Opinion

The Balance of Terror: Israel and Lebanon's Mutually Assured Defeat

The two countries maintain a balance of terror, as seen during the Second Lebanon War. It’s largely up to Israel to prevent a recurrence

A Lebanese man looks at Hezbollah's mock rockets, at the Khiam prison which was used by Israeli troops during their occupation of southern Lebanon.
Hussein Malla / AP

Shortly after inventing dynamite in 1867, Alfred Nobel sank into a depression. He had found out that the product manufactured in his factories made the battlefield much more deadly. His misgivings contributed to his decision to leave almost his entire fortune to establish the Nobel Foundation.

He was a pacifist who tried to find consolation in rationalism, telling a peace activist that he hoped his invention would contribute to stability: “Perhaps my factories will put an end to war sooner than your congresses: On the day that two army corps can mutually annihilate each other in a second, all civilized nations will surely recoil with horror and disband their troops.”

This statement was the early version of what later became known as “mutually assured destruction,” the concept on which nuclear deterrence is based. Nobel’s vision has been realized somewhat in our region in our time. Israel and Hezbollah maintain a balance of terror based on conventional weapons — weapons based on newer versions of dynamite. The destructive power unleashed by both sides during the Second Lebanon War still reverberates in people’s minds. Each side has since perfected its relative advantages and better understands the destructive power at its adversary’s disposal.

“The legitimate object of war is a more perfect peace,” said Basil Liddell Hart, the British military theoretician. It’s hard to expect a more perfect peace if a third Lebanon war erupts. It’s reasonable to assume that at its end both Israel and Hezbollah will declare military achievements, but the true significance of “victory” is measured according to civilian metrics, namely the ability to maintain a quiet and normal life for a sustained period.

Such a war, however, would end in a mutual disaster on the civilian front. Each side would be expected to pay a heavy social and economic price. A long rebuilding period would be required, after which a renewed tense status quo would prevail, comparable at best to the current situation.

Conventional wisdom has it that another war with Hezbollah is foreordained and only its timing is unknown. But resignation to the assumption that war will break out is akin to acceptance of a shattering defeat, on the home front as well. The alternative is to pose an ambitious goal – the prevention of such a war, not its postponement.

The attainment of such a goal depends on three components: deterring Hezbollah, avoiding a war of choice and thoughtfully considering moves so that an escalation is avoided. Israel has been making the dilemma more difficult, hinting at possible preemptive strikes in Lebanon. On the assumption that both sides don’t seek an escalation, it seems they’ll need confirmation that this is the desire of the other side as well.

But unlike the Cold War, there is no hotline between Jerusalem and Beirut. Russia’s presence in Syria has created complications for Israel, but it may enable mediation between the sides, possibly also with Iran, to avoid any miscalculations. An Israeli attack in Syria or Lebanon could certainly trigger a counterstrike by Hezbollah, but if this is perceived as proportional it may be contained with no further escalation.

Hezbollah started out as a terror group but has evolved into an efficient army and a political party that has taken over Lebanon. The organization depends on Iran, but it would be simplistic to call it an “Iranian division.”

Intra-Lebanese interests largely dictate its operations. It is committed to the Shi’ite community and aims to augment its power. Its domination of Lebanon’s parliament after this May’s elections is perceived negatively by many, but political dominance would actually impose on Hezbollah a heavy responsibility for Lebanon’s fate. Since the Israeli army withdrew from southern Lebanon the organization hasn’t initiated a war with Israel, and there are no indications that it is willing to attack Israel and endanger its survival.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah plays a key role in the battle for people’s minds. He has been leading Hezbollah for 26 years, and Israel’s actions in 2006 left a great impression on him. After the war he declared that had he known how Israel would respond to the border kidnapping of two soldiers he wouldn’t have launched that operation. Nasrallah is a bitter enemy, but he’s a smart and rational person who learns from his mistakes. It’s in Israel’s interest for him to remain in charge. His successor may be less reasonable or less responsive to deterrence.

Tehran’s support is critical for Hezbollah. In the long run there have been positive developments in Iran that may end up restraining Hezbollah. The calls during recent demonstrations against Iran’s regional involvement reflect a debate in Iran that will only intensify. In the coming years a less-rigid leader might replace Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. One candidate is President Hassan Rohani, who seeks to curb the Revolutionary Guards’ power and better integrate Iran into the international community.

Above all, there is a growing majority among the constituency that objects to the way the regime is operating. To survive, the regime must better consider public opinion and the economy. One can’t predict how this process will play out, but it would be the correct strategy to avoid war. This strategy’s success depends largely on Israel.