The north is burning, but an invasion of Lebanon solves nothing

Israel needs time to build up the IDF for a decisive campaign against Hezbollah, but with a Gaza hostage deal unlikely, it has no easy way to end a fight in the north and bring residents home

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (second right) visits Kiryat Shmona on the border with Lebanon, June 5, 2024. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (second right) visits Kiryat Shmona on the border with Lebanon, June 5, 2024. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

In the late 6th century BCE, as Jews were returning from Babylon to Zion and rebuilding the Second Temple, the Chinese strategist Sun Tzu sat near the mouth of the Yangtze River and wrote one of his famous dictums: “He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.”

For eight months, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided the time is not right to fight in the north, at least not a full-fledged war.

To deal with Hezbollah’s incessant rocket fire and drone attacks from Lebanon, Netanyahu decided to evacuate tens of thousands of civilians from their homes early in the fight, and then embark on a slowly escalating campaign against the Iran-backed terror group’s fighters and infrastructure.

But that approach seems to be rapidly approaching its end.

On Thursday, Hezbollah launched a barrage of rockets and a swarm of explosive-laden drones, setting off at least 15 fires in the battered Galilee and Golan. The attacks continued on Friday.

On Wednesday, the powerful Shia group had launched its largest volley since October 7, as 215 rockets hit cities across the north.

Fires burn next to the northern city of Kiryat Shmona on June 3, 2024, following rocket and drone attacks from nearby Lebanon. (Jalaa Marey/AFP)

“The more time passes and the more the conflict escalates, the more the chances for a war grow,” said Orna Mizrahi, senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies.

Netanyahu, his war cabinet reduced by the withdrawal of former IDF chiefs Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, now faces the challenge posed by Sun Tzu — Is now the time to fight?

Don’t, please

From the outset of Israel’s war on Hamas, US President Joe Biden has thrown significant diplomatic heft and threats of military force at preventing the fighting in Gaza from spreading to Lebanon and beyond.

“My message to any state or any other hostile actor thinking about attacking Israel remains the same as it was a week ago,” said Biden on October 18. “Don’t. Don’t.  Don’t.”

US President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the war between Israel and Hamas after meeting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, October 18, 2023, in Tel Aviv. (AP/ Evan Vucci)

He also sent two aircraft carrier strike groups to the eastern Mediterranean.

But those measures didn’t have the desired effect, if they had any at all.

Eager to show its support for Hamas, and sensing an opportunity to impose pain on vulnerable Israeli citizens, Hezbollah embarked on a war of attrition against Israel.

Biden eventually switched tacks.

He dispatched his special envoy Amos Hochstein to Israel and Lebanon in an attempt to find a diplomatic way out of the fight. Multiple trips to the region, and the presentation of a truce plan, apparently failed.

Senior Advisor to US President Joe Biden Amos Hochstein in Beirut, Lebanon, Jan. 11, 2024 (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said clearly that there would be no end to the fighting in the north without a ceasefire in the south.

“The link between the supportive Lebanese front and Gaza is definitive, final and conclusive,” he stressed. “No one can de-link them.”

Biden’s recent effort has been to do whatever he can to bring about an end to the Gaza fight. If he can put a lid on the war there, the White House reasons, Hezbollah and Israel will both be eager to wrap up a conflict that neither can win, and the path opens up for a possible watershed Saudi-Israeli peace deal… all ahead of November elections against Donald Trump, whose small lead Biden has been unable to erase.

Protesters call for the release of the hostages held by terrorists in the Gaza Strip, outside the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, June 12, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

That effort has revolved around finding a way to get both Israel and Hamas to agree to a hostage release-for-ceasefire deal, even if it means Hamas survives the war.

Biden even took the rather dramatic step of publicly presenting Israel’s latest proposal in late May, in hopes that it would force Netanyahu to stand by its terms while prodding Egypt and Qatar to pressure Hamas to accept them.

The sum of that effort is Israel making far-reaching concessions on everything except a definitive pledge to end the war, while Hamas sees no reason to do anything other than sit back and watch Israel’s friends in the world continue to undermine Jerusalem’s position.

To the surprise of the White House and no one in Israel, threatening to withhold weapons and repeating that the US won’t back a full invasion of Hamas’s last stronghold in Gaza appear to have made slim chances for a ceasefire deal even more remote.

“We have the Israelis right where we want them,” Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar reportedly wrote recently to officials negotiating with Qatar and Egypt on a deal.

Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s Gaza Strip chief, waves to supporters in Gaza City, on April 14, 2023. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

At some point the Biden administration will likely conclude that — absent massive military pressure — Hamas will not release hostages without a guarantee that it has won the war and Israel lost.

But the US is not there yet. “We’re determined to try to bridge the gaps, and I believe those gaps are bridgeable,” said Secretary of State Antony Blinken after the latest stalling tactic by Hamas, in which it didn’t outright reject the latest offer but instead insisted on an end to the war. Still, Blinken acknowledged, “That doesn’t mean they will be bridged.”

Not ready for victory

The US seems out of ideas, and in Israel, one is being spoken about more and more — a ground invasion into Lebanon.

There is widespread recognition that such a decision is not arrived at lightly.

Fighters from the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah carry out a training exercise in Aaramta village in the Jezzine District, southern Lebanon, May 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

“To defeat Hezbollah, you need a long and very complex war,” warned Mizrahi.

But not only long and complex; it’s a war Israel is not set up to win.

Five years ago, then-IDF chief of staff Aviv Kohavi brought the top military brass together for a “Victory Workshop” to lay the groundwork for the army’s next multi-year plan. The IDF leadership came out of the self-examination workshop with some worrying conclusions.

The complete military superiority that the IDF enjoyed for three decades was eroding. Hamas and Hezbollah, once seen as poorly resourced terrorist groups that could carry out occasional bombings and small hit-and-run attacks, now possess capabilities associated with state militaries.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and incoming IDF Chief of Staff Avi Kohavi at a ceremony at Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv on January 15, 2019. (Flash90)

Kohavi laid out the challenge maneuvering IDF forces would face against these terror armies: “[They] are located in the heart of urban areas in a decentralized manner, which makes it very difficult to locate and destroy them, and allows the enemy to attack Israel’s home front effectively over time.”

They were able to steadily build up their capabilities as the IDF created a force based on intelligence and air power, one meant to deter its enemies in occasional short operations.

Recognizing the urgent need for change, Kohavi called for increased lethality for the ground forces, better interconnectedness between pilots, infantry, tanks and drones, and better battlefield sensors to locate the enemy first.

Those capabilities were only partially introduced into the ground forces by the time Hamas-led terrorists invaded Israel on October 7.

Hitting back against Hamas, the IDF adapted quickly and effectively, developing tactics that have sliced through Hamas’s prepared defenses above ground in Gaza.

IDF troops are seen operating in the Gaza Strip in an undated handout photo cleared for publication on June 7, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Below Gaza, however, Israel has still not overcome the challenges. Its special engineering units can slowly deal with individual tunnels, but the IDF still cannot easily find Hamas’s main strategic asset, or the senior leaders and hostages contained within.

The challenges the IDF would face in Lebanon would be orders of magnitude greater. Hezbollah has far more advanced anti-tank weapons and attack drones. Fighting in prepared defenses in open territory, they would be able to target IDF forces from kilometers away.

Moreover, reservists would be facing their third and fourth rounds of service this year. They would mostly show up, but the strain on families and businesses would be even greater.

It wouldn’t be the first time the IDF moved ground forces into Lebanon, confident that its overwhelming successes against Palestinian terrorists would translate into achievements against Hezbollah.

In 2006, after defeating the terrorism campaign in the Second Intifada militarily, the IDF moved against Hezbollah in the Second Lebanon War. It found a type of warfare for which it had not prepared, and fought Hezbollah to a disappointing stalemate.

Soldiers evacuate a wounded comrade during the Second Lebanon War, on July 24, 2006 (Haim Azoulay/ Flash 90/ File)

This reality hasn’t stopped decision-makers from advocating for a push into Lebanon. Netanyahu, backed in the war cabinet by since-departed National Unity leaders Gantz and Eisenkot, reportedly blocked a push by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and senior army officials to launch a preemptive ground invasion against Hezbollah days after October 7.

“If you didn’t think it was right to go to war against Hezbollah on October 8, it makes even less sense today,” argued Israeli military theorist Eran Ortal, a former IDF general.

A high price for what?

As hundreds of thousands of IDF troops have been battling Hamas for over eight months in Gaza, they have been burning through stockpiles of shells, precision bombs and Iron Dome interceptor missiles.

Hezbollah, meanwhile, has enjoyed an influx of drones and other weapons from Iran, and has been using them to study Israel’s air defenses.

“We didn’t fill ourselves up with new capabilities,” said Ortal. “While our stocks are being emptied, theirs are full.”

Shiite Lebanese members of Iranian-backed Hezbollah walk barefoot as they carry a poster showing Hezbollah drones with Arabic words that read: ‘We are coming,’ during the holy day of Ashoura in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, Aug. 9, 2022. (AP/Hussein Malla)

IDF troops are currently positioned behind defenses and on the rear slopes away from Hezbollah missiles. An invasion would put them in harm’s way while not even solving the problem it was meant to address — Hezbollah’s fire at Israeli civilians.

The IDF could take every square inch of territory 10 — even 20 — kilometers from the border, and Hezbollah would still be able to rain rockets down across Israel.

The fight would turn into a costly maneuver war, combined with Israel inflicting massive damage on Lebanon, while Hezbollah does the same to Israel’s home front.

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)

It would, in effect, be another war meant not to defeat Hezbollah but to deter it through punishment — the same type of campaign that was proven so woefully ineffective on October 7.

And it would end in a ceasefire agreement, one that residents of the north are unlikely to put much stock in.

Israel would have expanded the current war of attrition in the north, but would be in a worse position afterward.

“The price will be far, far greater than the achievement,” Ortal cautioned.

That doesn’t leave Israel with great options.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant attend a press conference at the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv, Oct. 28, 2023. (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)

Still, it needs to come to a decision in Gaza. Israel could enhance the military campaign temporarily to maximize its achievements before declaring some sort of end to the war. Netanyahu could also introduce a new type of pressure on Sinwar by finally allowing the Palestinian Authority to start taking control of areas in Gaza, which could allow Israel to shorten this stage of the fight against Hamas.

Or it could take the view that the war on Hamas is only one small preliminary fight in a generational struggle against Iran and its proxies, and accept Sinwar’s terms to start building the IDF for its impending invasion of Lebanon a few short years down the road.

In any event, a simultaneous fight against both Hamas and Hezbollah right now is not a situation Israel should put itself into.

“Why would an army that was built 30 years for deterrence operations suddenly be able to defeat both Hamas and Hezbollah militarily?” asked Ortal.

Or, as Sun Tzu wrote 2,500 years ago, “The good fighters of old first put themselves beyond the possibility of defeat, and then waited for an opportunity to defeat the enemy.”

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