by Aurélie Daher
It’s been such perennial for nearly a decade now that we can almost call it a tradition. Every year since 2006, at roughly the same time in late spring, some analysts, officials, or other informed observers confidently predict a major rematch between Israel and Hezbollah for the upcoming summer. Why summer? It’s a mystery. Perhaps because it’s more convenient to launch rockets or bomb targets from the air when the weather is clear than when it’s grey and overcast. Still, it’s a fact: every year the prediction is heard.
This year has been no exception. Three weeks ago, The New York Times, relying heavily on anonymous Israeli military sources, ran a story suggesting such a scenario (which the invaluable Israeli website, 972mag.com, immediately criticized). And last Wednesday, the Huffington Post published a column co-authored by Trita Parsi and Paul Pillar, president of the National Iranian American Council and Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University, respectively. “There are signs Israel may be at war again this summer …with Hezbollah in Lebanon,” they warned. The signs in question, according to the authors, include the fact that “a case for a war with Hezbollah has been in Israel for the past few months.”
On May 12 the New York Times reported that Israel is preparing for “what it sees as an almost inevitable next battle with Hezbollah.” An Israeli official added in comments to the Times: “We will hit Hezbollah hard.”
The HuffPo article also cited expressions of growing concern about Hezbollah’s arsenal in southern Lebanon by Israeli Amb. Dore Gold—the newly appointed director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and a long-time intimate of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—and his suggestions that it would be good to destroy them. The article also quoted Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s military adviser, Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi, ominously warning that “Iran, with the help of Hezbollah and its friends, is capable of destroying Tel Aviv and Haifa in case of military aggression on the part of the Zionists.”
According to the two analysts, “the deciding factor may be an Israeli calculation that war will shift momentum in the US Congress decisively against the pending nuclear deal with Iran.” In particular, the aim of a new war would be produce the “much desired game-changer that may cause many pro-Netanyahu Democrats to break with Obama [over an Iran deal].”
This is an intriguing thesis, but it’s not really convincing.
In itself, the evidence cited by the authors falls far short of conclusive. Remember, Israel has repeatedly called for bringing down the wrath of the heavens on Hezbollah… virtually every month since the summer war of 2006. Its diplomatic campaigns to convince friendly governments to condemn the Lebanese group and to rally behind aggressive new measures against it have been unrelenting. Already a few weeks after the 2006 war, doomsday predications of yet another round in the offing were already rippling through the Israeli press. These reports were bolstered by obliging warnings out of Tehran of new conflicts and muscle-flexing by former President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad who fired off new ballistic missiles into the Gulf to remind the world of Iran’s purported military prowess.
The Lessons of 2006
Seriously, however, is it realistic to think that Israel would be ready to assume all the risks—and they are many and very real—of a full-scale war against Hezbollah in Lebanon for the mere hope of provoking the defection of a few Democratic senators from the administration? The evidence is weak.
Let’s remember: the scenario described by Parsi and Pillar already took place during the months of July and August, 2006. On July 12, Hezbollah abducted two Israeli soldiers along the Israeli-Lebanese border (Israel claimed it was on the Israeli side; according to Hezbollah, the Lebanese Army, and UNIFIL, the UN observer force, the incident took place on the Lebanese side). Invoking a provocation of the first order, the Israel government launched a war against Lebanon with the explicit purpose of setting “back [Lebanon] 20 years,” putting an end to Hezbollah’s presence in South Lebanon, and pressuring the Lebanese government into disarming it once and for all. The Land of the Cedars subsequently endured 33 days and 33 nights of intensive bombing from the air and sea. The campaign—supported by the U.S., Germany, and Britain—razed entire villages and vast parts of several major cities.
It also achieved no tangible results, beyond the considerable human and material damage on the Lebanese side (more than 1,200 civilian deaths, 4,400 injuries, 200,000 people rendered homeless and more than 25% of the population displaced). Indeed, despite the literally continuous bombardment of the country, Hezbollah succeeded in moving thousands of rockets into southern Lebanon and launching them over virtually all of the Galilee, effectively paralyzing normal life in northern Israel.
Israel found itself forced to publicly reduce its war aims to the mere “destruction of [Hezbollah] stockpiles.” Desperate to salvage the minimum that could justify the offensive to its public, the Israeli Army launched a massive invasion in the war’s last days (during which it also scattered the vast majority of the roughly four million cluster bombs that landed in Lebanon). Some 40,000 Israeli soldiers faced off against approximately 5,000 militiamen and still found themselves under heavy fire. As the Israeli General Staff would later acknowledge, its army suffered the worst daily losses in men and material since the 1967 war.
For its part, Hezbollah’s military infrastructure suffered relatively little damage, protected as it was both by reinforcements and tunnel complexes whose existence and effectiveness Israel’s military intelligence apparently did not foresee. And although the physical infrastructure of the group’s civilian organizations, such as social centers and party offices, were largely demolished, Hezbollah rebuilt much of it within the year. By my reckoning, the ratio of deaths between Israeli soldiers and Hezbollah fighters was barely 1:2. When the ceasefire was finally declared, none of Hezbollah’s civilian cadres was missing. Israel’s own media took to mocking the “feats” the Army boasted it had achieved, while former generals estimated the cost of every dead Lebanese fighter to the Israeli taxpayer at “12.5 million shekels” (about $3 million).
The worst came after the conflict. The political consequences were disastrous. The conclusions of the Winograd Commission established to investigate the war’s failures shook the political class. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert suffered a spectacular plunge in the polls—down to a two-percent approval rating—after the public learned that the IDF had been preparing the offensive for four months in advance and that the abduction of the two soldiers was merely the pretext for launching the campaign. IDF chief of staff Dan Halutz resigned, a disgrace made worse by a financial scandal related to his management of the conflict.
It’s a safe bet that many within Israel’s ruling elite retains a keen memory, if not a very bitter taste, of this experience. It is thus reasonable to assume that the 2006 precedent will weigh very heavily in the eventual decision by the Israeli government to relive that experiment.
You Must Sell a War First
Parsi and Pillar appear persuaded that the Israeli government is indeed prepared to try again. But starting a war is not an easy task. First, you must succeed in selling it. Granted, Netanyahu’s routine—almost casual—belligerence suggests that he may be so inclined, but he doesn’t govern by himself. He must persuade members of his own government and IDF commanders who are unlikely to find the idea very appealing, not to mention the general public. (Israel is, after all, a democracy.) And then he must sell the idea not only to allies and other friendly governments, but also to foreign opinion, especially given Israel’s anxiety over its battered image abroad, especially in the West.
Let’s first address what aims can be achieved through a war against Hezbollah. The destruction of the organization? Impossible. Its members, cadres, leaders, are scattered throughout Lebanese society, in cities, towns, and villages throughout the country. They are not segregated from the general population. Destroy the group’s infrastructure? That was done already in 2006. Everything was rebuilt in record time, thanks in major part to Iranian backing. “Destroy their weapons stockpiles in southern Lebanon,” as suggested by Gold? That was also one of the goals in 2006, and it failed miserably. Yet again, it would require locating them in a complex maze of underground tunnels covering large parts of Lebanese territory. And then you have to be able to actually reach them. Intensive aerial bombing in 2006 proved ineffective. And the land offensive, whose results were also quite limited, poses serious risks to the physical integrity of Israeli soldiers who, deployed to areas where they have never been before, will once again face Hezbollah fighters who know the terrain like the back of their hand and have already prepared a series of lethal traps precisely in anticipation of such an invasion. A ground offensive would be an ill-fated venture not only because of the advantages held by the home team, but also because of the very high value the Israeli public places on their soldiers’ lives and the IDF’s own preference for avoiding close combat.
And then, how do you justify such a war? The fact is that Hezbollah, preoccupied as it is with fighting Sunni jihadists in Syria and preventing their infiltration into Lebanon, has left Israel perfectly alone. There has been no sign of aggressive plans against Israel for months, if not years, if one puts aside the contretemps between the two in the Shebaa Farms area last winter when Hezbollah responded to an Israeli provocation (the killings of six Hezbollah fighters and an Iranian general in Syria near the Golan Heights). Hassan Nasrallah, secretary-general of Hezbollah, said it as early as 2006: “We wouldn’t have kidnapped the two Israelis if we had known Israel would respond this way,” he told his followers. Hezbollah has learned its lesson, and it would seem frankly improbable that it would offer Israel a pretext that would permit the latter to launch an all-out attack against it.
The Right Moment to Attack?
Moreover, if the Israeli government really wants to go to war, it has more important things to consider. Contrary to the hypothesis of Parsi and Pillar, the context is far from favorable for Israel, particularly compared to 2006. The Obama administration will in any case be far less indulgent than George W. Bush and his neoconservatives were toward Israel’s launching a war against Lebanon. In 2006, Washington not only ensured the continuous supply of arms to aid Israel’s offensive, it also faithfully blocked any cease-fire initiative at the UN Security Council in the apparent hope that the IDF could somehow achieve its war aims. It was only when it became crystal clear that Israel could not achieve even its minimum goals, and that Washington was itself being increasingly blamed for the wanton destruction, that Condoleezza Rice prevailed over Bush’s neocon advisers. With Obama in the White House, it’s difficult to imagine much delay in action by the Security Council.
Second, the argument that Hezbollah today is too depleted by the Syrian civil war and too weak to effectively confront Israel in Lebanon is purely speculative and not based on a serious understanding of realities on the ground. Estimates based on a tally of funerals and lists disseminated in the media suggest that Hezbollah has lost about 700 fighters in Syria since 2013. Although the actual number of deaths is probably somewhat higher, it is almost certainly more accurate than the 2,000 deaths claimed by the Syrian opposition (which has repeatedly inflated the numbers of enemy casualties as it did just last week when it published a clearly fabricated list of 107 Hezbollah fighters supposedly killed at Qalamoun). Given that Hezbollah has been engaged in the war for fully two years, its losses, while not insignificant, fall far short of the number that would seriously weaken its fighting ability, especially on its home turf.
To put this in some perspective, right after the 2006 war, reliable reports indicated that Hezbollah had quickly restored its ranks to 10,000 fighters. In 2013, an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 fighters won the battle of Qusayr. Hezbollah itself admits that approximately 5,000 of its fighters have been deployed lately in Syria. In theory, therefore, at least 5,000 fighters remain in Lebanon—the same number that effectively defeated Israel nine years ago. In interviews with the party’s cadres and fighters that I conducted several days ago in Lebanon, I was told that Hezbollah, fully aware that Israel may be tempted to strike at a moment when its militants are so deeply engaged in Syria, has quite deliberately maintained its defense infrastructure in Lebanon intact and on continuous alert, with a large part of its elite units based at home.
In any event, the notion that Hezbollah has been prevented from rearming, as seductive as it is, is simply outdated. In 2006, Hezbollah rockets had a maximum range of 90 kilometers, enabling them to strike just south of Haifa. Hezbollah’s arsenal today includes weapons with significantly longer range and accuracy. Should there be another war, Tel Aviv will not be spared, a fact that will give the Israeli government cause for reflection. Particularly since, despite the public boasts about its advances in missile defense, many in Israel’s military staff acknowledge that Iron Dome and other systems are still not as effective as had been hoped. And what, in any case, would be the logic of distracting Hezbollah from Syria so that it can refocus, with its enhanced missile force, on Israel?
Nothing to Gain, Everything to Lose
Parsi and Pillar contend that Israel hopes to force pro-Israel Democrats to abandon Obama in favor of Netanyahu in order to derail a nuclear agreement with Iran. But it remains difficult to imagine that Netanyahu would be willing to risk his own political position at home in a war against Hezbollah that is virtually certain to fail in favor of an attempt—with very uncertain results—to sabotage a nuclear deal (that is also supported by five other great powers, including three of Washington’s closest NATO allies).
Similarly, the risk that the opposite of what Parsi and Pillar suggest is very real. An unsuccessful war (for the reasons asserted above)—combined with the additional destruction and loss of innocent life that it would entail—could actually further alienate Democratic Party lawmakers from Netanyahu, who didn’t win any friends in that party by insisting on accepting the Republicans’ invitation to speak to a joint session of Congress, and bind themselves more tightly to their president.
Also, the U.S. agenda regarding Iran is not limited to its nuclear program. The international coalition needs Iran’s goodwill in dealing with the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). Unsurprisingly, the bombing campaign of IS positions in Syria and Iraq are of limited effect, and only a serious ground component will ultimately be decisive. Whether we like it or not, we have to acknowledge that the only ground forces that have been truly effective against IS remain the Kurds in Iraq and … Hezbollah and the militias led by Iranian advisors in Syria. Weakening Hezbollah by waging a full-scale war in Lebanon will not be well received in Tehran and is not likely to benefit the U.S.—nor even Israel. Because, ironically, Israel—which is flirting with Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate) in the Golan Heights (what’s wrong with this picture?)—has every interest in Hezbollah’s remaining capable of keeping IS far from its borders. If the al-Nusra Front is susceptible to Israeli domestication, there is nothing to suggest that IS will be so disposed if it reaches the Golan Heights.
Thus, why would Israel take as many risks for a hoped-for result that nonetheless will almost certainly fall short and thus carry major political complications for Netanyahu and his coalition? Parsi and Pillar are formidable analysts, but it remains quite likely that all will be quiet on the Lebanese front this summer.