Since the outbreak of war in Gaza on Oct. 7, Israel has been forced to engage with Hezbollah on its northern border as well. At the moment, this is low-intensity fighting. However, it could potentially erupt into a multi-front or even regional war.
Recently, U.S. President Joe Biden has repeatedly called on Israel—including in closed-door meetings—to keep its actions against Hezbollah in check. The White House is concerned that a regional conflict could draw the U.S. and Iran into all-out war. In addition, efforts have been made to pressure the Lebanese government to rein in Hezbollah, including talks between the Lebanese president and American, French and British officials.
Thus far, the conflict on the northern border has claimed the lives of seven IDF soldiers and one Israeli civilian, while Hezbollah had lost over 30 terrorists. According to the IDF, over 20 terror squads have been eliminated. Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) terrorists have also been killed by the IDF on the northern border.
Thus far, it appears that Hezbollah is reluctant to declare war on Israel. Many factors are at work in this decision. Hezbollah likes to portray itself as a “resistance” movement that protects Lebanon and champions Arab, Muslim and especially Palestinian interests in the region. It is close to and often controlled by Iran, but it must also respond to internal Lebanese politics. There is also the issue of its current military capabilities and combat readiness.
To the extent that it has joined the fighting against Israel, Hezbollah has done so as part of the Iranian strategy of a “convergence of fronts” against Israel by the “resistance axis.” This strategy was formulated by the late head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, who was eliminated by the U.S. in Jan. 2021. It seeks to foment a multi-front war against Israel every time an attack is committed by any one of its enemies. Thus, by harassing Israel’s north, Hezbollah is displaying solidarity with the Gaza terror organizations and paying its dues to Iran.
Generally speaking, Hezbollah is a wholly-owned proxy of Iran. The mullahs’ regime supports it with financing, weapons, military knowledge and training, and indoctrination in Iran’s revolutionary Shi’ite ideology.
Iran’s objective is creating a deterrent on Israel’s northern border that would prevent any attempt by Israel to act against the Iranian nuclear program and the Iranian regime itself.
However, despite belligerent declarations by Iranian officials, it remains unclear whether Tehran wants to use its strongest “wildcard” in order to save Hamas.
The Iranians seem to understand quite well that, in the event of war in the north, Israel’s goal would be the destruction of Hezbollah through a ground assault on Lebanon—similar to what is underway in Gaza. If this occurs, Israel would almost certainly further seek to annihilate all Iranian military forces and proxies in Syria and perhaps Iraq.
This would destroy Iran’s most valuable strategic assets against Israel and leave the mullahs’ regime vulnerable to direct Israeli attack. This would be compounded by the expected loss of Iran’s military assets in Gaza. Thus, within a matter of months, the “choke collar” Iran has squandered billions in order to construct would be broken for good.
On the other hand, Iran could misinterpret the impact of Hamas’s surprise attack, conclude that Israel is at an unprecedented historic low point and decide that this is an opportune moment to intensify the conflict in hopes of outright destroying Israel.
Despite Iranian influence, however, Hezbollah also operates independently. It has increasingly infiltrated Lebanon’s political and economic systems and is thus subject to domestic pressures. They cannot ignore warnings from Lebanese political officials that a Hezbollah war on Israel would mean the destruction of Lebanon itself.
Hezbollah is considered Israel’s most powerful enemy in the Middle East with the exception of Iran. However, Hezbollah may be holding back from all-out war with Israel for two operational reasons.
First, it is possible that Hezbollah does not believe it is prepared for war at this point and its military capabilities and planning are insufficient. If so, it will continue its attempt to distract Israel’s attention from the southern arena and maintain a limited scope of confrontation.
It is also possible, however, that Hezbollah is buying time to launch a surprise attack on Israel as Hamas had done. Nonetheless, Hezbollah would probably not launch an all-out war, preferring a low-intensity conflict.
Israel has the military capability to handle a multi-front war against Gaza in the south and Lebanon and Syria in the north. The question is: What is in Israel’s interest at this point on the northern front?
Israel could take advantage of the fact that it is officially in a state of war, the preparedness of the home front, the mass reserves enlistment and the vigilance of Israeli citizens to launch a surprise attack on Hezbollah and gain a decisive victory, similar to the assault on Hamas in Gaza.
It behooves Israel to carefully learn a lesson from Gaza. Any delay in delivering a crippling blow to Hezbollah at this point will only lead to a much more lethal and powerful blow in the future against Israel. At this moment, Israel is suitably positioned to achieve a two-fold gain: The shattering of the Iranian “choke collar” and a tectonic shift in the geopolitics of the Middle East in Israel’s favor.
For now, however, Israel should focus on the fighting in the south. The operation in Gaza is expected to last for anything from weeks to three months. As long as Hezbollah maintains a low-intensity conflict, Israel should leverage this state of affairs to exhaust the organization’s military capabilities while sabotaging Hezbollah’s manufacture of precision-guided missiles.
At the same time, Israel should eliminate the leaders and commanders of Hamas and PIJ in Lebanon, and mount cyberattacks against Hezbollah and Lebanon in order to deter them.
U.S. objections must also be taken into account. At the same time, however, Israel must be prepared for war. It should reach an agreement with the Biden administration that, in exchange for refraining from war on the northern border, the U.S. will give active military support through air and naval strikes by its forces currently positioned near the coasts of Lebanon and Israel.
On the other hand, if Hezbollah launches a continues barrage of missiles on Haifa, the northern valley communities and even Israel’s coastal plain; or if it mounts a successful terrorist attack on Israeli citizens; Israel will have to respond with massive firepower and preparations for a ground assault on southern Lebanon.
Israel must send a clear message to Hezbollah and Lebanon that in the event of an all-out war, Israel’s objective will be, at the very least, to seize southern Lebanon up to the Litani river and reach Beirut. Israel must declare in no uncertain terms that a war in the north means the complete annihilation of Hezbollah and the destruction of Lebanon’s national and civic infrastructures, which could well lead to Lebanon’s total collapse.