Analysis

While Hezbollah Threatens War, Israel and Lebanon Quietly Make History

After a decade of U.S. efforts, Israel and Lebanon will begin talks to determine maritime border ■ But both Hezbollah and Israel are still preparing a potentially catastrophic conflict ■ The Israeli army 'school' for studying Hezbollah revealed for first time

A UNIFIL ship is seen from the southern Lebanese coastal town of Naqura on the border with Israel, March 19, 2018.
Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP

Under the radar, this month Israel and Lebanon set an important milestone in their relations that could help prevent another war in the north. After almost a decade of American efforts, U.S. envoy David Satterfield persuaded the two countries to use a tripartite forum, together with the United States, to establish the maritime boundary between them.

Down the road, the deliberations are designed to let the Lebanese begin to explore for natural gas in the Mediterranean; Beirut hopes to upgrade its energy economy the way Israel did a few years ago.

The talks are due to begin at the end of this month at the UNIFIL base at Naqoura just north of the Israeli border. They will mainly be about a gas field whose boundaries the two countries disagree on. The discussion isn’t slated to include the land border, along which 13 points are still in dispute.

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Beirut’s willingness to hold direct talks on the maritime boundary after years of refusing to do so is apparently based largely on economic considerations. The absorption of hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Syrian civil war has imposed a tremendous burden on Lebanon, which the discovery of natural gas could ease. Such talks wouldn’t have happened without a green light from Hezbollah, which it gave for those very reasons.

According to Israeli intelligence, Iranian financial support for Hezbollah has fallen from $1 billion annually to about $600 million due to the U.S. sanctions. The organization also recently launched a crowdfunding campaign, via billboards, with the aim of overcoming its budget crisis. Presumably Hezbollah, as a key partner in the Lebanese parliament, hopes to receive its share of a future gas deal.

The decision to hold talks to set the maritime boundary is in sharp contrast to the public rhetoric of both the Israel Defense Forces and Hezbollah, a clash that usually focuses on exchanges of threats. In a speech at the beginning of this month, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said that if a war between the United States and Iran breaks out, it will ignite a conflagration in the entire region, and Israel will pay the price.

This week the annual memorial ceremony for Israeli soldiers who died in the Second Lebanon War was held. In his speech at the ceremony, the new Northern Command chief, Amir Baram, mentioned “the incitement and screaming” in Nasrallah’s recent declarations – “all of it, I’m telling you, as a result of huge stress.”

A few days earlier, Military Intelligence chief Tamir Hayman said in a speech at a weapons exhibition in Tel Aviv: “We don’t need Nasrallah to tell us what the situation of the [Hezbollah] rocket-accuracy project is. We know where it stands better than he does.” God only knows why Israeli generals, who were kindergarteners during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, need to be dragged by Nasrallah into once again making boastful threats.

Eisenkot and the north

The speeches and newspaper articles before the third Lebanon war are all part of psychological warfare between the sides. The mutual deterrence works pretty well. It’s now nearly 13 years since the last war, a disappointing tie with many losses on both sides that has helped put off the next outbreak.

The war in 2006 surprised Hezbollah, which didn’t expect Israel to respond so massively to the abduction of soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. It also surprised Iran, with which the abduction hadn’t been coordinated in advance. On the assumption that a future decision to start a war will be taken in Tehran, more than by Hezbollah in Beirut, it seems the continued quiet also reflects the Iranian agenda.

After the war and until about 2012, Hezbollah’s huge stockpile of rockets was built up mainly to serve as an Iranian second-strike capability if Israel made a first strike on nuclear sites. When the danger to its nuclear sites receded, Tehran focused on saving the Assad regime in Syria. About a third of Hezbollah’s standing army was sent under Iranian orders to the Syrian civil war, where the organization suffered heavy losses, about 2,000 dead. In such circumstances Iran and Hezbollah had no interest in a military conflict with Israel.

Things changed over the past year. Most of Hezbollah’s troops returned after the Syrian regime’s victory in the civil war (which is still raging, in a limited way, largely in the Idlib area in the north). Still, the talks on the maritime boundary and the tremendous potential of the gas explorations are an important consideration against another military round in which the Lebanese economy would suffer severe damage. The danger of a war still exists but mainly as a derivative of other fronts: the tension between Iran and the United States in the Gulf, and Israel’s campaign against Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria.

Israel also often mentions the danger in “precision factories” for Hezbollah rockets in Lebanon, but the choice of the public channel – for example, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at the UN General Assembly in September – shows that Israel prefers to lift the threat via diplomatic pressure. The issue also came up last month in a message conveyed by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who visited Lebanon after meetings in Israel.

The last time the tension in Lebanon threatened to boil over was December, after the IDF exposed six Hezbollah tunnels into Israel. At the end of May the army showed the media the sixth tunnel, which was dug from the Lebanese village of Ramyeh toward Zarit in the Western Galilee. This was the deepest tunnel, about 80 meters deep. Footage from inside showed that Hezbollah could have used it to send hundreds of fighters into Israel within a few hours.

The decision to destroy the tunnels, in an open operation, was entirely at the initiative of the previous army chief, Gadi Eisenkot. Between Eisenkot and the defense minister at the time, Avigdor Lieberman, a disagreement lasted several months over which problem was more urgent – the tunnels in the north or the continuing conflict with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, which sometimes escalated from violent demonstrations along the border fence to rocket fire. The move in favor of the north was depicted as a joint decision by Netanyahu and Eisenkot, which was implemented about three weeks after Lieberman resigned from the cabinet.

But in retrospect it appears that Eisenkot pushed Netanyahu into the decision. Eisenkot presented to the cabinet his proposal to deal quickly with Hezbollah’s tunnels on the margins of a different discussion, and without coordinating the proposal with Lieberman. Netanyahu quickly fell into step with Eisenkot, apparently because of the tension with Lieberman and fellow minister Naftali Bennett, and his fear of being perceived as too passive on both fronts.

Hezbollah’s doctrinal change

A senior officer in the Northern Command has told Haaretz that the operation “denied Hezbollah an important element in its future attack plan, which was supposed to surprise us. But it hasn’t stopped the organization from planning an attack or interfered with its motivation to advance the plan.”

The tunnels expressed Hezbollah’s doctrinal change in recent years: the realization that during a war, it needn’t confine itself to firing rockets into civilian areas and defending against an IDF ground maneuver. Instead, it can strike via surprise incursions. In training for this are the Radwan units, Hezbollah’s elite attack force that today numbers several thousand soldiers. These units acquired experience in the Syrian civil war and can use intelligence systems, drones and precision fire.

Though the balance of power clearly favors the IDF, the assumption is that in a war Hezbollah would for several hours or days take control of Israeli civilian areas or IDF positions along the border. Such a success would be a huge achievement in the public’s imagination, and Israel would have a hard time making people forget it, even if it subsequently wreaked destruction on southern Lebanon.

Hezbollah’s new interest in an attack will apparently also influence Israel’s preparedness. A deployment of Radwan forces would expose them to precision fire from Israel’s air and ground forces. Some of Northern Command’s plans have been updated accordingly and rely on a rapid defensive response, with the aim of exacting the highest price possible from Hezbollah’s elite force.

Destruction foretold

Recently a debate has raged in the army on the state of the ground forces. The criticisms, expressed this year forcefully by Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brik, focused on fitness levels, the limited extent of training maneuvers (mainly in reserve units) and the quality of the technical and logistical attention to Armored Corps vehicles. But on the northern front the IDF is also dealing with a doctrinal dilemma.

The huge rocket arsenal, and alongside it Hezbollah’s defensive deployment in southern Lebanon, were also built up to overcome the Israeli advantage and make the army lose any appetite for a ground conflict. Still, in all the public statements by top IDF officers, there has been an emphasis on the need to fight on the ground deep inside Lebanon to win the next war. But maneuvering deep inside Lebanon isn’t a matter of a few days. And as the Second Lebanon war (34 days) and the 2014 Gaza war (50 days) proved, for some time now Israel hasn’t been able to shorten wars as David Ben-Gurion preached in the ‘50s.

The cost of such a move, including in the IDF’s estimates, would be the lives of hundreds of soldiers, while the Israeli home front would be hit by rockets and missiles at a scale it never experienced. It’s no secret that Israel’s antimissile systems, which do well with the rocket threat from Gaza, aren’t built to thwart Hezbollah’s entire firepower.

And when the fighting is over, there’s no certainty the Israeli public – or the neighboring countries – would see it as a knockout by the IDF. Moreover, it’s impossible to ignore the economic angle. The Israeli economy is immeasurably more advanced than Lebanon’s, but it’s more vulnerable. A prolongation of the war, which would also entail extensive damage to civilian infrastructure, could knock the Israeli economy back many years.

The implicit message from the General Staff is that the IDF will defeat Hezbollah on Lebanese territory and Israelis on the home front will have to manage until they’re told they’ve won. Fighters, wrote British historian Basil Liddell Hart, have to believe in their ability to carry out their mission. So it’s not at all remarkable that top officers believe the solution they have in hand is the suitable one for victory. Yes, the talks on the maritime boundary are good news, but the next war could be a chronicle of destruction foretold, in Israel as well as in Lebanon.

The IDF in recent years has considerably increased its “target bank” against Hezbollah. Presumably the battle would end in considerable damage to those targets. It’s harder to define the strategic aim Israel would want to achieve apart from obtaining an additional period of quiet in the north.

It also seems Israel perceives Hezbollah as one big target bank, not an enemy organization with a leadership and considerations of its own. On the fifth and even the seventh day of the war, as the air force pulverized the enemy and the tanks rumbled north, would Nasrallah raise a white flag?

These uncertainties will also affect the multiyear plan being crafted by the new chief of staff, Aviv Kochavi. This week, at a conference of top IDF officers, Kochavi reiterated his commitment to upgrade the ground forces. But implementation of the multiyear plan is expected to be delayed because of Netanyahu’s decision to hold another election, after which there will still be a need to plug the big hole in the national budget.

In the background is Security Concept 2030, which Netanyahu presented to the IDF before the last election. This still isn’t a detailed plan but it’s clear that the prime minister, who currently also is defense minister, isn’t putting his chips on the ground forces but rather on directing huge budgets to the air force, precision-fire capabilities, intelligence and cyberwar.

In this gap, between Kochavi’s plans and Netanyahu’s vision, lies some of the IDF’s problems regarding Lebanon. In a ground battle against Hezbollah, which would take place in a densely built-up area, Israel fears it wouldn’t chalk up the achievement it wanted at a price it could afford to pay.

Studying Hezbollah

At the start of the second week of the Second Lebanon War, a unit of the elite Maglan force set out to capture Givat Shaked, an old IDF position that had been abandoned with the withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000. The soldiers had received only general information about entrenchments observed on the ridge. They had no idea that Hezbollah had built an outpost based on underground bunkers.

In a battle there, two IDF soldiers and five Hezbollah fighters were killed. In retrospect, it became clear that Israeli intelligence had detailed information on Hezbollah’s capability there, including at Shaked. But the intelligence people feared a leakage of information – and the very relevant intelligence was kept in crates that weren’t opened when the war began.

For the IDF, the war was a big disappointment, a long chain of small traumas that taught lessons. One of those lessons concerns the establishment of the “Study Hall” in the Galilee Formation (the 91st Division) about six years ago. This is a kind of intelligence school on the study of Hezbollah, for all officers assigned at any given time to the Lebanon sector, or who are slated to be sent there during an emergency. Many classification restrictions have been lifted, with the aim of enabling officers to receive maximum information about the enemy.

The division’s intelligence officer, Lt. Col. Y., has told Haaretz that “the extent of the information depends on the assignment and rank of the officers. We take the raw intelligence and adapt it to the needs relevant to the commanders, without revealing its source. For us, it’s a process of maturation here, which enables more openness in transmitting the information.”

He says the risk now is opposite to what it was in 2006: “We need to be careful about flooding them with too much intelligence; instead we give the commanders the information they need. You tell the commanders: This is the infrastructure of the information, this is how you’ll use it in an emergency, and these are the information systems at your disposal. And you also notify them: Here there’s a closed window of even more classified information that will be put at your disposal only at a time of war.”

Every year the study hall, headed a veteran intelligence corps major, holds about 280 meetings with IDF officers. Every brigade commander whose unit is in Northern Command’s operational plans comes there with his officers twice a year. Officers also answer soldiers’ questions about Hezbollah. Every year, about 700 answers are sent and the study hall promises to answer every question in a few days – if the soldier is authorized to receive it.

In the coming months the IDF is slated to launch, in cooperation with a civilian company, a simulator that mimics a battle with Hezbollah (a similar system is already in operation in preparation for fighting in Gaza). “We didn’t have anything similar to this system in 2006,” the intelligence officer says.