Analysis

Between Tehran and Washington, Hezbollah Is Limited in Its Response to Israel

Nasrallah may have issued a very direct threat during this round of hostilities, but Iranian interests and domestic Lebanese pressure are holding him back

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, speaks via a video link, during the first day of Ashoura, in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, August 31, 2019.
Hussein Malla / AP

Ironically, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has turned out to be a “fair” enemy. Nasrallah didn’t make do with promising to retaliate for Israel’s attack on Lebanese targets, including a planetary mixer meant to manufacture precision guided missiles. He also outlined the location and scope of this response, omitting only the timing.

Hezbollah would not attack “Haifa, and beyond Haifa,” as its leader declared during the Second Lebanon War in 2006; it would not launch missiles deep into Israel or hit civilian targets. Rather, its response would take place along the border.

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This precise description seems like a deviation from the balance of deterrence that has existed between Israel and Lebanon since 2006 and before it. Previously, Hezbollah always said it would respond when and where it saw fit, and that the scope of its response need not be proportionate to the Israeli attack.

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This is a significant shift in Hezbollah’s public and military policy. It bolsters the widespread assessment that Hezbollah isn’t interested in expanding its conflict with Israel, and therefore allows us to cautiously conclude that the military activity on Israel's northern border has likely reached its end.

Hezbollah’s turnabout stems from several new developments, some international and some domestic, which require it to act in a measured and even judicious fashion so as not to damage its allies inside Lebanon or the strategic backing it gets from Iran and Syria.

Lebanon map.

A few months ago, Lebanon began discussing the idea of merging Hezbollah’s troops into the Lebanese Army, thus granting Hezbollah legitimacy in the eyes of the international community, and especially the United States. But Nasrallah – who ever since Hezbollah was founded has seen it as the only defense force capable of confronting Israel – opposed the idea.

Although he has said in the past that he would be willing to disarm his organization once a Lebanese army capable of effectively defending the country arises, Nasrallah has never defined the parameters by which, in his view, the army’s effectiveness and capabilities should be judged.

In April, Lebanese Defense Minister Elias Bou Saab, an ally of President Michel Aoun, said that “as long as Israel has ambitions to take our land and our water, we can’t talk about a national defense strategy or a strong army that will be the only organization bearing arms.” The term “national defense strategy” is commonly used to refer to the idea of merging all of Lebanon’s armed groups, especially Hezbollah, into the Lebanese army.

Saab’s statement, which grants Hezbollah unlimited license to keep its arms and serve as a Lebanese defense force alongside the army, caused shockwaves in Washington and in the European Union, both of which are debating whether and how to cooperate with a Lebanese government in which Hezbollah members are ministers. Hezbollah can be pleased with the backing it received from its partners in the government and the president’s office, but it also understands the economic and diplomatic problems it causes Lebanon when it continues to threaten Israel and serves as an agent for carrying out Iranian policies in Syria and Lebanon.

Two weeks ago, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri went to Washington and met with senior administration officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He was asked how he plans to stop Hezbollah’s military activity, what he plans to do about its precision-missile factories and how he can reduce Iranian influence in his country. What he replied remains unknown.

At a press conference held after the official meetings, when asked whether the administration had demanded action on the missile factories, he replied that the issue has come up both in the past and this time as well, adding that negotiations are being held on the matter, but refused to provide further details. Then he threw two diplomatic bombshells that went virtually unnoticed in Israel.

First, Hariri said that in its relations with Israel, Lebanon is seeking to move from a “cessation of hostilities” – as required by UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the Second Lebanon War – to a formal cease-fire under UN auspices. The importance of this statement, beyond its potential impact on military relations between the two countries, is that a cease-fire requires a diplomatic agreement. Granted, it isn’t a peace agreement, but it does require formal mutual recognition.

Hariri later voiced hope that an agreement to mark the boundaries of both countries’ exclusive economic zones would be reached. He noted that such a move may lead to a major progress in September, enabling Lebanon to begin drilling for gas in the Mediterranean Sea.

But to reach a formal cease-fire with Israel, which is important to reassure the foreign investors needed to begin the gas drillings, Hariri will have to get Hezbollah’s consent. The organization doesn’t object to the negotiations with Israel over the boundaries of the countries’ exclusive economic zones, but it hasn’t yet gone public with its stance regarding a cease-fire.

Meanwhile, Lebanon is waiting impatiently for the $11 billion it was promised at a conference of donor states. The transfer of the funds was delayed by the country’s inability to form a stable government. And now that a government exists, donor states are waiting to see what sanctions the United States imposes on Lebanon, a move that will depend on what the prime minister does about Hezbollah.

Washington has imposed sanctions on two Lebanese ministers belonging to Hezbollah and on a Lebanese bank suspected of helping the organization, but so far, it has continued to provide Lebanon with military aid. It has trained 3,000 Lebanese soldiers, provided laser-guided missiles, six drones and armored vehicles worth $14.5 million. However, it has conditioned the continuation of this aid on a tough policy toward Hezbollah.

Since Hezbollah controls government ministries with large budgets, it is very interested in having the donors’ funds arrive, and does object to America aiding the Lebanese Army. But it understands that ministerial responsibility and a desire to receive generous government funding obligate it to tone down its anti-Israel activities and statements.

At the same time, Hezbollah is obligated to uphold Iranian interests in Lebanon, particularly given the strong competition between the Islamic Republic and Russia in Syrian territory. Nasrallah declared that “a war against Iran is a war against the entire axis of the resistance,” thus making it clear that Hezbollah would act to defend Tehran. But at the same time the Hezbollah leader avoided commenting on the American invitation to negotiation extended to Iranian leaders. If Iran decides to negotiate with the United States, Hezbollah would prefer not to become a central issue in these contacts, which could heat up the Lebanese-Israeli front.

Nasrallah must maneuver carefully between the Western pressures being brought to bear on the Lebanese government, which is also his government, and his Iranian mission, while also preserving his military might that gives him his strong political position. As Israel limits its activities on Lebanese soil, broadening military activity against Israel can’t serve Nasrallah's maneuverability at this time.