Opinion

Israel's Deterrent Policy in Lebanon Has Failed

With Iran trying to upgrade Hezbollah’s arsenal — which already contains more than 130,000 rockets — it’s clear that Israel must adopt a new strategy

Israeli security forces examine the remains of an F-16 Israeli war plane near the village of Harduf, Israel February 10, 2018.
\ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

Let there be no mistake about it: Behind Saturday’s exchange of fire between Israel and the Iranians and Syrians are offensive capacities that have not yet been unleashed. So far, each side is being deterred from using its full potential to inflict damage on the other side.

The more than 130,000 rockets in the arsenal of Hezbollah, able to reach all parts of Israel from north to south, are in effect limiting the scope of Israel’s attacks. Israel’s ability to cause vast damage to Lebanon in response to a massive rocket attack by Hezbollah is keeping Hezbollah and its masters in Iran from launching such an attack. Both are being deterred for the time being.

The recent escalation is the result of Israel’s determination to keep Iran from upgrading Hezbollah’s arsenal of rockets in such a way as to make them considerably more accurate. With modern guidance technology, improving the precision of rockets is not a very difficult task. Until now Hezbollah’s rockets have not been able to pinpoint targets in Israel. Israel is right to try to forestall the Iranian attempt to upgrade them.

But don’t forget Hezbollah’s primary targets are Israel’s civilian population. There is no need for great accuracy when attacking the civilian population in a country as densely populated as Israel. Rockets landing anywhere in Tel Aviv are good enough to achieve Hezbollah’s aims. The fact is that Israel has been living under this threat for many years now, and the people of Israel will continue to live under this threat even without any improvements in the accuracy of the Hezbollah rockets as long as that arsenal of rockets continues to exist.

Improved accuracy of some of these rockets will permit Hezbollah to hit specific military targets in Israel. That is why Israel has taken action in recent months.

But the present state of Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal already endangers Israel’s civilian population and the country’s infrastructure. Israel’s missile interception capability is extensive, and probably the world’s best, but it is not sufficient to provide an impenetrable umbrella over Israel’s skies.

If Hezbollah were to launch a massive attack now, using the rockets in its possession, the damage would be great. They know it and we know it. We are counting on deterring them. They assume that they are deterring us from taking pre-emptive action.

Is this mutual deterrence stable? Not really, considering who we are dealing with. Hezbollah, the party of Allah, takes its orders from Allah, or from the ayatollahs in Teheran, which is almost the same thing. Counting on deterring them is problematic.

For many years Israel’s strategy has been based on deterring Hezbollah. Advocates of this strategy argue that deterrence works and point to the quiet on the northern border since the Second Lebanon War as proof. But those who think that deterring Hezbollah works prefer to forget that in the intervening years Hezbollah’s arsenal of rockets has grown to a very large extent. What seemed like quiet years for us were years of upgrading the Hezbollah rocket arsenal for them. Over the years the danger only increased.

As a matter of fact, ever since the first Lebanon war Israel’s strategy in Lebanon has been based on unilateral withdrawals, abandoning its allies, the South Lebanon Army, while relying on deterrence. It is that strategy that is largely responsible for the dominant position that Hezbollah has attained in Lebanon and the large arsenal of rockets that it has assembled in the intervening years. Iran’s attempt to upgrade Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal has shown that that strategy has run its course. It has failed.

Israel’s aim should be the dismantling of Hezbollah’s entire rocket arsenal. Hezbollah is turning Lebanon into a powder keg and endangering the entire Middle East. Israel must make this clear to the United States and the international community. Action, aimed at achieving that goal, must be taken before it becomes necessary to use force.