In August 2015, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) released its first-ever public strategy paper, highlighting the complex challenges to Israel’s national security. Notably, it was not Iran’s nuclear program nor its ballistic missile development that ranked as the greatest threats to Israel, but rather its regional clients and proxies. Chief among those was the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah. One year later that assessment still held, with IDF Chief of Staff Lt. General Gadi Eizenkot declaring that Hezbollah was the IDF’s “main enemy,” posing “the most serious threat to Israel.”
The last time Hezbollah and Israel went to war was the summer of 2006. Despite the disparity in their capabilities, Israel failed to achieve a decisive military outcome. Instead, that bloody 34-day conflict wrought havoc on both southern Lebanon and northern Israel. Lebanese villages were flattened, citizens of northern Israeli towns fled south, and the war took a financial toll on both sides. In the decade since, Israel and Hezbollah have internalized the lessons of that war. They have rearmed and are preparing for the next clash, which they both see as inevitable.
While there may be no escaping the next war, it is also not necessarily imminent. So long as the Syrian civil war continues to rage and does not end decisively in favor of the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah “Resistance Axis,” Hezbollah is unlikely to intentionally initiate a large-scale conflict with the IDF. Hezbollah has deployed possibly as many as 6,000 fighters to Syria to battle a wide range of irregular Sunni forces and has sustained many casualties. Israel has also targeted Hezbollah assets – taking out top commanders and striking shipments of advanced weapons bound for Lebanon. In short, Hezbollah is spread thin, under fire, and tied down in Syria, likely until the war’s end – and possibly beyond that. For these reasons, IDF top brass recently told incoming Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman that war with Hezbollah “is not on the horizon.”
Hezbollah’s current quagmire arguably makes it an attractive target for a preemptive Israeli strike. But it is no easy matter for a democratically elected government to intentionally end a 10-year period of calm and prosperity to start a war that almost certainly would result in massive property damage, a painful halt to commerce, and significant loss of life. Moreover, international legal restraints, the certitude of international backlash, and concern over the prospect of discontinued U.S. support in the wake of an unprovoked war makes preemption an unlikely option for the Israelis.
While Hezbollah is not concerned about international law and certainly not constrained by questions of governance, its ability to wage war against Israel is also more limited. After Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000 to borders approved by the United Nations, it became significantly more difficult for Hezbollah to justify to the Lebanese public, including its Shiite base, that a new war with Israel would warrant the utter devastation that such a conflict would surely entail.
Thus for a decade, relative calm has prevailed. However, as the history of the Israel-Hezbollah conflict clearly demonstrates, calm does not always beget calm. Not all wars are launched intentionally, and small clashes have a way of spiraling into larger conflagrations.
Alarmingly, the potential for conflict is now constant. Hezbollah continues to exploit the chaos of the Syrian civil war to augment its already formidable arsenal with what Israeli military officials call “game changing weapons.” Jerusalem has declared this a red line, and, in response, has repeatedly carried out airstrikes to prevent these arms transfers. Hezbollah has absorbed these blows silently, but the group’s leadership has occasionally felt compelled to respond, even if the response has been only symbolic.
Every skirmish, however small, runs the risk of sparking a larger conflict that neither side intends. Senior Israeli military figures refer to this as the “slippery slope” scenario in which relatively minor tactical strikes can lead to reprisals, which in turn may escalate into a larger conflagration.
This was almost the case in January 2015, when an Israeli aircraft struck a convoy of Iranian and Hezbollah officers in Quneitra province on the Golan Heights, days after Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah spoke in an interview of storming into Israel’s northern Galilee region “and beyond” in any future conflict. As Military Intelligence Chief Major General Herzi Halevi recently revealed, had Hezbollah’s retaliatory response of firing five Kornet anti-tank missiles at an Israel patrol caused more fatalities (it killed two soldiers), Israel’s “response would have been different … maybe today on the radio they would be talking about the Third Lebanon War with Hezbollah and not just the second.”
Even if Hezbollah starts the next war, the decision to do so may come from Iran. Hezbollah is and always was an instrument of Iranian power – its forward base on the Mediterranean. Iranian officials regularly speak of Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal as their own. “In Lebanon alone, over 100,000 missiles are ready to be launched [at Israel],” Brigadier General Hossein Salami, deputy commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, declared in July 2016. “If it serves [our] interests, and if the Zionist regime repeats its past mistakes due to its miscalculations, these missiles … will strike at the heart of the Zionist regime,” Salami said.
The Israelis, for their part, may seek to preempt a Hezbollah strike. The perceived need to do so grows as Iran amassed power across the region. However, Israeli officials generally believe that the next conflict will be one that results from an unplanned skirmish that gives way to rapid escalation.
The Third Lebanon War could erupt tomorrow or many years from now. This study endeavors to explain the absence of conflict between these two bitter foes since their last major confrontation in 2006, as well as the factors that could constrain or exacerbate conflict between them in the future. When another war does eventually erupt, even under the best scenarios, the conflict will almost certainly be more devastating to both sides than before, leading to widespread destruction and loss of civilian life. Such a conflict could threaten a wide array of U.S. interests in an already volatile Middle East. It is therefore crucial for American policymakers to understand the complexities, challenges, and devastation that await. Even more crucial are the measures that can be taken to help shape the outcome of the Third Lebanon War.