Hezbollah & Israel Square Off

Over the last three months or so, a spate of articles have appeared with happy titles like “Israel’s Next War with Hezbollah Will Be Worse Than the Last,” “The New Hezbollah: Israel’s Next War Will Be An Awful Mess,” “The Next Hezbollah-Israel Conflict,” and “Israel’s Coming War with Hezbollah.”

All those articles, some from major foreign policy think tanks, seem to share the view of a leading Israeli military planner that the question is “not if, but when,” and that the confrontation will be, to paraphrase Hobbes, “nasty, brutish, [but not] short.” Michael Eisenstadt and Jeffrey White of the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy write in The American Interest that the next war will be “the most destructive Arab-Israeli war yet.” The American Enterprise Institute’s Thomas Donnelly recently predicted that the confrontation would be “a savage thing, that might escalate in unpredictable ways.” All agree that the next war will be far more brutal and leave greater devastation on both sides than the 2006 Second Lebanon War.

Both sides have been preparing for a rematch since the conclusion of a month of fighting in the summer of 2006. Israeli military planners have worked on the assumption that Israel cannot afford a similar result – one that left Hezbollah able to fire as many missiles on the last day of fighting as the first and without having penetrated into Lebanon at all.

Yet, Israel still faces the same unsavory conundrum it did in 2006: either avoid a large-scale ground action and imperil its home front or enter Lebanon and sustain potentially heavy casualties in a long war of attrition.

Since 2006, Israel has greatly increased its training for a full-scale ground operation and dramatically upgraded its intelligence gathering capabilities and ability to target Hezbollah missiles and rockets. And it can wreak havoc on Lebanon if it chooses to reveal its full cyber attack capabilities. Finally, the development of Iron Dome, Arrow, and David’s Sling missile defense platforms provide Israel with a level of missile defense that it did not possess ten years ago.

YET, IF ANYTHING, HEZBOLLAH HAS INCREASED its capabilities even more than Israel. In 2006, Hezbollah was able to rain upon northern Israel about 100 low-accuracy katyushas per day. Today, according to White and Eisenstadt, its 150,000-missile arsenal allows Hezbollah to fire 1,500 missiles and rockets a day. While most of that arsenal still consists of inaccurate katyushas, Hezbollah now possesses cruise anti-ship missiles, long-range missiles that could be fired from deep within Lebanese territory, and guided weaponry capable of targeting Israel’s vital infrastructure – oil refineries, the Chadera power station, desalinization facilities, Ben Gurion Airport, and military bases. Hundreds of Hezbollah’s missiles are capable of being armed with chemical weapons.

Though Israel’s anti-missile defenses have been greatly upgraded and expanded, there is no chance that they could fully defend against such a missile onslaught. Hezbollah will try to overwhelm those missile defenses with the sheer number of its lower accuracy rockets and drones. Even if Israel were capable of hitting every incoming missile or rocket, the cost of doing so would be prohibitive.

Hezbollah’s years of fighting together with the units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Assad’s forces in Syria have given it new battlefield experience in the conduct of large-scale operations. Nothing Hezbollah fighters faced in Syria, however, remotely compares to the mechanized might that Israel can bring to bear.

But Hezbollah has been long-preparing for a defensive struggle in southern Lebanon employing a strategy of attacking the “weak” – i.e., infantry units – from the mass of subterranean tunnels it has built up over the years, while avoiding the strong – i.e., Israel’s armored divisions. Hezbollah has acquired large numbers of armor-piercing anti-tank missiles over the past decade, even as Israel has worked hard to provide its tanks with new forms of protection.

When it comes to the types of urban fighting that some of the advancing Israeli forces would face, Hezbollah has proven a highly effective guerrilla force. In two major battles in 2006, Hezbollah was able to hold off much larger Israeli forces for a week or more without surrendering or fleeing.

Hezbollah leader Shiekh Nasrallah has boasted that Hezbollah fighters will be bolstered by as many as 40,000 Shiite militia fighters from as far away as Pakistan and Afghanistan. Shiite militias have played a major role in the fight against ISIS and more recently against Iraqi Kurds, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps has grown adept at shuttling forces from one theater to another. But it remains to be seen whether those reinforcements would even materialize.

Israeli planners must also deal with the possibility of Iranian forces opening up a second front on the Golan Heights from their new position in Syria. Already they are thinning out the Sunni population between the Assad-held areas of Syria and the Golan Heights border.

And Hezbollah may well attempt to penetrate Israel briefly to capture soldiers or civilians through underground tunnels and perhaps via ultra-light aircraft. For the first time since 1948, Israel might be forced to evacuate, not just place underground, tens of thousands of civilians on the northern border.

Of course, many of these worse case scenarios may not take place. Iran watchers have noted that for all its heated rhetoric and calls for Israel to be wiped off the map, Iran has shown itself cautious about directly confronting Israel.

The Russian presence in Syria and the presence of Russian-made anti-aircraft batteries certainly complicate matters for Israel’s air force and could deny it the total air superiority that it has always possessed with respect to Hezbollah. But Russia has not yet done anything to prevent Israel from striking at weapons convoys from Iran to Hezbollah – over 100 times in recent years – or even at Syrian sites. And it appears that Russia is seeking to extricate itself from Syria before it turns into a quagmire for it.

And though Iran and Hezbollah might view hostilities with Israel as the logical follow-up of their triumph in saving the Assad regime in Syria, both have reasons not to rush into major conflict with Israel. Hezbollah lost well over a thousand fighters in Syria, including several top commanders, and may not wish to bleed more.

It currently sits comfortably ensconced atop the totem pole of Lebanese politics, as the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, with a bitter parting shot at Iran, makes clear. But if Israel destroys much of Lebanon’s infrastructure, Hezbollah could lose a great deal of internal prestige, as it did in 2006. And it can almost surely no longer count on Saudi largesse for reconstruction, given the Saudis sworn enmity for Iran and its Shiite allies.

Finally, Shiite villagers in southern Lebanon might find themselves with few places to flee in the event of a large-scale ground war. Syria is out as a possible place of refuge, and Lebanon itself is already overrun with 1.5 million Syrian refugees. The suffering that Lebanon’s Shiites would endure might even embolden a Shiite opposition to Hezbollah.

Israel would almost certainly prevail in lengthy fighting and even succeed in making it far more difficult for Hezbollah to rearm and rebuild as it did after the 2006 fighting. But that such a victory would likely come at a far higher cost in both civilian and military lives and inflict a heavy blow on Israel’s thriving hi-tech economy. Companies like Google, Intel, and Microsoft do not fancy being in war zones.

And victory would depend on Israel’s ability to fend off the inevitable chorus of international opprobrium over the Lebanese civilian casualties made inevitable by Hezbollah’s choice to fight from within civilian areas and by the concomitant calls for a quick ceasefire.

Israel’s ability to withstand the latter calls would in turn largely depend on American support or the lack thereof. Next week we shall take up the question of American Middle East policy, both past and future, and its impact on the Israel-Hezbollah confrontation.