Another War in Lebanon? Not Likely

Alarms of a full-scale war between Israel and Lebanon have increased since their border clash on August 3 that left three Lebanese soldiers, one Israeli officer, and one Lebanese journalist dead. Columnist Conn Hallinan argues that Israel may be looking for a rematch with Hezbollah after their standstill war of 2006, citing the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) preparations and its adoption of the “Dahiya Doctrine” – named after the Beirut neighborhood that the IDF flattened in 2006 – in the next war. Earlier reports by the Council on Foreign Relations and the International Crisis Group also warned against a looming war, assigning the likelihood to Hezbollah’s military buildup and rising Israeli threats. According to the CFR report, “Israel could also decide to degrade Hezbollah’s capabilities in order to deny Iran a ‘second-strike’ capability should Israel decide to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.”

These alarms are less warranted than they appear, however, for a number of reasons. The Netanyahu government’s number one security policy priority is preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. The argument that Israel would deal with Hezbollah first in preparation for a showdown with Iran is plausible on the surface but overlooks this option’s counter-productivity. A war with Hezbollah could only distract international attention – as well as Israel’s military and diplomatic resources – from the Iranian nuclear threat, a focus that Israel worked hard to develop and that has recently started to bear fruit.

Furthermore, though Israel continues to improve its defenses against Hezbollah’s arsenal of rockets through civil defense drills and the development of a missile defense system, the job is yet to be done. According to Amos Harel of Haaretz, the nation-wide deployment of Iron Dome batteries and the distribution of gas masks will not be completed before 2012 and 2013 respectively. Despite the obvious threat that Hezbollah’s military buildup presents to Israel, the Israeli government appears to have recently opted for a strategy of preventive action that would degrade Hezbollah’s rearmament short of a large-scale confrontation. This strategy involves a series of interdiction operations against ships carrying weapons from Iran to Hezbollah and Hamas – including Monchegorsk in January 2009, Hansa India in October 2009, and Francop in November 2009.

Israeli risk-averseness is enhanced by other restraints. The International Tribunal of Lebanon – investigating the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri – will likely charge members of Hezbollah in its indictment this fall. Such an indictment could ignite a Sunni-Shiite civil war in Lebanon, especially since Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Nasrallah has already named the Tribunal a U.S.- Israeli plot. An Israeli strike would reinforce this image and amass popular support for Hezbollah. Why, then, should Israel offer Hezbollah an ideal exit from the dilemma it faces? Also, prospects of a Republican-dominated Congress after the November midterm elections are a mixed blessing for Israel. Congress has already pushed Obama to come to terms with Netanyahu. But this rapprochement and the direct Israeli-Palestinian talks it launched in Washington earlier this month might tie Israel’s hands for a Dahyia Doctrine-based war that would compound the administration’s reconciliation with the Muslim world and sink its considerable investment in the moderate camp in Lebanon.

The Netanyahu government has maintained that the border clash in early August was an isolated incident, probably the result of an unauthorized firing by a junior Lebanese Army officer. This approach helped justify the government’s restrained reaction to the public, which would not have accepted the restraint had Hezbollah been responsible. Not everyone in the Israeli elite shared this sentiment, however, and pushed instead for escalation. Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, head of Israel’s Northern Command – whose area of responsibility includes Lebanon – along with former Minister of Defense Shaul Mofaz stressed that the incident was a Hezbollah-planned ambush. Along with the newly appointed IDF Chief-of-Staff, Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, who earned his reputation for leading Operation Cast Lead against Hamas in Gaza, the hardliners may well press the government to take stronger action.

The Obama administration should address this possible interest in a showdown with Hezbollah, even if it is a minority view within the Israeli political elite. Deescalation has worked for Israel for the above factors. Washington should also emphasize that military strikes against Hezbollah only strengthen the organization rather than marginalize it, as evidenced by the increased political power of Hezbollah after the 2006 conflict.

At the moment, another Israeli attack in Lebanon is remote. The Obama administration should use its powers of persuasion to keep it that way.

Amr Yossef is a lecturer in international relations at the American University in Cairo and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.