Analysis

Tunnel Demolition Operation: Hezbollah Is in No Hurry to Battle Israel

The Shi’ite militia has managed to forge an equilibrium after the 2006 war that allows it to grow stronger in southern Lebanon and act freely in Syria: they have no interest in upsetting the balance at this time

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah gives a speech via a video link at a rally marking Hezbollah Martyr's Day, in Beirut, Lebanon, November 10, 2018.
Bilal Hussein,AP

When Israel can't bomb Syria, or at least can't act freely as it did before the accidental downing of a Russian plane by Syrian missiles, the Lebanese front gets closer, a front that has been quiet for years. Moving the front from Syria to Lebanon, if that's indeed Israel’s intention, narrows its strategic objectives and positions them around Hezbollah – as opposed to the broader objectives of the war against Iran in Syria.

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Israel made clear in Syria, with the full backing of the United States, that it wouldn't let Iran gain a foothold along the border. It used its attacks to stop the transfer of weapons and equipment from Iran, through Syria, to Hezbollah, and conveyed a combative message to Tehran. Now Israel is restricted to diplomacy against Iran in Syria, and if Israel plans to t Hezbollah, it will have to do so in Lebanon.

This turn of events was clearly alluded to by the U.S. special envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey, who in a briefing to the media last month said the departure of Iranian forces from Syria would come via diplomatic and political efforts; that is, not by force.

Another message came from Jeffrey on Tuesday when, in a meeting with the ambassadors of France, Britain, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, he proposed no-fly zones for Syria like the ones in Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War. This very suggestion could betray an American attempt to restrict not only Russia’s involvement – through the United Nations – but also Israel’s involvement. Jeffrey’s suggestion probably won't come to fruition, especially because of Moscow’s opposition, but it contains a clear hint to Israel as well.

Israeli military digger works on the border with Lebanon in the northern Israeli town of Metula, Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018.
Ariel Schalit,AP

At the same time, it seems that reviving the fighting in Lebanon, as an alternative to Syria, is an undesirable scenario both for Israel and Hezbollah. For now, this scenario could only occur as a result of a mistake in the field such as a strike against Hezbollah fighters or unconstrained shooting by Hezbollah at Israeli engineering equipment at the border.

In recent months, Hezbollah has had a hard time reaping the political capital it desires in its efforts to establish a government in Lebanon. Hezbollah wants at least 11 ministers in the cabinet so it can prevent decisions not to its liking.

According to the Lebanese constitution, such major decisions like budgets, national projects or treaties require the support of two-thirds of the cabinet. So it's enough if one bloc has a majority of one-third plus one (11 of the 30 cabinet seats).

Indonesian U.N peacekeepers stand in front a poster of Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, on the Lebanese side of the border in the village of Kfar Kila, Lebanon, on Tuesday, December 4, 2018.
Mohammed Zaatari,AP
Israeli block a road on the border with Lebanon in the northern Israeli town of Metula, Tuesday, December 4, 2018.
Ariel Schalit,AP

To reach that number, Hezbollah needs one Sunni minister (it has already exhausted its quota of Shi’ite ministers) from the Sunni legislators who support the organization. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Sunni, is against this. Not only would his bloc lose a minister, he  doesn't want to give Hezbollah the political power it covets.

And as long as there's no new government, there's no one to make decisions, which has been the case since Lebanon's May elections.

This political struggle is preoccupying Hezbollah at the moment, so it doesn't want to test its strength again against Israel in a violent clash now. Such a confrontation would force Hezbollah to breach the convenient balance of deterrence that it has forged since the 2006 Second Lebanon War.

In Hezbollah’s view, this balance of deterrence has kept the peace on the border and let it grow stronger in southern Lebanon – and not only there. It has allowed Hezbollah almost unimpeded action in Syria, without fear that Israel would attack it in Lebanon in the meantime. It has also allowed Hezbollah to hold on to its political power, thanks to its ability to threaten that it can always get Israel to attack Lebanon if the group decides to act against its southern neighbor.

Hezbollah assumes, or at least hopes, that Israel is also satisfied with the balance of deterrence and that it doesn't intend to strike. So far, neither Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah nor any of his deputies have released a statement on the Israeli army’s operation against the group's attack tunnels on the border with Israel.

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It seems that as long as Israel is operating in its own territory and doesn't cross the border into Lebanon – on the ground – Hezbollah will continue its policy of shrugging its shoulders. The more serious threat lies in the possibility that Israel will attack the missile factories in Lebanon and force Hezbollah to respond.

Israel has been trying to convey aggressive messages to Iran and Hezbollah through European countries and Russia, and to a lesser extent through the United States. The problem is that this pressure doesn't have an effective address.

Israel can declare that it considers the Lebanese government responsible for developments, but with no government, there is no one to pressure Hezbollah. The United States can freeze the record-high assistance it gives the Lebanese army, but this would be a case of shooting itself in the foot.

Russia, which wants peace and quiet in Lebanon, can theoretically demand that Iran rein in Hezbollah, but it needs Iran to promote the political process in Syria, just as Iran needs Russia to get around the American sanctions.

Saudi Arabia, which has tried to spark a revolution in Lebanon, folded after the fiasco of Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri’s resignation, and its leverage in Lebanon is very limited. At the same time, Israel is actually the most sensitive to international pressure, both from Russia and the United States, as well as from Egypt, which is working vigorously in Gaza and doesn't want to be dragged into a diplomatic fight in a conflict that doesn't threaten it.

In this tense web of pressure, Israel needs insight and great caution when it tries to push the limits and test its options in Lebanon. This arena is no longer a Lebanese-Israeli brawl, it has the potential to lead to a broader conflict in which the world powers get involved.