A Third Lebanon War? Not So Fast

A decade after the Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah uses the threat of renewed fighting with Israel to its advantage.

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Lebanese people walk next to a portrait of Hezbollah leader Skeik Hassan Nasrallah placed on a destroyed street, in the Hezbollah strongholds of the southern suburbs of Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday Aug. 16, 2006. Tens of thousands of people have returned to their shattered villages in eastern and southern Lebanon as well as Beirut's southern suburbs, or Dahiyeh, to find their homes either damaged or totally destroyed in a month of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah.
A portrait of Hezbollah leader Skeik Hassan Nasrallah placed on a destroyed street, in the Hezbollah strongholds of the southern suburbs of Beirut, Lebanon, Aug. 16, 2006.Credit: Hussein Malla, AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“Israel is preparing for a third war against Lebanon,” the Hezbollah website Al-Manar reported last month. Al-Manar did not invent this story, it gleaned it from a variety of headlines and analyses in the Israeli media. No response to these reports from Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah or senior members of the organization was forthcoming, which means “this is what the Israelis are saying and there is nothing to add.” Ten years after the Second Lebanon War Nasrallah no longer needs to respond to everything Israel says. The balance of power and deterrence is known to both sides. If Israel starts a war it will not be alone in the field, which is crowded with players – Iranians, Russians, Syrians, Islamic State , along with Hezbollah.

    This is an entirely different playing field than the one Israel faced in 2006 when Syria had pulled its forces out of Lebanon the year before in the wake of the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri and huge demonstrations in Lebanon demanding a Syrian withdrawal. But Damascus’ diplomatic presence and involvement in every aspect of Lebanese politics did not end with the withdrawal of troops.

    In those days Iran dictated Assad’s policy from afar and of course that of Hezbollah; Saudi Arabia created a strong alliance with Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and with al-Mustaqbal (the Future Movement), interfered and paid huge sums to win over opponents – but not Hezbollah, while the United States saw to it that the crumbling Lebanese government would take a pro-American stance. Turkey restored its ties with Syria, ISIS had not yet been born and Al–Qaida was preoccupied with bloody wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    In those days Hezbollah had only one military front, against Israel, and one political front, against the Siniora government. No one even dreamed of war in Syria.

    On the Israeli side deterrence was not vis-a-vis the Lebanese government and its army, but against Hezbollah and its leader Nasrallah, who was touted back in 2000 as the man who had defeated Israel and caused it to withdraw from Lebanon. The old Israeli strategy, which assumed that destruction of civilian infrastructure would generate a civilian or at least a government uprising against Nasrallah, did not work. Not during the first Lebanon war, not in the subsequent massive assaults and not in the Second Lebanon War.

    “Muqawama” – resistance – became a national byword, almost sacred, despite the courageous opposition by Prime Minister Siniora and some of his supporters.

    Israeli soldiers carry an Israeli flag followed by a column of troops as they cross a fence marking the border between Lebanon and Israel, in Aug. 15, 2006. Credit: Oded Balilty, AP

    UN Resolution 1701 that ended the Second Lebanon War gave broader powers to the Lebanese Army and deployed UN soldiers along the border of southern Lebanon, but it soon became clear that it was Nasrallah who decided when and how the UN soldiers would monitor events. The clause in the resolution on preventing weapons from reaching Hezbollah has remained a dead letter to this day.

    Nasrallah based deterrence on a soft and vulnerable element – the Israeli public. The concept of “asymmetrical war” was emptied of meaning. Nasrallah does not need planes or tanks to establish deterrence. That was in contrast to Israel, which estimated Nasrallah’s strength in terms of weapons, ammunition, and the numbers of missiles and fighters.

    Nasrallah learned Israel’s weak points and based his strength on them. He knew Israeli behavior well by following the Israeli media. Al-Manar broadcast portions of Israeli news programs and managed to turn Nasrallah’s speeches into the most important shows in Israel. “The Israelis believe me more than their leaders. You know that when we say something, we mean it,” he said. And when Israel declared that it had destroyed half of Hezbollah’s arsenal, he suggested that Israelis demand proof.

    Nasrallah played three roles: bitter enemy, commentator on the war and skilled observer of Israeli society. His speeches usually had three parts: Encouragement of his fighters and of Lebanese civilians, a wrap-up of the daily fighting, and a“conversation” with Israelis. The instruction by the director of the Israel Broadcasting Authority to filter Nasrallah’s speeches only proved how successful he was at making himself at home in every Israeli living room.

    But Nasrallah made a mistake when he dragged Israel to war. He would eventually concede that had he known the extent of Israel’s response he would not have abducted the Israel Defense Forces soldiers. If he meant that seriously, it shows that he had been relying on the old tit-for-tat strategy. Abduction did not seem to him to be an incident over which Israel would launch an all-out war, but rather, only a localized, limited assault.

    Looking back, it seems that Nasrallah “understood” the Israeli public more than he did the Israeli government. Something had malfunctioned in Hezbollah’s political analysis – in what was not the last time the organization failed to grasp political thinking and decision-making in Israel.

    Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah addresses his supporters through a giant screen during a rally commemorating the annual Hezbollah Martyrs' Leader Day in Beirut, Lebanon, Feb. 16, 2016. Credit: Reuters

    The deterrence equation between Hezbollah and Israel was not born in the Second Lebanon War. But that war produced an unusual strategic model. In it, an organization managed to use a state to strengthen it, whereas ordinarily it is states that get organizations to serve their interests. Iran uses Hezbollah in this way, and once used Hamas as its representative in Palestine. In Iraq the United States established and fielded organizations that do not always do its bidding. It also relied on armed groups in Afghanistan and in the 1980s, in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, cooperated with Al Qaida. The war in Syria presents a similar model.

    In contrast to this, Hezbollah is ostensibly a threat to Israel, but the organization can “activate” Israel against Lebanese civilians and in that way it can prevail in any domestic or foreign quarrel. Theoretically the organization doesn’t need to use its arms against rivals in Lebanon; it merely has to threaten to provoke Israel to strike out in the Lebanese arena.

    Hezbollah’s involvement in the war in Syria, in which it does not set the agenda, has blunted the immediacy of the organization’s threat to Israel. In Syria its role has been restricted to that of mercenary in the service of Iran and Assad, a militia operating against other militias and incurring heavy losses. But in Lebanon it can still prevent the election of the president, freeze decisions of the government of which it is a member and obstruct what it considers to be undesirable legislation. Its power in Lebanon does not come from its participation in the war in Syria, but from the deterrence it created against Israel. This is a situation in which Hezbollah enjoys the best of both worlds. A third war in Lebanon will not ensure an end to that deterrence.

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