ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 142

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Analysis

Despite Arouri strike in his backyard, Nasrallah is trying to avoid war with Israel

Under intense domestic pressure, and facing effective IDF strikes, Hezbollah leader uses speech to underscore his lack of desire for a major escalation right now

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

People watch a televised speech by Lebanon's Hezbollah terror chief Hassan Nasrallah in a Beirut southern suburb on January 3, 2024. (ANWAR AMRO / AFP)
People watch a televised speech by Lebanon's Hezbollah terror chief Hassan Nasrallah in a Beirut southern suburb on January 3, 2024. (ANWAR AMRO / AFP)

After Israel (allegedly) took out senior Hamas commander Saleh Al-Arouri in the heart of Hezbollah’s Beirut stronghold on Tuesday night, attention shifted immediately to Hassan Nasrallah, the charismatic leader of the capable Iran-backed terrorist army in Lebanon.

Since October 7, Nasrallah has been waging a bloody but decidedly low-level conflict with Israel. It hasn’t gone particularly well for the Shiite organization — it has publicly acknowledged almost 150 fighters killed by the IDF, and has been forced to withdraw much of its elite force from positions along the border with Israel.

Nasrallah likes to establish clear, if unwritten, rules of the game in the fight with Israel, and has tried in the past to escalate when he feels Israel has broken them.

The Arouri strike was certainly outside the pattern of air and artillery strikes that Israel has been conducting in recent weeks against Hezbollah positions south of the Litani. It took place in the Hezbollah-controlled Dahiya neighborhood, targeting the Hamas leader closest to Nasrallah. Arouri traveled freely there, sure that Israel would not dare attack while he was under Hezbollah protection.

Yet despite the clear pressures on Nasrallah to strike back– and past threats he has made against Israel — there are countervailing forces keeping Hezbollah’s reaction in check. Though surprises and miscalculations are always a possibility, for now signs point to a limited response, and not a massive escalation.

The Shield of Lebanon

Nasrallah has a commitment to Iran and its axis of resistance across the Middle East. It was willing to lose thousands of fighters to protect Iranian ally Bashar Assad in the Syrian civil war, and is under pressure to help Hamas survive Israel’s attempts to destroy it in the wake of the terror group’s October 7 atrocities.

That doesn’t mean that Iran is pushing Hezbollah to open a war against Israel. Tehran is likely disinclined to risk sacrificing its most powerful proxy against a fully mobilized Israel with domestic and international legitimacy to hit Hezbollah harder than it ever has in the past.

Hamas deputy leader Saleh al-Arouri at his desk in Beirut with an M16 rifle laid in front of him, August 27, 2023 (Shehab News)

But Nasrallah does need to show that his organization is playing a leading role in the fight against Israel. Hamas leapfrogged to the top of the list with its deadly attack on Israel, and even the Houthis in Yemen are attracting more global attention since October 7.

“There is going to have to be a point when they, and the Iranians who recently suffered their own blow, say that even if they don’t want to, they have to do something or risk being seen as not serious,” said Joshua Krasna, director of the Center for Emerging Energy Politics in the Middle East Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Houthi supporters chant slogans at a rally, on March 26, 2023, in Sanaa, Yemen. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

It doesn’t seem that Hezbollah has reached that point, however.

“Despite its deep loyalty to Iran, Hezbollah has worked to brand itself, especially in the last decade, as the Shield of Lebanon, seeking to establish legitimacy far beyond the local Shiite community,” Yossi Mansharof, Shia expert at the Misgav Institute for National Security and Zionist Strategy, told The Times of Israel.

If it is to be accepted as the defender of all Lebanon, Hezbollah certainly can’t be seen as picking fights with Israel that lead to widespread destruction in the country.

Public opinion in Lebanon, even among Hezbollah’s Shiite population, is firmly against being dragged into a war to protect Hamas. Even Hezbollah’s Al-Akhbar newspaper mouthpiece published a survey in October showing that more than two-thirds of the public, including over half the Shiites polled, opposed Hezbollah causing a full-blown conflict with Israel.

One of the leading commentators on Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV station even blasted senior Hamas leader Khaled Mashal’s calls for Hezbollah to open up a front on Israel’s north.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, meets with Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati at his hotel during a day of meetings, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Amman, Jordan, Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023. (Jonathan Ernst/Pool Photo via AP)

Lebanon’s leaders have also been vocal in their insistence that Nasrallah not drag the ailing country into a war that Beirut can only lose.

Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati praised Hezbollah in late October for avoiding escalation “rationally and wisely,” and said that the Lebanese people “do not want to enter any war.” Foreign Minister Abdullah Bouhabib expressed similar sentiments on CNN in November, and, in the wake of the Al-Arouri assassination, said that he “hopes and prays” that Hezbollah would not respond.

There are also external reasons for Hezbollah to shy away from a major escalation.

The US Navy’s aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower transits the Strait of Hormuz on November 26, 2023. (Ruskin Naval / US Department of Defense / AFP)

“A massive rocket or missile attack on Israel will probably draw the American forces into direct defense of Israel,” Krasna pointed out.

And even if Nasrallah were to choose a moderate escalation to send a message to Israel, he can’t predict the response. There is no lack of pressure from the public and from politicians on Israel’s war leadership to unleash the IDF on Hezbollah as well, and drive it out of southern Lebanon.

Meticulous calculations

Nasrallah’s much-anticipated speech on Wednesday night only emphasized how eager he is currently to avoid a major war with Israel.

He left the issue of a potential Hezbollah response to the Arouri strike for the end of his two-hour address, and gave himself plenty of maneuvering room. Nasrallah did not commit to responding at a particular time or in a specific manner, or even from Lebanon.

Supporters shout slogans during the commemorations of the anniversary of the killing of Iranian commander general Qassem Soleimani, marked by a televised speech of Lebanon’s Hezbollah chief Hasan Nasrallah in Beirut, January 3, 2024. (Anwar Amro/AFP)

Instead, he said Hezbollah has been using “meticulous calculations” thus far, and would take into account Lebanese interests and concerns about a war.

“He’s explicitly not interested in war,”  said Orna Mizrahi, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies. “You can hear from the words of his speech that he is even afraid of war, so he’s using upside-down logic. He is saying,  ‘The Israelis are the ones who want war; just try me. I have all the capabilities; everything is ready to respond ‘without limits.'”

“He is deterred, so he is trying to send a message to Israel that it shouldn’t start a war that he is not interested in.”

This picture taken on December 31, 2023, from southern Lebanon shows smoke billowing across the border in northern Israel after the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group launched a barrage of rockets amid ongoing cross-border tensions. (Hasan FNEICH/AFP)

In the meantime, Hezbollah will likely continue to limit its response geographically, using systems with limited range along the border, like anti-tank missiles, mortars, and the powerful but short-range Burkan rocket.

With US special envoy Amos Hochstein in Israel on Thursday, Nasrallah might even find a comfortable excuse to let the Arouri killing go without a major response. The Americans are eager to find a way to lower the flames on Israel’s northern border, and Hezbollah can say it is only following the will of the Lebanese people if a diplomatic arrangement emerges.

Nonetheless, war is always a distinct possibility between Israel and Hezbollah.

“In the current situation, and the current mood in Israel, the chance for escalation based on miscalculation by the other side has grown severely, especially if Hezbollah or Iranian action ‘oversucceeds’ and causes many casualties,” argued Krasna.

“My feeling is that Israel does not have to be pushed very far to decide on a significant military operation over the Lebanese border.”

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