The Futility of a Lebanon War

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Why have the pessimists been so affirmative? Because of ambiguous signaling from the Biden administration. During a recent trip to Washington an Israeli delegation heard from U.S. officials that in the event of a conflict with Hezbollah, the Americans would fully back Israel. This prompted one commentator to tell a Lebanese newspaper that the administration’s “red light against an Israeli offensive turned orange, and it may soon turn green.” Such arguments were further reinforced by U.S. warnings that Hezbollah was wrong to think that Washington could stop an Israeli invasion.

All this may be true, but it’s more probable the Biden administration’s statements are part of a concerted effort to raise the heat on Hezbollah to be more flexible toward a negotiated solution in the border area. The reason is that U.S. officials have repeated time and again, most recently during the visit to Washington of Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, that a new Lebanese war would be catastrophic for Lebanon and Israel. The United States fears it could spiral into a regional conflagration that draws in U.S. forces. That is why the U.S. defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, told Gallant that “principled diplomacy is the only way to prevent any further escalation of tensions in the region.”

President Joe Biden also understands that a Lebanon war could undermine any chance he has of winning the U.S. elections in November. It would keep the president trapped between the right and left wings of his divided Democratic Party in the weeks before the vote. It would also further alienate Arab Americans and progressives, fragmenting the Democratic electorate and leading to high levels of abstention among certain voter blocs, damaging Biden in battleground states. According to the Washington Post, Donald Trump is leading Biden in five of the seven battleground states most likely to determine the election’s outcome.

Still, the Israelis and Hezbollah are puffing their chests to avert a conflict. The level of intimidation has reached surrealistic levels. Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary general, has threatened to bomb Cyprus if the island is used as a base from which to strike Lebanon, and the Israeli former minister Benny Gantz has warned that if his country’s electricity grid is brought down, Israel can “make Lebanon completely dark, and take apart Hezbollah’s power in days.” Gantz seems unaware that Lebanon’s national grid already offers a few paltry hours of electricity a day at the most, while an army incapable of “taking apart” Hamas’s power in eight months will certainly not do so to Hezbollah within days.

Anyone can see that Hezbollah and Israel are locked in a game of chicken to determine who blinks first, even if the usual caveat is that “anything can go wrong.” Of course it can, but the remarkable fact is that for the last nine months both sides have generally navigated within the rules of engagement, even if they have crossed red lines at times to enhance their deterrence capabilities. The real question is what the parties can hope to achieve if they decide to break out of the agreed confines of their conflict?

The fact is that Israel appears to have no military options that could bring a better result than a negotiated settlement. Essentially, there are two broad approaches the Israelis can take to reassure the inhabitants of northern Israel and encourage them to return home. The first is to clear the border area of Hezbollah militants, or as many of them as possible, by creating a free-fire zone in south Lebanon. This sounds nice in principle, but is by and large the situation we have today, and Israel’s security has not improved noticeably. Hezbollah would respond by firing over the zone into northern Israel and creating an atmosphere there that keeps inhabitants away. The party would doubtless seek to impose an equation of its own: No peace and security in northern Israel if there is no peace and security in southern Lebanon. It’s unclear how Israel could prevent this.

The second option is to enter Lebanese territory and try to impose a new balance of forces along the border. Yet what does this actually mean? Unless Israel is willing to invade the south, remain there, and build up a new security zone, along the lines of what they did between the mid-1970s and 2000, any military operation, assuming it is even successful, could lead to an outcome that topples an already weak Israeli government. A limited invasion would only mean that Hezbollah returns to the border area once the Israelis depart, while a long-term occupation would embroil the Israelis in a new Lebanese quagmire, when they were eager to extract themselves from one in 2000.

All this comes amid reports in the Israeli press that Israel’s military capabilities for a war on several fronts are lacking. As Ha’aretz commentator Zvi Bar’el has noted, Israel faces manpower problems in fulfilling all the missions it has outlined for itself. “The deep deficit in Israel’s human capital budget requires it to rethink the number of wars it is capable of handling—while such a choice still exists.” At the same time, Israel’s much-vaunted air defense network is also potentially vulnerable, with the United States warning that its Iron Dome system could be overwhelmed by massive Hezbollah rocket attacks. In other words, despite its military prowess, Israel could receive a very bloody nose in Lebanon, which could prove fatal for its government.

That is why perhaps the most reliable outcome for the Israelis is one which they wholeheartedly reject: a resumption of the status quo in place prior to October 7, which had maintained stability in the south for eighteen years. This is Hezbollah’s preference, yet for the Netanyahu government to accept it would not only be an admission of the failure of its stated war aims, it would also not reassure the inhabitants of the north, prompting many to move away from the region permanently.

So, what are the Israelis to do? Usually, when they are caught in dilemmas like this one, their default setting is to destroy everything, while otherwise changing little. That’s what happened in 2006 in Lebanon, and it is happening again in Gaza, where the Israeli government’s lack of a realistic postwar plan has hampered the military campaign by denying it a political objective. Even Israel’s efforts to so destroy Gaza as to slowly force the population out of the territory will probably be unsuccessful.

Israel’s problem is that it believes it can resolve all its difficulties through a recourse to violence. But this rationale has brought diminishing returns in the past three decades. Iran and Hezbollah have increased their pressure points on the Israelis, who have continued to evade any resolution of the Palestinian problem, which its regional enemies have exploited to their advantage. This is a factor Israel’s leaders and society neglected to consider when they spent years disregarding the Palestinians.

What also plays in Israel’s disfavor is that Hezbollah will fight to the last Lebanese if it means preserving Iran’s regional influence. At the same time, if the Israelis refrain from bombing Lebanese cities and infrastructure, the party is unlikely to do so first. This means the end result of their confrontation will be decided on the ground in the border area, where the tensions are focused today.

Israel realizes that a ceasefire with Hezbollah is tied to a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, which is one of several reasons why it is so reluctant to agree to the latter. A cessation of hostilities in Gaza would prompt Hezbollah to end its military operations, making it more difficult for Israel to impose a new reality in the north. But achieving this means that Israel has to determine what its capabilities are. All the signs are that it has few options. Its bluster may be a consequence of the frustration it feels that the most reasonable outcome is a return to the status quo ante. The Israelis may never accept this, but as things stand today, they don’t have a persuasive alternative endgame for their border conflict.

Carnregie Diwan

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17 days ago

Fantastic read.

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