanwhile, the Israeli defense establishment has embarked on an international media campaign to frustrate the establishment of an Iranian weapons plant in Lebanon. The likelihood of more violence erupting seems to have increased, though again the cliché is being bandied about that neither of the parties – as though there were only two involved – want escalation.

The triumph in Syria and Hezbollah's massive fortification since the Second Lebanon War create a difficult but clear strategic equation for a third Lebanon war: Israel will destroy civilian infrastructure and residential neighborhoods in Beirut. Hezbollah will destroy civilian infrastructure and residential neighborhoods in Israeli cities. Hundreds, maybe thousands, will pay with their lives while Hezbollah will achieve “victory photographs” in the first days of fighting.

In his report on Operation Protective Edge, the state comptroller said the cabinet had not been offered diplomatic alternatives that could have rendered the war unnecessary.

So before we stumble into another war in Lebanon, which will end in another commission of inquiry or state comptroller report that never gets implemented, Israel’s political, military and professional leadership should be required to formulate political alternatives and seriously discuss them. The broader public should also consider the cost-benefit of war, which is almost always avoidable. We all pay the price of war and are entitled to try to affect relevant decisions.

There are three types of political alternatives: one that obviates military moves by the sovereign; one that supplements military moves through diplomacy; and an alternative that defines a diplomatic-strategic framework for military and other moves. In the present Lebanese context, Israel has plenty of political alternatives of all three types.

Here’s one: In any future conflict, Israel could suggest removing civilian targets from the fighting. In the case of war, both parties to the conflict – and let’s not get into the important question of who is the party on the Lebanese side, Hezbollah or the Lebanese state – would confine their actions to military targets. That would protect Israeli targets like the deepwater Tamar oil rig, residential neighborhoods or Azrieli Towers in central Tel Aviv. Lebanese targets like the international airport, oil refineries or residential neighborhoods would be out of bounds. The belligerent parties would take aim exclusively at military targets, such as missile launch sites and army camps on the Lebanon side, and clear Israel Defense Forces targets on the Israeli side.

The benefits of this alternative for Israel are obvious. The home front would suffer enormously less damage and the whole nation would breathe easier; Israel’s military superiority could be expressed. International opprobrium at the harm done to civilians would be neutralized. If indeed there is a threat of “terror tunnels” dug by Hezbollah against the towns of northern Israel, it too would be rendered moot, or at least constrained.

Would the Lebanese side agree? Pressure could be exerted through the right political activity internally, regionally and internationally. They would be hard-pressed to justify the refusal to protect their own home front. The opponents' main argument would be that Israel can't be trusted. To counter that, the United States, Russia, the UN, Europe and the Arab nations, all of which would like to stabilize the region, could be asked for guarantees.

In Israel, three arguments will be raised against the proposal. One: It would constrain the Israeli army’s freedom of action. Two: Agreements can’t be reached with Hezbollah. Three: It’s impossible to distinguish between civilian targets and military ones.

Regarding the first argument, there is no denying that the proposal would translate into negating the Israeli army’s ability to carry out the “Dahiya doctrine,” or the threat of destroying civilian infrastructure to deter the enemy from using it for military purposes. The Dahiya doctrine proved not to work during the Grapes of Wrath campaign in Lebanon in 1996, nor during the Second Lebanon War in 2006. The doctrine assumes that under fire, the Lebanese people and the international community would force Hezbollah to desist. However, a sober assessment would conclude that in 2017, the international community cannot – and probably doesn’t want to – back Israel. It would also conclude that the Lebanese, whether out of fear or solidarity, wouldn’t be helpful in this respect either. The Israeli army can take on Hezbollah on its own – as well as the Lebanese army, if it joins the conflict – even under the constraint of eschewing civilian targets; taking the broader view, the IDF could conceivably even present a better strategic achievement.

As for the second argument, international constraints that would be imposed on Hezbollah, including those by its friend Russia, would make it very hard for it to violate the agreement. If it would anyway, the international legitimacy Israel would gain would be a significant strategic asset in the conflict.

And on distinguishing targets, Hezbollah goes to a great deal of effort to conceal military systems inside civilian areas. It is in Israel’s interest to expose that practice. The present mandate of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon does not include appropriate powers. The mandate of the suggested international supervisory mechanism could be more effective.

Finally, a similar idea was tried in the past, with quite a bit of success. In 1996, Israel and Hezbollah reached the Grapes of Wrath Understandings, a short document stating that neither would attack civilian targets within the security zone in south Lebanon. Both kept their promises for several years under international supervision.

The Israeli interest and lessons of long-past wars demand serious discussion of diplomatic alternatives. The politicians are neglecting their duty to think of such alternatives, and military experts are finding difficulty gaining an ear among the leadership for ideas of this ilk. In fact, it’s unclear what Israeli body sees itself responsible for this sort of thing. In this difficult reality, the Israeli public, the media, the Knesset and state oversight agencies should create the necessary public pressure.

The author is a former deputy chairman of the National Security Council and head of policy planning at Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.