Even with the Saudis cheering, war with Hezbollah would spell disaster
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AnalysisNetanyahu is not interested in major conflict with Hezbollah

Even with the Saudis cheering, war with Hezbollah would spell disaster

Amid upheaval in Lebanon, Nasrallah claims Riyadh is pushing Israel to strike his group, but that wouldn’t serve Jerusalem’s interests

Judah Ari Gross

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Hezbollah parading its military equipment in Qusayr, Syria, November 2016. (Twitter)
Hezbollah parading its military equipment in Qusayr, Syria, November 2016. (Twitter)

With Saudi-supported Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s surprise resignation last week, and Riyadh’s increasingly bellicose language toward Hezbollah, a formerly quiet ally in Israel’s opposition to the Iran-backed terrorist group has come to the fore.

Saudi Arabia has long seen Tehran, and its proxy Hezbollah, as a central nemesis in the Middle East, competing against it for regional hegemony and global influence. The US, which once played a more active role in the fight against Iran, has scaled back its involvement in the region.

Meanwhile, the headstrong Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who was named defense minister (the youngest in the world at 32) and deputy prime minister earlier this summer, is trying to make a name for himself. That push hasn’t been going well so far, said Eldad Shavit, a former high-ranking official in both IDF Military Intelligence and the Prime Minister’s Office.

One of bin Salman’s first maneuvers upon entering his new role was to try to force Qatar to fall in line with the other so-called “pragmatic” Sunni states through a travel ban and a border closing. But Qatar has remained obstinate.

“In Qatar, for all [Saudi Arabia’s] massive effort, they haven’t been able to get a decisive victory,” said Shavit, who now works at the Institute for National Security Studies think tank in Tel Aviv.

Salman wants a success right now. He’s desperately looking for a success

The ongoing civil war in Yemen — an Iran-Saudi Arabia proxy fight — also “looks like a failure” for the kingdom, as do the conflicts in Libya and Syria, said Ofer Zalzberg, a Jerusalem-based analyst for the International Crisis Group think tank.

“Salman wants a success right now. He’s desperately looking for a success, I would even say,” Zalzberg told The Times of Israel on Sunday.

“So now they’re going to Lebanon to show who’s in charge,” Shavit said.

In this photo released on October 30, 2017 by Lebanon’s official government photographer Dalati Nohra, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, meets with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Dalati Nohra via AP)

But Saudi Arabia is not necessarily interested in going to war directly with Hezbollah or Iran.

“Saudi Arabia lacks the ability to directly challenge Iran militarily and must consider the threat of Iranian retaliation on its soil,” wrote Robert Malley, vice president for policy at the International Crisis Group and former White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf Region, in an article for The Atlantic last week.

According to Shavit, “the Saudis always want others to do the dirty work for them, especially since they are tied up in Yemen.”

Help wanted in fight against Iran

In an op-ed last week, former US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro assessed that Saudi Arabia is trying to goad Israel into fighting and weakening the Iran-backed Hezbollah so that Riyadh could replace it with its own proxy.

“It is plausible that the Saudis are trying to create the context for a different means of contesting Iran in Lebanon: an Israeli-Hezbollah war,” Shapiro wrote in Haaretz.

On Friday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah made a similar claim, saying in an address that he obtained intelligence that “Saudi Arabia has asked Israel to strike Lebanon” and even offered “tens of billions of dollars” in exchange. Yet Nasrallah assessed that Israel would be unwilling to do so.

A picture taken on November 10, 2017, shows Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Lebanon’s militant Shiite movement Hezbollah, giving a televised address during a gathering in Beirut’s southern suburb. (AFP/Anwar Amro)

Shavit and Zalzberg noted that the rationale behind these allegations is sound: Saudi Arabia and Israel share an enemy in Hezbollah, and the IDF is specially trained to fight the terror group.

“Some in Saudi Arabia would like to see Israel pummel Hezbollah,” Zazlberg said.

Indeed, Riyadh and Jerusalem are already operating — in parallel, if not in cooperation — in the United States to get more sanctions against Hezbollah, and in the European Union to remove the distinction between the terror group’s military and political wings.

Israel has also been seeking to deepen its connections with the Gulf states, an effort that would be aided along by fighting openly alongside Saudi Arabia against an Iranian proxy.

The hitch, according to Zalzberg, Shavit and other analysts, is that it’s not in Israel’s best interest to start a war with Hezbollah. There also haven’t been reports that the IDF is preparing for one, for instance with a mass reservist call-up to the Northern Command.

Netanyahu is not interested in entering into a major war with Hezbollah

This isn’t because of the Jewish state’s peaceful nature or its compassion toward Lebanese civilians who would be caught in the crossfire. Ultimately, it is due to the fact that a third Lebanon war would be disastrous for Israel, in terms of civilian casualties, the economy and, potentially, Israel’s international standing.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “is not interested in entering into a major war with Hezbollah,” Zalzberg said.

War is hell

According to Israeli assessments, the Iran-backed terror group maintains an arsenal of between 100,000 and 150,000 short-, medium- and long-range missiles — a nearly tenfold increase over the 2006 Second Lebanon War — with which it could rain down hellfire on northern and central Israel at a rate of more than 1,000 rockets a day.

An Iron Dome anti-rocket defense system placed in Gush Dan, on November 16, 2012. (photo Credit: Alon Besson/Ministry of Defense/Flash90)
An Iron Dome anti-rocket defense system placed in the Dan region, on November 16, 2012. (Alon Besson/Ministry of Defense/Flash90)

Of course, the Israel Defense Forces has been working to counter this threat over the intervening 11 years, with the development of a multi-layered missile defense system, but the army nevertheless warns that as technologically advanced as these interceptors are, they do not and cannot offer a “hermetic seal” of protection.

In addition, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said last month that a future war with Hezbollah would likely not be a Lebanon war, but a Lebanon-Syria-Gaza war, as the terrorist organization could rally other Iranian-backed groups, including Hamas, to fight alongside it in those areas.

Last year, the Israeli military estimated that in such an all-out war hundreds of Israeli civilians would be killed, far outstripping the 50 civilians killed in the 2006 Second Lebanon War and the six killed in the 2014 Gaza war.

Soldiers evacuating a wounded comrade during the Second Lebanon War, on July 24, 2006 (photo credit: Haim Azoulay/ Flash 90)

But as terrible as a war would be for Israel, Hezbollah would likely sustain a far worse, potentially debilitating blow, though it would take time.

“Israel possesses far greater ability to inflict pain, but Hezbollah possesses far greater capacity to absorb it, which means that any large-scale Israeli operation runs the risk of being open-ended,” Malley, the International Crisis Group vice president, wrote.

Once the dust settled, though, Israel would be no closer to lasting peace with its northern neighbor, if not dramatically further from it, according to James Zogby, who founded the Arab American Institute and is the managing director of Zogby Research Services.

Zogby, whose research focuses on public opinion in the Arab world, noted that Israel has already fought two full wars in Lebanon — in 1982 and 2006 — along with a number of significant military operations, with nothing to show for it in the way of long-term reconciliation.

Israeli soldiers cover their ears as they fire artillery shells at southern Lebanon from outside Kiryat Shmona in northern Israel during the Second Lebanon War on July 22, 2006. (Pierre Terdjman/Flash90)

In addition, on a realpolitik level, Israel would require a “legitimizing narrative,” with which it could show both its citizens and the international community that it had no option but to enter into what would surely be a bloody war. That would all but preclude a Saudi-inspired preemptive strike.

“Even if it made sense strategically, it would not necessarily make sense electorally,” Zalzberg said. “The war would be so disastrous that it would have electoral implications even if it were handled well.”

Hezbollah too doesn’t seem to be gunning for war.

“No one can totally deny the possibility of war,” Nasrallah said Friday. “However, we say it is unlikely.”

That’s not to say that a war won’t happen despite it not being in Israel’s or Hezbollah’s immediate interest. Desire, after all, is not a prerequisite for conflict.

The war between wars

For now, the only war Israel is interested in fighting with Hezbollah is the one that it has been fighting for the past 11 years, since the 2006 Second Lebanon War: what Israeli security officials sometimes refer to as “the war between wars.”

It is a reference to the ongoing operations — the bombing of advanced missile shipments, for instance — that Israel undertakes against Hezbollah to deter it or, at least, deprive it of sophisticated weaponry.

Israel’s current challenge is how to respond to the entrenchment and expansion of Iran in Syria in general and along the border in particular

The strategy can be seen most clearly not in Lebanon, but in Syria, where the IDF has carried out numerous airstrikes against Hezbollah. Israeli defense and diplomatic officials are also working with their Russian and American counterparts, who are negotiating a ceasefire agreement in southern Syria, in order to ensure that Iran-backed militias, including Hezbollah, are kept away from the border.

“Israel’s current challenge is how to respond to the entrenchment and expansion of Iran in Syria in general and along the border in particular,” Shavit said.

On Monday, it was reported that a current draft of such a ceasefire allowed for some Shiite militias to get as close as five kilometers (three miles) from the Israeli border, prompting Netanyahu to comment that Israel would continue acting “in accordance with our security needs.”

For another example of the type of target Israel is considering, Zalzberg offered the underground missile factories that Hezbollah was reportedly constructing in Lebanon. According to the analyst, the terror group is believed to have halted the work in light of the Israeli threats against them.

Illustrative: A Fateh-110 ballistic missile, taken at an Iranian armed forces parade in 2012. (military.ir/Wikimedia Commons)

“The dominant official view in Israel is that it can afford to take out any such facility should construction resume, because any Hezbollah retaliation to such a targeted strike likely would itself be narrowly focused and thus fall short of triggering a full-fledged war,” Zalzberg wrote in an analysis for the Crisis Group on Friday.

But Israel’s war between the wars with Hezbollah is not a risk-free endeavor, as a miscalculation carries the risk of triggering a more forceful response than anticipated.

Last month, for example, Israel destroyed a Palestinian Islamic Jihad attack tunnel that entered Israeli territory from Gaza, as part of its war between wars with terror groups in the Strip. In the process, it killed at least 12 terrorists, including two senior commanders. While the IDF said it didn’t regret their deaths, the military also noted that the specific goal of the operation was tunnel demolition, and not terrorist assassination.

Some two weeks later, the IDF is still on high alert in southern Israel, out of concern the Palestinian Islamic Jihad will make good on its threats to avenge its fallen members.

“The dynamics of deterrence are escalatory,” noted Zalzberg, who has worked as a Middle East researcher and analyst for over a decade.

This is especially true as the Middle East heats up in general, increasing the potential for a situation to spiral out of control.

The dynamics of deterrence are escalatory

In the Israel-Hezbollah fight, there are “those in the region who would even pour fuel on to such a fire,” Zalzberg said.

However, he said, that does not change the underlying desire of both Israel and Hezbollah to forgo, or at least delay, all-out war.

Zalzberg also countered the claim made by many Israeli politicians and military officials that war with the Iranian proxy is a matter of “when, not if.” The rationale behind that notion of inevitability is that the sides have irreconcilable differences: Hezbollah’s raison d’être is the destruction of the Jewish state and Israel doesn’t much care for being destroyed.

However, Zalzberg noted historical precedents for diametrically opposed forces not going to war, namely the United States and the former Soviet Union.

“The Cold War never became a hot war,” he said. “[Israel and Hezbollah] can still postpone things for a very long time.”

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