newsIsrael at War

Defining Israel’s long-term interest in Lebanon

Conflict with the Iranian-backed Hezbollah terror army would continue after a war, but Israel can take steps to improve its strategic situation, experts tell JNS.

Smoke from a large fire caused by rockets fired from Lebanon, in the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona, June 3, 2024. Photo by Ayal Margolin/Flash90.
Smoke from a large fire caused by rockets fired from Lebanon, in the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona, June 3, 2024. Photo by Ayal Margolin/Flash90.

The concept of a “day after” large-scale wars between Israel and its enemies is misleading, according to Eado Hecht, a senior fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies researcher and an analyst specializing in military theory and military history.

The term is “highly problematic since it assumes there is a clear ending, and then a new situation. This is somewhat reminiscent of the ‘end of history’ concept,” Hecht told JNS.

Israel’s conflicts with its Islamist enemies, like history itself, will not come to a stop, and short of total destruction of the adversary, of the kind the Allies achieved over the Axis powers in World War II, “there will be no categorical end to the conflict,” he warned. 

“So what is, in fact, a ‘day after’ in Gaza and Lebanon, and when would it come?” he asked. 

In Lebanon, Hezbollah possesses far greater military power and wealth than did Hamas pre-Oct. 7, and enjoys greater support from Iran, he said. At the same time, Lebanon is much larger than Gaza and its terrain much more complex. As a result, Hecht argued, Israel will not be able to fully destroy Hezbollah, which would require seizing all of Lebanon, and would in the event of a Third Lebanon War instead aim to severely maul the Shi’ite terror army. 

“As a result, our goal, if the war is expanded in the north, would be to enable the residents of the north to return to their homes with reasonable confidence that they will not be exposed to what happened to the residents of the Gaza-border communities on Oct. 7,” said Hecht.

“This means causing severe damage, in order to make the costs clear to Hezbollah, and a ground maneuver that would at least seize all of the territory between the Israeli-Lebanese border and the visible direct horizon [in Lebanon], which would prevent Hezbollah from sending a large force to the Israeli border within hours,” he added. 

“And then the question will arise—will Israel stay and set up a new security zone with an IDF presence, or retreat and leave the territory to a third party?” he said. “All sorts of solutions, like UNIFIL, which has been existence since the spring of 1978, never prevented the enemy in Lebanon, whether the PLO, Hezbollah, or the Syrian army, from doing as it pleased,” he noted. 

“This never worked, not on the Egyptian border vis-à-vis the Egyptians, not on the Syrian border and not on the Jordanian border, and it will not work in Lebanon or Gaza,” he said. “No one will fight our wars for us.”

The “day after” in Gaza, and in Lebanon should war break out, will be ongoing conflict at lower intensity, he said.

“This is a phenomenon the IDF calls ‘limited conflict.’ It attempts to reach the military objective by gradually eroding the enemy’s will to fight, through endless ‘stings’ of every kind,” said Hecht. 

Lt. Col. (res.) Sarit Zehavi, founder and president of the Alma Research and Education Center, which specializes in the threats Israel faces in the north, said Israel’s goal should be to reach an improved arrangement in Lebanon whether a full-scale war breaks out or not. This arrangement would grant it international legitimacy to deal with threatening capabilities as they form.

“So long as the ayatollah regime exists in Iran, and so long as in Lebanon the alternatives [to Hezbollah] are too weak, we will not destroy Hezbollah—it’s not about military strength, it’s about deeper factors,” Zehavi assessed. 

“Whether a full-scale war breaks out or not, the escalation with Hezbollah will end with an arrangement. The question is, in what situation will Israel reach that arrangement? If Hezbollah maintains its capabilities, this will be very dangerous. If we reach an arrangement after Hezbollah is hit hard and faces a lengthy rebuilding process, then Israel’s opening position will be improved,” she stated. 

The international community’s high involvement in Lebanon will mean that it will seek an end-of-war mechanism to any war or escalation, but Israel must push it to adopt one that does not assume that Hezbollah will keep to the arrangement, said Zehavi. 

“An international force—not the United Nations, but perhaps a NATO-like force, or a coalition of the type that attacked Islamic State, could be a goal. And if it fails to enforce the arrangement, Israel must have full legitimacy to defend itself under any future agreement,” she stated. 

“UNIFIL’s double game over the years has resulted in a situation whereby Hezbollah built infrastructure under its nose, is now firing at us, and we still lack international legitimacy to defend ourselves,” said Zehavi. U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which was passed to end the Second Lebanon War of 2006, utterly failed due to lack of enforcement, she said. 

“An improved arrangement is not a magic solution. Israel must have legitimacy to hit Hezbollah’s capabilities. We can’t send northern residents back to an Oct. 6 reality,” she warned.

IDF Col. (res.) Dr. Eran Lerman, vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, told JNS, “Without delving into operational scenarios, a full-scale war against Hezbollah will require very deep and relatively quick damage to its forces, due to its potential to harm the heart of the country and not just the north [of Israel]. In this, there are similarities to the objectives of the campaign in Gaza.”

Lerman added, however, that the reality that would follow such a war “will be fundamentally different, because there is a Lebanese state with which it will be possible to reach a reliable arrangement after Hezbollah’s power is no longer sufficient to terrorize most of the Lebanese people, who are tired of seeing their country destroyed.”

It is possible, he said, “that quite a few Sunnis and Christians will be happy to ‘settle scores’ with the organization in light of its role in Assad’s massacre of the Syrian people.”

As a result, he added, “There will be someone [in Lebanon] to talk to and something to talk about” after a potential future war.

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