Tensions between Israel and Hizbullah have risen sharply in the past week, but despite the animosity between the two sides, regional strategic calculations mean both sides will step back from the brink of all out war.
A recent outbreak of hostilities between Lebanese group Hizbullah and Israel, resulting in casualties on both sides, have brought yet another of the region’s conflict hotspots under the microscope. This has led many to wonder whether the instability of the region will bring Israel back into confrontation with its neighbours. However, the desire for stability on both sides appears to have averted a larger confrontation.
Stability from an Israeli context is so heavily defined by the short-term immediacy of neutralising security threats that long-term desires often have to be placed aside. But since the outbreak of revolutions across the Arab world four years ago Israel has largely adopted a posture of 'sit and watch', choosing to refrain from engaging in intra-regional conflicts that were not of its own making nor indeed within its power to solve. Echoes of failed operations in Lebanon in 1982 and the unsuccessful attempt to break Hizbullah in 2006 still hang heavily over the Israeli strategic mindset. The Israeli strategic calculus is in short that if the Arabs wish to fight amongst themselves then let them, just make sure there are no negative consequences for Israel.
Those negative consequences are swiftly dealt with. The spill over from the war in Syria is responded to with measured appropriateness. If a shell lands in Israeli territory a shell will land in Syrian territory. If weapons transfers to Hizbullah are detected that clearly do not have any strategic benefit for the organisation’s conflict in Syria but instead look aimed at redressing the strategic balance with Israel, they are destroyed. To this extent Israel has acted in a way that seeks to avoid either Sunni or Shia factions in Syria exploiting the war to forge a long-term strategic base from which to act against the Jewish State.
Israel’s Limited Strategic Capacity
Israel’s ability to shape events in this regard is extremely limited. There is really no desirable outcome in Syria. Should Hizbullah and the Syrian Army ultimately emerge victorious, it would present a new solidified front stretching from the Mediterranean to Jabal Druze near the Jordanian border, controlled by Iran’s main proxy group. Should the Sunni opposition factions, or worse Jihadist groups emerge victorious, the picture is hardly better. In one conversation in 2012 a ‘moderate’ Free Syrian Army fighter made his feelings clear to the author, ‘first we get Bashar out, then we go for Israel’, it is not a stretch to conclude that the Al Qa’ida affiliated Nusra Front, or the soldiers of the Islamic State would be even more forthright in their desires.
Nevertheless recent developments vis-à-vis Hizbullah in particular require further explanation. In the years following the Lebanon war of 2006 a fragile but workable balance of deterrence between Israel and Hizbullah was put into place. Hizbullah rearmed to the extent that it now possesses an estimated 100,000 rockets capable of hitting most targets in Israel. Israel for its part became occupied by three major operations in Gaza, which significantly improved its substrategic operational capabilities and advanced work on its Iron Dome missile defence system. For either side a resumption of hostilities would prove costly, far more so than in 2006, and so until 2014 the two sides cautiously eyed one another, all the while not wanting to scare the other into a false move.
The Threat of Miscalculation: Deterrence Eroded
But the Syrian war has put into motion a number of events which have upset the balance and allowed Hizbullah to gain territorial advantage as well as combat experience, which has tipped the balance of deterrence toward them. In recent discussions this author held with Israeli officials it became very clear that the worry of the Syria conflict is twofold: firstly that Hizbullah will attempt to widen the northern front against Israel into Syria, using their presence on the Golan as a jump post for further attacks that do not invite retaliation against Lebanon proper. Secondly, that in this changed environment there appears no base strategic point from which to properly calculate escalation should trouble arise. In short, the war could start at any moment despite neither side wishing it.
The second point is particularly troublesome and goes some way toward explaining why events have unfolded in the pattern that they have. At tense times like this when publics on both sides clamour at their leaders to respond with force, strategic sense needs to prevail.
Hizbullah for its part does not have the chess pieces in place to make the most of the strategic shift in its favour. Bogged down in Syria, the time is not right for another costly war that could potentially trigger a refugee crisis from southern Lebanon to the north, where many Sunni Syrian refugees are based. An Israeli response could critically weaken Hizbullah at a time when its strength is required for larger strategic objectives, and potentially lead to Sunni factions in Lebanon and Syria obliterating the Shia strategic presence in either country.
It may hurt Israelis to see their government eschewing its prerogative to respond, but that response may inadvertently lead to 100,000 rockets landing in a country the size of Wales, most of which cannot be stopped. Those who say Prime Minister Netanyahu would see a bump in his approval ratings before the election should also consider that handling an all-out conflict with Hizbullah poorly, as occurred in 2006, would see his political career finished in the eyes of his public. Lebanon is not Gaza, and Israel has rarely returned from its clashes with Hizbullah unscathed.
It behoves the type of flurried diplomatic activity that occurred. Hizbullah’s communication to the UN indicating it had no desire to escalate beyond a tit-for-tat response to the Golan operation last week, is a classic case of trying to re-establish the rules of the game for both sides, and an indicator that indeed neither side knew what those rules were. The strategic balance favours neither actor at present, and so any way out is welcomed.
What appears to be a slightly odd blow-out of tension is in fact both sides acting with strategic maturity at a time when everything around them is beset by chaos. This does not mean the balance will hold indefinitely, but it does show that for now at least, the Lebanon-Israel border will not see war.