Israel vs Hezbollah: A fight neither can afford to win
One of the paradoxical aspects of relations between Israel and Hezbollah is that because of a sense of inevitability that at some point these sworn enemies will clash again, and with devastating consequences, both are treading extremely cautiously.
Each recognizes the other’s lethal military capabilities, and believes that in case of an all-out conflict neither side would hesitate to translate threats into maximum harm to military personnel, civilians and infrastructure. They have therefore established credible deterrence since the war in the summer of 2006, which ended with neither being able to declare a victory, but rather exposing their weaknesses.
Nevertheless, every hostile incident between Israel and Hezbollah is a potential trigger for a much wider flare-up. No surprise, then, that when a Hezbollah operative was killed last week in an Israeli air strike on Iranian arms depots and military posts near Damascus airport, Israel was quick to reinforce its troops along the border with Lebanon. They expected the Iranian-backed Hezbollah to hit back at Israeli targets in line with its leader Hassan Nasrallah’s “balance of deterrence” doctrine of proportionate retaliation. However, as with similar incidents in the past, the Hezbollah retaliation was limited and predictable. Militants tried to infiltrate at the remote intersection of the Lebanese-Syrian and Israeli-occupied Golan Heights borders, and after an exchange of fire with Israeli troops, withdrew to Lebanon.
It remains to be seen whether Hezbollah is satisfied with an isolated attack on a remote Israeli military target, away from civilians, with no casualties on the Israeli side. This is a repeat of what occurred in September last year, when an Israeli air strike on a Hezbollah power center in Beirut was followed by cross-border exchanges with no casualties. In both cases Israel and Hezbollah choreographed almost to perfection the latter’s retaliation and the accompanying rhetoric to ensure that neither was forced into military escalation.
However, any complacency that such rational behavior is guaranteed would be foolish. The situation is not static and there are pressures on both sides that might lead one, or both, to make a decisive military gambit. It might be the result of believing that time is against them in their balance of fear and deterrence, miscalculation about the intentions of the other side, domestic pressures and, in the case of Hezbollah, pressure from its Iranian patron.
Every hostile incident between Israel and Hezbollah is a potential trigger for a much wider flare-up... It remains to be seen whether Hezbollah is satisfied with an isolated attack on a remote Israeli military target.
From the Israeli leadership’s perspective, based on both their strategic assessment and on convenience, there is no distinction between Hezbollah and Iran. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sees them as one and the same, a menacing front as part of Iran’s search for regional hegemony, and in the process aiming to destroy the Jewish state; and Nasrallah, who is hiding on the run for fear of Israel, as a mere pawn in Tehran’s game. This is a simplistic view, as both serve each other’s political interests, and without its paymasters in Tehran Hezbollah would never have gained the political power they have maintained for so long. For Iran, Hezbollah is a useful ally in Lebanon and Syria, and keeps the Israeli military busy with a Lebanese front.
Rational calculation dictates to both Israel and Hezbollah that any escalation, let alone a full-scale war, won’t serve either’s interests. Nevertheless, since both are facing persistent unrest at home, which preceded the COVID-19 pandemic but has been exacerbated by it, they need to consider how a confrontation would resonate with their domestic audiences. Since Hezbollah took the dual route of entering the Lebanese political arena and joining the government, while maintaining their roots as a social and resistance movement, they can no longer ignore the mood on the streets. Their popularity has waned, as was proved in the cross-sectarian mass rallies and protests that began late last year against the deteriorating economic situation and persistent corruption, in which Hezbollah plays a prominent role.
Similarly, Netanyahu is facing his most challenging period in office. Thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets calling for him to resign, not only for his failure to prevent a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, which is worse than first, but also because it is inappropriate for the defendant in a corruption trial to lead the country. The troublesome cocktail of the battle to save his political career, the court fight to prove his innocence, and criticism from within his own Likud party of his handling of the pandemic, could encourage Netanyahu to try to direct the country’s focus to issues abroad — despite the expectation that a war with Hezbollah would result in thousands of casualties and substantial damage to vital infrastructure. The Israeli political and military leadership has warned repeatedly that if such a scenario materialised, it would be met with massive retaliation from Israel throughout Lebanon. Such mutual damage would serve neither Israel nor Hezbollah, and might terminate the leadership on both sides.
The alternative is a continuous low simmering of hostilities, which may suit both sides better. For Israel it maintains the message that it will not tolerate any Hezbollah-Iran axis close to its borders, either in Syria or Lebanon; for Hezbollah it would maintain its credentials as a resistance movement to the “Zionist entity”; and for both it would act as a diversion from their incompetence in running state affairs and from the opposition they face at home.
However, this low intensity confrontation harbors the risk of a miscalculated escalation, inflamed by bellicose rhetoric, which may end in full-scale conflict that for now has been averted, but by no stretch of the imagination eliminated.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg