analysisIsrael at War

Israel must preempt Hezbollah

The IDF has registered significant tactical successes in the fighting since Oct. 7. Yet, the strategic scoreboard currently favors Iran.

Smoke rises during an exchange of fire between the IDF and Hezbollah on the Israel-Lebanon border, Dec. 16, 2023. Photo by Ayal Margolin/Flash90.
Smoke rises during an exchange of fire between the IDF and Hezbollah on the Israel-Lebanon border, Dec. 16, 2023. Photo by Ayal Margolin/Flash90.
Jonathan Spyer
Jonathan Spyer

When I was resident in northern Iraq in the summer of 2019, an Iranian acquaintance told me that in understanding the regional strategy of his country, I should bear in mind that while “other nations will kill you with iron, the Iranians will kill you with cotton.” The phrase stayed with me. I later learned that it is a famous Persian expression. In the context in which we discussed it, my friend wanted me to grasp the subtle, patient and slow moving nature of Iranian strategy in the Middle East.  He also wanted me not to confuse patience with an absence of lethal seriousness of purpose. 

At present, this patient approach is delivering dividends for the Islamic Republic across the Middle East. Over the last 30 years, as a signal example of its approach, Tehran has seeded two semi-regular Islamist insurgent armies on Israel’s borders. These are Hamas in Gaza, and the more powerful and consequential Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The strategic intention is to use these instruments to subject Israel to a long war of attrition intended to result in its erosion, weakening, isolation and eventual demise. The current moment provides Israel with an opportunity to act decisively to halt and reverse this process. It’s not yet clear if Israel will take this opportunity. It should.   

The IDF has registered significant tactical successes in the fighting since Oct. 7. Yet, putting the immediate picture aside, it may be seen that the strategic scoreboard currently favors Iran and its methods. 

Iran has built powerful military assets on Israel’s borders that it can activate at will. Israel has no corresponding leverage over Iran. 

The result of Teheran’s patient, slow assembling and then sudden activation of these forces on Israel’s border has been the re-focusing of the global diplomatic agenda, entirely to the benefit of Iran and its allies.  

As part of this: 

A fast-moving process of rapprochement between Israel and key countries in the Islamic world has been halted.  

Israel is now the subject of furious protest demonstrations and opprobrium across the west, reaching deeply into  leading western political parties, including the U.S. Democrats. The Jewish state even now faces allegations of “genocide” because of a military campaign in Gaza conducted demonstrably and verifiably within western norms. 

Thanks to Iran’s long investment, over 1,000 Israelis were slaughtered in a single day, with the utmost brutality, in a spectacle not seen since the establishment of the modern State of Israel. 

Iran’s advancing nuclear program, and its ally Russia’s ongoing attempt to destroy a  neighboring state, have been relegated to secondary status in terms of global attention. 

In Israel itself, 86,000 people have left their homes in the north. Many Israelis consider indeed that a kind of reverse “security zone” has been established on the Israeli side of the border. 

What all this means is that Israel’s future development, diplomatic relations, international standing and even population distribution are currently hostage to Iran’s proxy instruments. 

Israel must end the slow, web-spinning process whereby the Islamist insurgent armies on its borders continue to rule, continue to grow, continue to flourish and are subject to activation by their patrons at a moment of their choice. 

Regarding Gaza, it’s vital that the conquest of the Strip by Israel be completed, and Hamas governance and organized armed capacity in the area brought to an end.  

The more complex and grave question, however,  concerns the north. Diplomacy appears to stand little chance of removing Hezbollah from the Israel-Lebanon border. The movement’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said himself in a recent speech that moving the Litani River to the border would be easier than moving Hezbollah north of the Litani. 

Once diplomatic efforts fail, as they surely will, then Israel will face the choice of acquiescing to the steady erosion of the possibility of normal life for the citizens of its northern communities, or acting decisively to reverse this trend. 

The former will mean that Iran’s slow and patient project for shrinking Israel, rendering it unviable and then finishing it will have passed another milestone. 

The latter will mean large-scale preemptive military action against Iran’s proxy, to drive it north of the Litani and severely degrade its capabilities throughout Lebanon. 

This is not a matter to be taken lightly. Hezbollah has been around for nearly half a century, is the dominant political and military force in Lebanon and has an extensive array of accurate and guided munitions capable of targeting anywhere in Israel. But Oct. 7 demonstrated that the Israeli choice of seeking to ignore or fence off Iran’s client insurgent forces was and is not a feasible strategy.

Israel must therefore either seize the opportunity to severely weaken and remove this force and its Hamas allies from their current position, or acquiesce to Tehran’s continuing to hold the strategic initiative. To do the latter means to accept an ongoing attempt at slow strangulation, the true meaning of “killing with cotton.”  This is inconceivable. A large-scale Israeli military campaign to destroy or severely degrade Lebanese Hezbollah must therefore be launched. 

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