The questions surrounding Israel’s readiness for a potential strike on Iran should go beyond the discussion of whether its military capabilities can adequately damage the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.
Any strike plan must first answer the following questions: Will Hezbollah automatically retaliate on Iran’s behalf? If so, has Israel fully taken into account the scenario of activating two fronts at the same time—Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon? This is not even to mention a third possible arena—Gaza. Finally, is the Israeli home front ready for such a scenario?
Simply put, if Hezbollah attacks Israel with everything it has, Israel will have to deal with not only over 150,000 unguided projectiles but also hundreds of precision missiles.
These precision missiles can significantly harm Israel’s ability to maintain a functioning government. It would therefore be a mistake to ask whether Israel can delay Iran’s nuclear capabilities without asking in the same breath whether the Israeli home front is prepared for Hezbollah’s firepower.
Hezbollah’s arsenal is extensive and Israel’s air defenses are insufficient.
It is possible that Hezbollah’s conventional arsenal and its precision missiles could disrupt state functions to a degree that makes them as severe as a nuclear threat.
In such a scenario, Israel would be unable to activate its military capabilities on fronts that develop after an Iran strike, command and control would be disrupted, and Israel would struggle to evacuate its civilians from areas under heavy fire in the north of the country.
Israeli authorities need to be sure, today, that they know how to evacuate some 30,000 people from the northern border area. That means knowing which hotels or accommodation centers will absorb them, which hospitals will take in the wounded and which evacuation routes to use.
In addition, and due to the above, Israel also needs to consider the option of a preemptive strike on Hezbollah’s firepower prior to attacking Iran’s nuclear sites.
The strategic logic of such action rests with the assumption that some time after such a strike—whether six months, a year or more—with Hezbollah struggling to rebuild its capabilities after a massive Israeli blow, Israel will be free to focus on the Iranian threat without simultaneously dealing with Hezbollah.
While a preemptive war is illegal under international law, a preemptive strike is a different matter. How Hezbollah responds to such a strike will determine the course of events and whether they snowball into war.
In either scenario—an attack on Iran’s nuclear sites or a preemptive strike on Hezbollah—Israel must prepare its civilian sector appropriately. If there is a good chance that some 10,000 residential buildings in Israel are damaged and northern communities come under a level of fire never previously experienced, a population evacuation would be mandatory. Failing to prepare for evacuations would leave huge numbers of civilians vulnerable to attack.
Whatever course of action the Israeli cabinet decides to take, time is of the essence. The government must begin preparations to protect the soft underbelly of the country. It is vital for the government to be fully cognizant of the fallout scenarios of any action.
Preparation will, among other steps, require stocking up on air defense interceptors, ensuring the readiness of emergency supplies for the civilian sector and stress-testing civilian command and control systems. The fact of the matter is that, as of today, the Israeli home front is not ready for this scenario. It is not ready to face Hezbollah, even as a single front.
On the offensive front, the government must grapple with the serious dilemmas it would likely face in Lebanon in the event of war.
There will be widespread destruction in Lebanon, but the Israeli government will have to decide whether or not to target Lebanese state infrastructure. Even under intense fire, the IDF will continue to be a moral army, meaning that not all of Lebanon will be targeted and Israel will make every effort to distinguish civilians from combatants.
The government should further ensure that it knows it must continue the conflict once it starts.
Unfortunately, past experience has shown that, in the event of conflict, distressing events such as the accidental killing of civilians in Lebanon or media images of the capture or death of IDF soldiers lead governments to hit the brakes.
But if Israel ends up in a war of no-choice, it cannot let its war efforts be held hostage by such events. Israeli decision-makers must get used to the idea that, in the event of war, they will need to clench their teeth in the face of such developments and not disrupt the war effort.
The same is true of disturbing events that could well happen on the Israeli side of the border, such as a very large quantity of enemy explosives falling on a town in northern Israel, killing many civilians. An event like that will cause significant demoralization and distress, but that is not a reason to freeze the war effort.
The damage absorbed by Israel following a strike on Iran could be enormous. As a result, Hezbollah’s possible response must be taken into consideration when weighing a strike on Iran.
The question of whether Israel has the capability to strike Iran must no longer be asked in isolation from the question of whether Israel is ready for full-scale war with Hezbollah.
Brig Gen. (Ret.) Shmuel Tzuker is a publishing expert at the MirYam Institute. He is the former Deputy Director-General of the Directorate of Production and Procurement in the Israeli Ministry of Defense. During his military career he served as Commander of the Gaza Division, the Lebanon Division, and the Judea and Samaria Division.