Is war between Hezbollah and Israel inevitable?
The delicate status quo, which has ensured peace between Hezbollah and Israel since the 2006 war, is rapidly unravelling. After that war, both Hezbollah and Israel subscribed to a deterrence theory, which stood the test of time. Until two weeks ago.
Now, tensions between the two sides are at their highest since the last ceasefire. Indeed, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Monday that a third Lebanon war is now inevitable.
On Jan. 18, an Israeli helicopter gunship hit a convoy of vehicles in the Syrian province of Quneitra. The attack killed six Hezbollah operatives, one of whom was Jihad Mughniyeh, the son of Imad Mughniyeh, who was assassinated by Israel in an operation involving the Israeli Mossad and the CIA, as the Washington Post revealed last week.
The hope on the Israeli side must have been that Hezbollah would not seek immediate retaliation for the Jan. 18 attack. It was not to be. On Jan. 28, Hezbollah attacked an Israeli convoy in broad daylight in the Shebaa Farms, an area long occupied by Israel but claimed by Lebanon. Two Israelis were killed, a major and a sergeant of the Israel Defence Forces.
This escalation is happening at a time of important shifts in the relationship between Iran, Hezbollah and Israel.
One development, of concern to Israel, is the deepening of relations between Hezbollah and Iran in recent weeks. One day before Hezbollah’s attack on Israeli forces, Hezbollah’s leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, met with the Iranian Major General Qasem Suleimani, the legendary commander of the Iranian al-Quds force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Although the two men had met many times before, this is the first known meeting in Lebanon that has been publicized.
The meeting was all the more remarkable because of the publicity given to it. Suleimani paid respects to Hezbollah fighters killed by Israel and also visited the grave of Jihad Mughniyeh.
Hezbollah has also declared, in a recent statement, that it no longer recognizes the rules of engagement with Israel that were mediated, on an informal basis, by the United Nations in order to prevent clashes. Hezbollah’s declaration is a tacit rejection of the de facto understanding between the two bitter foes that has existed for years and has, up until now, ensured peace.
In a defiant statement after Hezbollah’s attack, Nasrallah reiterated Hezbollah’s rejection of previous the rules defining Hezbollah’s policy towards Israel. It was this status quo that had, for example, allowed for the group to negotiate a swap of its prisoners in exchange for Israeli war dead in 2008. In a clear departure from the past, where Hezbollah would not take revenge on Israeli attacks, Nasrallah stressed that the group has the right to respond in any way or time it deems fit.
“If Israel is banking that we fear war, then I tell it that we do not fear war and we will not hesitate in waging it if it is imposed on us,” he continued. “We did not hesitate in making the decision that Israel should be punished for its crime in Quneitra even if it meant going to an all-out war,” he revealed, an admission he may regret.
“The Israeli people discovered that their leadership put them on the brink of war, jeopardizing their economy and security,” he added in the wake of the operation. “Israel learned that it should not test us again given the Quneitra strike and Shebaa Farms operation,” he warned.
Not surprisingly these are not the conclusions that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in Jerusalem are likely to draw.
There has been a dangerous deterioration in Israel’s strategic position because of the open boast by Nasrallah that it is now fighting Israel not only from the Blue Line with Lebanon, but, also, on Syria’s frontline with Israel in the Golan. In other words, Hezbollah’s front with Israel now extends from the Mediterranean all the way to the disputed Golan on the Syrian border. Israel is unlikely to leave a threat like that unanswered. Moreover, Israel never shrinks from retaliation when its soldiers are killed, and especially when one of them is a middle-ranking officer.
But the strategic options before Netanyahu are limited. A further strike at Hezbollah will lead to a major war that would probably eclipse that of 2006 in its severity. Moreover, the prime minister will be conscious of the fact that elections are to be held in Israel on March 17. He may not want become embroiled in a war right now for that reason.
Despite these difficulties, some new realities would work in Israel’s favor. Netanyahu knows that, unlike during the 2006 war, Hezbollah would not find much support from the Arab world in the eventuality of a conflict with Israel. Deep sectarianism between Sunni and Shi’ites across the region means that few Arab states would be upset today by an Israeli offensive against Hezbollah, the stalwart defender of the hated Assad regime.
Hezbollah, in other words, is playing a dangerous game. It may yet find itself wishing to return to the days of stability and peace, which it is abandoning with such troubling rapidity.