analysisIsrael at War

Is a war against Hezbollah imminent?

Iran has reportedly authorized its Lebanese proxy to launch a large-scale attack on Israel if the IDF invades Rafah; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has sworn to do so.

An Israeli artillery unit stationed near the northern border with Lebanon on Nov. 22, 2023. Photo by Ayal Margolin/Flash90.
An Israeli artillery unit stationed near the northern border with Lebanon on Nov. 22, 2023. Photo by Ayal Margolin/Flash90.
Israel Kasnett

The world’s attention is focused on Gaza, but if a war breaks out on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, it will be far broader and more destructive than the one Israel is waging against Hamas. Hezbollah has so far refrained from launching a full-scale attack on Israel, though it has continuously fired rockets, mortars and drones at the Jewish state since Oct. 8. Each increase in the intensity of Hezbollah’s attacks risks crossing the threshold into such a conflict. Iran has reportedly authorized its Lebanese proxy to conduct a large-scale attack against Israel if Hezbollah is “certain” Israel will invade Gaza’s Rafah city, Hamas’s last remaining stronghold. Given Israel’s stated intention to enter Rafah, it thus appears war with Hezbollah is imminent. 

U.S. special envoy Amos Hochstein has been shuttling back and forth between the United States, Lebanon and Israel in an effort to prevent the conflict from spreading. Hezbollah has violated U.N. Resolution 1701 since 2006, and then on Oct. 8 additionally violated the 2022 Israel-Lebanon maritime border deal, which Hochstein negotiated. U.S. President Joe Biden’s “Don’t” warning in October didn’t work. 

According to JINSA’s Vice President for Policy Blaise Misztal, however laudable the U.S. goal of preventing the conflict from spreading, “In pursuing it this administration has, unfortunately, forgotten what George Washington already knew: ‘To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.’”

“U.S. officials seem to believe that the best way to preserve peace is to loudly disavow any intention of stopping adversaries’ use of force,” he told JNS. “That approach led to the death of U.S. service members in Jordan and the disruption of shipping in the Red Sea as Iranian proxies took U.S. reluctance as an invitation to escalate, ultimately forcing the administration to take a more aggressive approach.”

The United States, he continued, “does not yet seem to have applied these lessons to Lebanon, where it hopes that its eagerness for a deal can keep increasing Hezbollah attacks from sparking a broader conflict.”

This approach might appear to be working in the short term—amid increasingly frequent Israeli strikes and while Biden’s deployment of U.S. carrier groups to the region remains fresh in memory—but the fact is that Hezbollah views the U.S. focus on diplomacy as weakness, he said.

Hezbollah will seek to exploit this perceived weakness to compel Israeli territorial and other western concessions in any future U.S.-backed agreement, he continued. Furthermore, the United States’ perceived fear of escalation renders a military outcome more likely.

As Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah boasted in July 2023, “What we did with the oil, gas and maritime border delineation, today also, through complementarity and cooperation between the state and the resistance…we can recover our occupied land in the town of Ghajar.”

On Jan. 5, Nasrallah boasted, “We now have an opportunity to return to us Lebanese territories that Israel took over, such as Shebaa Farms, thanks to our standing on the side of Gaza and its people, but any talk about this should only happen after the end of the war on Gaza, and this is our official position.”

And in February, Nasrallah said that the terror group’s attacks against Israel would continue until Israel ceases its “aggression” in Gaza. 

Then there is the matter of Israel’s evacuees. Since Hezbollah began its cross-border attacks on Oct. 8, tens of thousands of Israelis have been evacuated from their homes in the north, a situation which is putting huge pressure on the Israeli government.

Israel Defense Forces Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yaakov Amidror, a JINSA Distinguished Fellow, noted during a recent JINSA webinar that “almost 100,000 Israelis have been evacuated from the north and they cannot come back under the circumstances. If we do not find a solution to this problem, either by diplomatic agreement…or that Hezbollah will change the way it is allocating its forces around the border, we will have to go to a big war that we don’t want.”

As Israeli Minister Benny Gantz put it, “The stopwatch for a diplomatic solution is running out; If the world and the Lebanese government don’t act in order to prevent the firing on Israel’s northern residents, and to distance Hezbollah from the border, the IDF will do it.”

A diplomatic solution might involve a Hezbollah evacuation 8-10 kilometers (5-6 miles) from the border. Hezbollah would be replaced with 10,000 to 12,000 Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) troops. Israel would also be required to cease flights over Lebanese airspace and to partially withdraw troops from its side of the border.

But Hezbollah has already rejected a recent French proposal that would have obligated it to withdraw 10 kilometers from the border.

Nor is any help to be expected in this regard from the Lebanese government, which seems unwilling or unable, or both, to prevent the Iranian proxy from dragging the crisis-plagued country into a costly war.

“Countries cannot allow their territories to become bases from which non-state groups like Hezbollah can attack other states,” said David Daoud, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“Lebanon appears either unwilling or unable to live up to this obligation by either restraining or disarming Hezbollah,” he told JNS. 

Instead, and similar to the way it behaved during the maritime border demarcation negotiations, “Lebanon is exploiting Hezbollah’s ongoing attacks and the international community’s aversion to a Hezbollah-Israel war to extract concessions from the Israelis and the international community,” he added.  

According to Daoud, while Lebanon is promising a “full implementation” of Resolution 1701, the reality is quite different. “This isn’t what Lebanon is actually promising to do—only that if all of Beirut’s terms are satisfied, they will explore the possibility of implementing Resolution 1701,” he said.

Even should the ongoing U.S.-led negotiations lead to an agreement, such an agreement “will not guarantee any long-term results” as Hezbollah clearly has no intention of honoring any U.S.-brokered deals, added Daoud. “It certainly will not stop Hezbollah’s armament on the path to the major regional war that it promises to launch against Israel in the future with its other ‘Resistance Axis’ allies,” he said.

According to JINSA Policy Analyst Zac Schildcrout, deterring further Hezbollah attacks “largely requires convincing Hezbollah that the U.S. will back Israel in, and possibly even enter, a full-scale war should one become necessary to restore security for Israel’s northern residents.”

Likewise, in Misztal’s view, “the best way to ensure that Hezbollah does not—or cannot—launch a devastating attack on Israel is for the United States to do as President Washington advised and as Biden did in October: Make clear that the United States is prepared for war, alongside its partner Israel, if anyone threatens the security of either state.”

However, Daoud emphasized that such backing must not extend to U.S. “boots on the ground.”

“Israel’s military can handle the battle against Hezbollah on its own and, in fact, it’s better for both the United States and Israel for the IDF to do so,” he said. “Israel cannot be perceived as requiring American boots on the ground to confront Hezbollah,” he said, as this would “irreversibly” damage Israeli deterrence.

Where U.S. support will really be needed, he said, is on the diplomatic front.

“Israel will need time to prosecute a war against Hezbollah until victory—and it will be fighting against two different clocks: the Israeli Home Front’s ability to persevere in the face of an unprecedented war, and [that of] the U.N. Security Council.”

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