Rumors are circulating in the Middle East that Israel may consider initiating a war with Hezbollah in the near future.
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This month, the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar reported that Saudi Arabia’s decision to take punitive actions against Lebanon and to declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization “whetted Israel’s appetite” for war with the self-styled Party of God. The article further noted that American officials informed their Lebanese counterparts “not to give Israel an excuse to start a war.”
Now that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Arab League followed suit in designating Hezbollah a terrorist entity, the organization is facing regional isolation and domestic backlash. Arab sources intuit that the current atmosphere provides the Jewish state with the cover it needs to take preemptive and preventive action to finally put an end to the Hezbollah threat now looming on its northern borders.
Israel’s case for war is difficult to ignore. The military expertise Hezbollah operatives learned in Syria has made it a battle-hardened force with newfound offensive capabilities. Military knowledge was surely passed on from Russian and Iranian advisors and while Israel tried to hit weapons transfers to Hezbollah during the span of the Syrian civil war, Hezbollah has acquired advanced weapons that will be used in the next round of conflict with the IDF. The group is also trying to establish a second front in the Syrian Golan Heights from which it can fight Israel.
Moreover, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is toning up his rhetoric against Israel, recently commenting that the next war may include a Hezbollah invasion of the Galilee and stating that Hezbollah could hit civilian Israeli chemical plants to cause mass casualties equivalent to that of a nuclear blast. There are also persistent rumors that Hezbollah is digging a network of tunnels into Israel: although none have been found, IDF officials still say it's a cause of concern given that the tactic caused the death of many IDF soldiers in Gaza during 2014’s Operation Protective Edge and was used, rather successfully, by Hezbollah in the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War.
New estimates quantify Hezbollah’s arsenal of missiles and rockets at approximately 150,000. IDF officials have cautioned the Israeli public that the next round of conflict could result in thousands of Israeli civilian deaths. Therefore, the impulse within Israel to conduct a large-scale war against its most lethal foe, armed with the element of surprise and possible backdoor collaboration with the Arab world, is justifiably strong.
Notwithstanding this sobering assessment, it would be preferable for Israel to show strategic patience and restraint. A preemptive war now would be misguided and would only serve the interests of the Party of God, proving to the Lebanese that Hezbollah is still needed as the “resistance” force that protects Lebanon from “Israeli aggression.” A war started by Israel would restore Hezbollah’s legitimacy and reconstitute even if only in a limited way the Arab unity that eroded when it chose to enter the largely sectarian fray in Syria.
As the Gulf states’ draconian travel and economic measures target all Lebanese, as opposed to Hezbollah specifically, Israel has the opportunity to improve its image in the eyes of the Lebanese people, whose secular and diverse nature and modernist tendencies (outside of Hezbollah) make Lebanon a natural ally of the Jewish state. An attempt to change the behavior of Lebanon vis-à-vis Hezbollah and helping the Arab world isolate and disarm it requires a partnership - even if unspoken - between Israel and the moderate Arab states; the Arab League's heavy-handed de-legitimization of Hezbollah, a negative incentive, complemented by an act of Israeli positive incentive - extending an olive branch to more moderate actors within or close to the Lebanese government.
Such an act of good will should come in the form of publically demonstrating an interest in resolving the Har Dov/Shebaa Farms (hereinafter “Shebaa Farms”) territorial dispute. This 12 square-mile region – one that does not hold major strategic or other value – serves to justify Hezbollah’s professed reasons for remaining an armed fighting force. It ostensibly seeks to liberate the rest of this Lebanese territory from Israeli occupation. That is why most of Hezbollah’s attacks against the IDF are launched from this area; it gives Hezbollah’s actions a modicum of credibility to the Lebanese populace.
The reality is quite different: Shebaa Farms is more of a pretext than an authentic fundamental issue that, if resolved, could lead directly to Hezbollah disarming on its own. However, a well-timed gesture of peace would undermine Hezbollah’s putative raison d’etre and assist the Arab push to demilitarize an Iranian proxy army that presents an increasing risk to Israeli security. Only the right combination of Arab and Israeli strategies could lead to Hezbollah disarming.
An offer to negotiate the terms of transfer of Shebaa Farms to Lebanon could lead to economic benefits for the Lebanese. For example, there are unsettled offshore maritime disputes between Israel and Lebanon that could be resolved in a more amicable and mutually beneficial manner. Drilling for offshore natural gas could provide Lebanon with much needed revenue. Efforts thus far have been stalled, in part due to domestic gridlock, but also because of the risks associated with its maritime dispute with Israel.
Hezbollah can only disarm itself and it will only do so under enormous pressure. There is already an undercurrent of anti-Hezbollah sentiment within Lebanon, even within the Shi’a community and with historical allies of Hezbollah such as the Amal Movement. In addition, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon just issued a report highlighting the fact that Hezbollah’s arms only bring harm to Lebanon. The Lebanese citizenry, if properly incentivized, may soon realize that the costs of hosting an armed Hezbollah – an unarmed Hezbollah could still provide its myriad social services – are too high given the status quo benefits and the alternatives to near complete regional isolation and the growing prospect of war.
An Israeli offer regarding Shebaa Farms could very well be rejected due to the continued occupation of the Palestinians, but even a rebuffed proposal may yield desired effects:
Firstly, a proposal that would deprive Hezbollah of its primary excuse for attacking Israel will give progressive thought leaders within Lebanon much-needed leverage in their ongoing campaign against Hezbollah. It would also provide a low cost opportunity to test the waters in terms of how toxic minimal normalization with Israel would now be.
Secondly, it would allay the concerns of the countless Lebanese who conditionally support an armed Hezbollah because they believe Israel is a hostile neighbor actively seeking to flatten Beirut and send Lebanon back 300 years – thus, potentially swaying public opinion against an armed Hezbollah.
Thirdly, if war were to eventually break out between Hezbollah and the IDF after a good faith effort by Israel to return Shebaa Farms, responsibility for the inevitably substantial Lebanese civilian casualties would, to an unspecified degree, fall on Hezbollah’s shoulders – further isolating the group for bringing more carnage to a country historically plagued by warfare and needless death.
Israel has a chance to buttress the Arab world’s attempt to defang Hezbollah, not through preemptive war but rather by challenging the group’s claim that it is fighting to return Lebanese territory, a claim that now legitimizes a 'national resistance' movement sitting on an arsenal of deadly proportions.
Nicholas Saidel is the Associate Director of the Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis & Response (ISTAR) at the University of Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter: @nicksaidel