Peace between Israel and Hezbollah endures but stakes of conflict are higher
BEIRUT - In four months’ time — if the current peace endures — Lebanon and Israel will mark 12 years of calm along their common border, the longest period of stability since the mid-1960s.
Both Hezbollah and Israel have spent those years preparing for the possibility of another showdown but the duration of the calm along the border underlines the strength of the mutual deterrence that has arisen between them. Both Hezbollah and Israel know that the next war will be many times more destructive than the one in 2006.
The expected damage and loss of life Lebanon would suffer serves to keep Hezbollah in check, refraining from overt activities that could trigger an escalation. By the same token, Israel knows that the level of destruction in Israel would likely be the heaviest since 1948 with just about the entire country in lockdown for the duration of the war, which could last many weeks. That is a sobering reality for Israel’s political and military leaders if they are mulling a unilateral strike against Hezbollah.
“The feeling today is that because Hezbollah is strong that’s why we have not yet had a war,” said Hassan Balhas, mukhtar in the southern Lebanese village of Siddiqine. “If Israel feels that we are weak, then they will attack.”
However, that powerful mutual deterrence, while strong, is being challenged by developments that, in the past year, have raised speculation that another war could be imminent.
First was the change of leadership in the United States and the renewed hostile focus on Iran after several years of relatively soft treatment by the Obama administration during negotiations to reach a deal over Tehran’s nuclear programme.
US President Donald Trump has vowed to roll back Iranian influence across the Middle East and the recent appointments of two Iran hawks — Mike Pompeo and John Bolton — as secretary of state and national security adviser have hardened the anti-Iran animus in the White House. On May 12, Trump is expected to reveal whether he will decertify the Iran nuclear deal. If he ditches the agreement, it will escalate a crisis between the United States and Iran.
A second reason for the heightened war fears is that the civil war component of the conflict in Syria — President Bashar Assad against an armed opposition determined to unseat him — is receding as the former steadily grinds down the latter.
This has led to a renewed focus on the Israel-Hezbollah dynamic after several years of it sitting on the back-burner. The war in Syria is far from over and appears to be morphing into a more complex, less predictable multinational struggle involving the United States, Turkey, Iran, Russia and Israel.
However, with Assad’s survival seemingly assured, Hezbollah has withdrawn some of its forces, including its elite Radwan Brigade, from Syria and redeployed some of them in southern Lebanon.
A third reason is that Syria, in the past year, has been firing back at breaches of its airspace by Israeli jets on missions to attack suspected Hezbollah targets, raising the risk of an incident escalating into a series of tit-for-tat strikes that could spiral out of control.
This dynamic came close to realisation in February when an Iranian drone entered Israeli airspace and was shot down. Israeli jets attacked the air base in central Syria that launched the drone. One Israeli F-16 was shot down by Syrian air defences. The crew bailed out and landed safely in Israel. If they had landed in southern Lebanon and been captured by Hezbollah, a major crisis could have unfolded.
Similarly, with the civil war fading in Syria, Iran appears to be looking to entrench itself in the country for the long term, a development that Israel has repeatedly declared is a red line. Since September, the Israelis have expanded their target set in Syria from alleged Hezbollah weapons caches or convoys to include facilities associated with Iran.
The Israelis have been warning that Hezbollah has a production line in Lebanon where missile components are being assembled and fitted with guidance systems. A priority for Hezbollah is to acquire more accurate missiles to strike strategic targets in the next war rather than merely pepper Israeli territory with unguided rockets as in the past.
Israel may have to choose whether to amend the existing “rules of the game” and attack the facility in Lebanon, assuming the Israelis know where it is, and risk retaliation or ignore it and continue to enjoy the calm. Similarly, if the facility is destroyed, Hezbollah would be compelled to retaliate to preserve the existing “balance of terror,” which could trigger an unwanted escalation.
In southern Lebanon, some are reassured by the knowledge that Hezbollah’s strength is a deterrent against Israel but Hezbollah is taking nothing for granted.
“We are preparing ourselves mentally because we know the next war will be completely different from the past,” said a veteran local Hezbollah official in a southern Lebanese village close to the border with Israel.
“In 2006, we were no more than 5,000 people. Now we are tens of thousands and we have gained a lot of experience from Syria. In 2006, we could fire a missile into Israel and put a hole in a wall. Next time, just one of our missiles will bring down three buildings.”