Hezbollah Gave Israel a Text-book Lesson in Retaliation Without Escalation

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Hezbollah fighters hold their party flags, as they parade during a rally to mark the 13th day of Ashoura in the southern market town of Nabatiyeh, Lebanon, Friday, Nov. 7, 2014.Credit: AP

Israeli leaders are bent on imprinting in our minds that Israel seeks peace while our enemies' fanaticism keeps forcing us into war. But perhaps Israel has been a willing agent in inflaming conflicts with its enemies Hezbollah and Hamas. How? By escalating the level of violence when retaliating against their attacks, rather than pursuing a strategy that's more disposed to managing the conflict.

Israel could learn a thing or two from Hezbollah on this front. Two weeks of silence since the latest round of fighting have proven that Hezbollah's strike on Har Dov was a textbook example of retaliation without escalation. That is, it demonstrated how two enemies can end a round of conflict without negotiation, mediation or a cease-fire agreement.

In the latest round of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, the militant group followed to a fault the proscription of scholar Robert Axelrod on how to employ a "tit for tat" strategy to induce cooperation without the need for negotiation or written agreements. Axelrod's theory suggests striking back without escalating while communicating that one will cooperate if their opponent cooperates and respond in kind if their opponent cheats.

Hezbollah had avoided incursions into sovereign Israeli territory for a year prior to the strike attributed to Israel on a convoy in Syria that killed Jihad Mughniyeh and others. Hezbollah responded in measured kind with the Har Dov attack. After that incident, it immediately communicated to Israel that it considered the matter of the Mughniyeh killing over. Finally, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah announced that the group would retaliate should Israel continue to attack its positions.

Lo and behold, Hezbollah's behavior allowed Israel to bark down its tree and avoid the war that neither side is interested in fighting. But wait, didn't Netanyahu just tell us that Hezbollah wants to destroy Israel and is as heinous as the Nazis? It would seem Hezbollah has other interests more important to it right now, such as its involvement in the Syrian civil war and Lebanese politics.

While there is no disputing Hezbollah's militancy (and that of Israel's other arch-enemy, Hamas), it is dangerous to confuse extremism with irrationality.

Why did Hezbollah attack in the first place? According to how Nasrallah framed it, Israel was trying to "lay the foundation for a new (military) equation in the framework of our struggle with them and achieve by these strikes what they could not achieve in war." In other words, Israel was changing the rules of engagement, forcing Hezbollah to respond.

Ironically, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said the same thing about Hezbollah's Har Dov attack, arguing that it was trying to change the "rules of the game." He called for a "forceful and disproportionate" response, because "containing" the incident, he said, would cause "serious damage to Israel's deterrence."

Think about it: Extremist Hezbollah responds to Israel's attempt to change the status quo with a measured attack, then one of Israel's leaders calls for escalation in the face of the same challenge. Who's the rational actor here?

Fortunately, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected Lieberman's advice. Had he taken it, and had an escalation ensued, Israel would surely have retroactively blamed Hezbollah, when we now know – after two weeks of quiet along the northern border – that Hezbollah's retaliation engendered silent cooperation.

Now consider how last summer's conflict between Israel and Hamas spun out of control. Had Israel been more measured in its retaliation to the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers by Hamas operatives, the rate of Palestinian rocket and mortar fire probably would not have accelerated from five in May to nearly 1,500 in July. By the time Israel was considering how to respond to the discovery of the boys' bodies in early July, it was almost impossible to prevent the summer war that might never have been.

While we cannot change the past, we can change the future. Recognizing that Hezbollah's missiles may be more for deterrence than a suicidal war against Israel could help us avoid the next unnecessary battle.

Unfortunately, there are elements in the current government such as Lieberman and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett who endanger Israel's interests because their narratives dictate that the only way to deal with Hezbollah and Hamas is with massive retaliation. The upcoming election will determine how much say they have in the next crisis.

Dr. Steven Klein is an adjunct professor at Tel Aviv University's International Program in Conflict Resolution and Mediation, and is a senior editor at Haaretz.

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