Was the Second Lebanon War a Success or Failure?

Past blows may be deterring Hamas and Hezbollah from attacking Israel again, but we must not forget that Israel is also deterred from taking action against them.

Two Israeli soldiers carry an Israeli flag followed by a column of troops as they cross a fence marking the border between Lebanon and Israel, August 15, 2006.

It’s been 10 years since the Second Lebanon War. Was it a success or a failure? The Winograd Commission has issued its verdict, and military historians will, no doubt, continue to have their say, but the important point for us at this time is not what was, but what may yet be, and what lessons from that war could be applied to possible future encounters with Hezbollah.

Those who led that war are countering criticism by pointing to the years of quiet on the northern border that followed the UN-brokered cease-fire. A 33-day war, with 164 Israeli fatalities (43 civilians and 121 military personnel) that was to be followed by 10 or more years of quiet — is that an equation that signals success, or failure? In the event of a future encounter with Hezbollah, would such a result be considered to be satisfactory, or even a success? How much should we be willing to pay for intermittent periods of calm after each encounter? This question has also faced us in the south, where successive military operations have achieved intermittent periods of quiet, and where our leadership has even declared that the aim of such operations has been to achieve a few years of respite before Hamas resumes its attacks.

Fighting a war to bring about a few years of quiet was seen as a reasonable aim in Israel in its first 25 years of independence. Clearly incapable of completely routing the Arab armies arrayed against it, Israel came to consider that their repeated defeat would lead the Arab leaders to conclude that they could not overcome Israel on the battlefield. The strategy worked. The Yom Kippur War of 1973 was the fourth and last attempt by a coalition of Arab armies to attack Israel. Is this also an effective strategy against terrorist organizations like Hezbollah or Hamas? Are they likely to learn after receiving repeated that there is no point to returning to the war path against Israel?

Two factors must be considered when addressing this question. First, the behavior of terrorists and their leaders differs from that of Arab rulers, whose primary concern is their political survival. Terrorists, who think in messianic terms and on a messianic time scale, are prepared to lose many battles, confident that in due time victory will be theirs. Second, the acquisition of ballistic rockets and missiles by terrorist organizations has introduced a new dimension into their conflicts with Israel, providing them, despite being much weaker militarily than Israel, with a deterrent capability that Israel must take into account. Any renewal of hostilities would inevitably result in massive rocket and missile attacks on Israel’s cities and civilian population. This is particularly the case with Hezbollah, which has over 150,000 rockets and missiles in its arsenal, but Hamas also has thousands of rockets at its disposal. Past blows may be deterring them from attacking Israel again, but we must not forget that Israel is also deterred from taking action against them. Any responsible Israeli leader must consider all the consequences of a renewal of the warfare with them.

The 10 years after the Second Lebanon War were a period of mutual deterrence, also influenced by Hezbollah’s deep involvement in the fighting in Syria. But they were also years of massive increase of Hezbollah’s rocket and missile arsenal. Hezbollah will come to the next confrontation with Israel far better prepared and more capable of bringing destruction to Israel’s cities. The lesson is clear: Another round of fighting that does not put an end to the terrorists’ military capability means they will come back for more, better prepared than ever.