OpinionMiddle East

Deciphering Hezbollah’s decision-making

The last decade has demonstrated that Israel and the terror group based in Lebanon can de-escalate, even when one or both of the sides sustain casualties.

Hezbollah operatives in Lebanon raise the movement's banners at the Israeli border, July 3, 2022. Credit: Ayal Margolin/Flash90.
Hezbollah operatives in Lebanon raise the movement's banners at the Israeli border, July 3, 2022. Credit: Ayal Margolin/Flash90.
Lt. Col. Yochai Guiski
Lt. Col. Yochai Guiski (IDF Ret.)
Lt. Col. Yochai Guiski (IDF, Ret.) is a publishing expert at The MirYam Institute. He served in various roles, including Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (C.O.G.A.T.), Strategic Planning Division and the Ministry of Defense (politico-military directorate).

Contrary to frequent statements made of late in both Israel and Lebanon, it is far from clear that Israel and Hezbollah are entering a period characterized by a heightened risk of miscalculation.

Rather, the current period appears to be marked by a more intense exchange of warning signals between the two adversaries, particularly in Syria, where Israel has reportedly been highly active.

Hezbollah, for its part, has also initiated maneuvers, such as the March cross-border Megiddo highway terror bombing, although these have not succeeded in causing Israel to lose its balance. In April, Hamas in Lebanon fired 34 rockets at northern Israel, sparking Israeli retaliatory airstrikes.

Last year, Hezbollah threatened Israeli offshore gas rigs in the Mediterranean in the lead-up to the Lebanese-Israeli maritime border agreement and sent unmanned aerial vehicles in the direction of one of the rigs.

Together, such incidents could collectively suggest that we are in an era of heightened tensions in which any miscalculation could drag the region into conflict, much like the period leading up to the 2006 Second Lebanon War.

But another way of seeing things is that the situation is far from being on a slippery slope and that it is far from being a repeat of 2006.

It is true that Hezbollah seems to feel freer to launch tactical attacks and also more capable of doing so. And that Israel feels the need to reset the dynamics, returning to a situation in which Hezbollah was more restrained. But this does not mean that either side is likely to make a gross miscalculation any time soon.

The last decade has demonstrated that both Israel and Hezbollah can de-escalate, even when one or both of the sides sustain casualties. Both sides have learned too much from the 2006 war to blindly repeat those actions.

Is Hezbollah wrongly judging reality due to internal tensions in Israel? So far, Hezbollah has shown that it does understand the Israeli system well. However, there is a joker in the pack that could still upset the situation: Iran.

If Israel concludes that it must take action because the Iranian nuclear program is advancing too far, then it may, potentially, also feel the need to take Hezbollah out of the equation in parallel military actions. If the Iranian arena stabilizes, however, and the United States reaches some sort of arrangement with Tehran, that will neutralize the above scenario.

Despite all of Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah’s bravado in his speeches, he is, in practice, very cautious and understands the fragility of his situation.

Hezbollah’s decision-making vis-à-vis Iran

First and foremost, Hezbollah is an independent entity, both in its decision-making and in choosing how to respond to Iranian calls to action.  Of course, Iran has a very significant dialogue with Hezbollah, but in the end, Hezbollah is independent.

Does that mean Hezbollah will turn Iran down on the day of the order to go into combat with Israel? Most likely, it will not do that, but it could decide to limit the intensity of the action and the scope of the action that it takes.

There is also the question of how other players figure into Hezbollah’s decisions. Hamas is not really an influence. Hamas leaders will not decide if Hezbollah or Iran escalates. On the flip side, however, Hamas’s leaders may decide that they will join in a future Israel-Hezbollah conflict.

Would Hezbollah be the initiator of conflict, like Egypt was in 1967? That scenario seems highly unlikely at this time. At the very least, Syria would have to stabilize first, much more than it currently is.

Would Hezbollah be willing to consider “lying on the fence” for Iran? It may choose to do that to a certain extent, and that is why Hezbollah is always preparing for war.

Hezbollah lives in dissonance between its Shi’ite Islamist messianic vision of destroying Israel and its day-to-day realpolitik considerations, which very much guide it and dominate its actual decision-making.

 An Iranian nuclear umbrella is certainly an event that could change the situation, boosting Hezbollah’s tolerance for clashes. But this scenario is far down the road.

For the most part—and on a daily basis—Hezbollah’s decisions are guided by very rational calculations, much like those of its benefactor, Iran.

One often repeated question about Hezbollah’s decision-making is the role played by Israeli deterrence. But a more precise way of analyzing this aspect is to inquire about Hezbollah’s overall balance of interests.

Deterrence is too imprecise a concept to measure decisions by since it reduces all actions to binary do’s or don’ts. Deterrence is by definition the power to dissuade an adversary from acting. In reality, Hezbollah is building up force and does initiate some hostile actions, but its overall balance of interests prevents it from initiating war with Israel.

Hezbollah has a concept of defense and attack, and it is keenly aware that it has a powerful enemy located to the south with many capabilities that are dangerous to it. Part of its war readiness against Israel is tied to its ideological values and affiliation with Iran. These all factor into Hezbollah’s complex balance of interests.

Lebanese domestic interests greatly affect Nasrallah’s decisions, too—more than is often given credit for.

The interests of Lebanese Shi’ites themselves within Lebanon, the dynamics within the Lebanese government, relations with non-Shi’ite Lebanese allies, external relationships between outside players and the Lebanese state, the involvement of foreign powers in the region, all play a role, adding another layer of complexity to Hezbollah’s decision-making process.

It is a process that requires in-depth study, and one that cannot be reduced to pure ideology or to merely following Iranian directives.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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