- By Aaron Y. ZelinAaron Y. Zelin is a researcher in the Department of Politics at Brandeis University. He maintains the website Jihadology.net and blogs at al-Wasat. , Andrew LebovichAndrew Lebovich is a Sahel consultant and researcher with the Open Society Initiative for West Africa, based in Dakar, Senegal.
As Robert S. Ford prepares for his confirmation hearing Tuesday to become the first American Ambassador to Syria since 2005, one of the things he’ll have to deal with are the perennial warnings that war between Israel and Hezbollah is just around the corner. But Ford should know that despite grandstanding from politicians and frightening rhetoric from the media, war is unlikely to break out anytime soon.
During late January and early February of this year, for instance, press reports were filled with a steady drumbeat for war between Israel and Hezbollah, with both sides warning of immediate conflict and boasting of certain victory. Yet only one party seemed ready for war: the press. Headlines ominously predicted war: the liberal Israeli daily Haaretz warned that, "Israel, Hezbollah inch toward military conflict," Dubai’s The National asked if 2009 was, "the calm before the storm?" for Israel, and London-based Asharq al-Awsat reported that, "France vows to prevent Israeli strike on Lebanon’s infrastructure." Other articles quoting ex-Israeli generals, Hezbollah and Lebanese officials and others have drawn the conclusion that war is imminent. But is it really? We believe that this tired and oft-repeated mantra does not stand up to questioning, and that a variety of factors – historical, military, and political – will militate against the prospect of imminent war between the two.
We’ve heard this story before, and as before, the rhetoric eventually died away. But the recent "war meeting" between Iran, Syria and Hezbollah has once again sparked noise from the media and think tanks regarding the possibility of war between Israel and Hezbollah.
Ever since the Second Lebanon War ended in August 2006 there has been chatter and rhetoric that another conflict was just around the corner. In February 2007, Amir Peretz, former Israeli Defense Minister, in response to news that Hezbollah was rearming itself stated: "We can’t under any circumstances ignore the transfer of weapons and ammunition to Hezbollah, we reserve the right to protect the citizens of the state of Israel and we will do this forcefully without any compromises." Later in the year, both Israel and Hezbollah conducted maneuvering drills near their respective borders, which raised specter of another war erupting.
This fear resurfaced again in 2008. The assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, a senior member in Hezbollah, sparked the flames of combat again since many theorized Israel was behind it. Hassan Nasrallah, the Secretary General of Hezbollah, responded by claiming that if Israel wanted "open war" with Hezbollah, they would get it. In late March of that year an Israeli security source believed conflict was coming in the summer of 2008, but it never came to fruition. During the fall, both sides were tangled in a war of words yet again. In August, Nasrallah explained that war with Israel had not ended. A month and a half later, Major-General Gadi Eisenkot, the Israeli military’s Northern Command Chief, cautioned Hezbollah that in another war, Israel would destroy it.
Once more, the saber-rattling and expectations of war resurfaced in 2009. During the three-year anniversary speech of the Second Lebanon Wars end, Nasrallah warned Israel that Hezbollah was capable of hitting any Israeli village or city. Ehud Barak, Israel’s Defense Minister, stated that if there were another war Israel would bomb Lebanese infrastructure. What alarmed and worried individuals further were the various Israeli spy cells caught in Lebanon throughout 2009.
In the most recent war of words, Saad Hariri, the Prime Minister of Lebanon, backed Hezbollah if Israel attacked, stating: "I think they’re betting that there might be some division in Lebanon, if there is a war against us. Well, there won’t be a division in Lebanon. We will stand against Israel. We will stand with our own people." During a speech commemorating Imad Mugniyah’s assassination, Hassan Nasrallah called for a defensive, yet offensive stance against Israel proclaiming: "If you strike Beirut, we will strike Tel Aviv."
The persistent rhetoric on both sides is not reassuring, but that does not necessarily mean war is going to occur anytime soon. Much of it is posturing and both sides trying to maintain their deterrence against one another. As Flynt and Hillary Leverett argued in a recent blog post, Nasrallah’s language, while aggressive, showed that Hezbollah only threatened to strike Israel if attacked first. And this week Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barack told an audience that Israel would "hold all of Lebanon responsible," in the event of a war, but only if Hezbollah struck first. Yet in the past few years random rocket fire from Southern Lebanon into Northern Israel has not provoked any meaningful response from the IDF. In fact, both sides have a considerable amount to lose if they do pick up arms again.
Israel’s possible calculus for war remains difficult to decipher. Despite the fact that many perceived the Second Lebanon War to be a black eye for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), the northern border has been quiet since 2006. Even as Israeli officials warn about the flow of weapons into Lebanon, the IDF have taken no overt action to disable Hezbollah’s military capabilities. Some, like long-time Middle East chronicler Robert Fisk believe an Israeli strike at Hezbollah could go hand in hand with an attack on Iran. But this theory rests on the speculation that Israel intends to attack Iran. While this speculation runs rampant through newspapers (fed in large part by Israeli threats and highly-publicized military exercises) not even reports of secret reactors have provoked Israeli action, and any Israeli strike would require at least American acquiescence, which does not seem to be in the offing. Furthermore, no convincing argument has appeared to show how, exactly, an Israeli military strike would succeed in disrupting Iran’s nuclear program or even successfully engaging Iranian targets.
Moreover, Israel has a multitude of concerns that could limit its willingness to go to war at any point in the near future. Aside from fear of suffering another draw with Hezbollah, a pre-emptive war that brings a shower of rockets on Israeli cities would have serious political consequences, especially if the reason for such a strike is unclear. If Israel makes good on some officials’ claims that any assault on Lebanon would be "disproportionate" and target the broader Lebanese infrastructure, Israel would face a further deterioration of its status in the international community, even among its allies. But the more important question is whether Israel would be able to handle a major military operation more than three years after the Second Lebanon War? According to a recently-released Israeli State Comptroller’s report, the IDF is having trouble with recruitment and training its soldiers.
Arguments that Hezbollah plans on imminent war with Israel run into similar problems. On the one hand, since the Second Lebanon War Hezbollah has grown far stronger. Despite suffering a setback in elections last year, Hezbollah maintained its political dominance by securing veto authority over Lebanese government decisions and even political approval for the group’s stockpile of arms (not that the 2008 street battles in Beirut left the government much choice). Hezbollah has stockpiled an estimated 40,000 rockets, some with the range to hit Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and possesses skilled military units and even air defense systems. News that Hezbollah has dispersed these rockets north of the Litani river and even in and around Beirut indicates for some, as the Washington Post recently noted, that Hezbollah is gearing up for war and wants to protect its most valuable weapons systems from quick destruction.
On the other hand, in the three years since the last war, Hezbollah has remained conspicuously quiet. This despite the unexplained explosion at the house of a Hezbollah official in October, the explosion of a suspected Hezbollah arms cache in southern Lebanon in July, the assassination in 2008 of Hezbollah hero Imad Mughniyeh, and continued Israeli provocation in the form of overflights of southern Lebanon. When Israel was busy destroying much of Gaza last January, Hezbollah did nothing.
The continued integration of Hezbollah into Lebanon’s political system also makes war less, not more, likely. Despite its independent power base, weapons and money, Hezbollah still relies on popular support, especially in the Shi’a south. Yet as Lebanon specialist Elias Muhanna (author of the popular blog Qifa Nabki) points out, the destruction likely to result from a full-scale Israeli attack prompted by a Hezbollah provocation could hurt Hezbollah’s standing with its Shi’a power base, and could cause widespread distaste with the movement if Beirut and other areas take a beating. Additionally, while Hezbollah now has formal government approval for its right to possess arms, this could prove a double-edged sword; Israel could justify a strike into Lebanon by pointing to Hezbollah’s government role, while both Hezbollah’s leadership and its March 8 allies might come under serious fire for sparking a war with Israel for no apparent gain.
This is not to say that a war will not occur. The combination of heightened rhetoric, bruised egos, huge weapons stores and political volatility in multiple countries could very well spark conflict between Hezbollah and Israel. But a variety of factors continue to make immediate war unlikely, despite the media hysteria. Let’s just hope it stays that way.
Andrew Lebovich is a program associate with the New America Foundation’s American Strategy Program. Aaron Y. Zelin is a Master’s Candidate at