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Hizbollah's Increased Strength: Risks and Opportunities for Israel

Written by Shalom, Zaki

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May 26, 2008
INSS Insight No. 57
Shalom, Zaki
One tangible aftermath of the Second Lebanon War and the agreement that concluded it is an increase in Hizbollah's strength. In fact, this agreement increases the possibility of Hizbollah's taking over all or large parts of Lebanon, which entails severe dangers for Israel. For Hizbollah, war against Israel is a supreme goal, and it has indeed inflicted many significant casualties. It is responsible for a long list of terrorist attacks against Israel and Jewish targets, including two atrocities in Argentina. Hizbollah also attacked American and French forces stationed in Lebanon, which prompted their hurried withdrawal.

  Israel’s decision to withdraw from southern Lebanon in May 2000 has been attributed, and with much justification, to the years-long difficult war imposed by Hizbollah. This war cost Israel heavy casualties, and is what finally led to the growing public protest against the Israeli presence in southern Lebanon. According to many, this withdrawal strengthened the Palestinians’ belief that exerting heavy pressure on Israel through terrorist attacks would lead to further withdrawals and represented a significant cause for the outbreak of the intifada in late September 2000.   

    Since the end of the Second Lebanon War, Hizbollah has succeeded in rehabilitating its forces to a great extent. According to various reports, Hizbollah today has tens of thousands of missiles, some of them long range, and is capable of inflicting very serious damaged deep into Israel. Thus, the risks involved in Hizbollah taking control of Lebanon are quite apparent. Less apparent are the pluses that may emerge from this process.

Since its establishment Israel has maintained that any country that shelters terrorists who attack Israel is responsible for their activities. Israel, according to this principle, does not have to pursue a terrorist organization staging operations against it from the territory of a sovereign state. Rather, it is up to the sovereign state in which the organization operates to do so. If hostile actions are taken against Israel, the country harboring the terrorist organizations is accountable and must pay the price. The goal is to prompt the country itself to take the requisite steps to stop the attacks.

In practice, particularly in the Lebanese context, Israel has found it difficult to realize this doctrine fully. For many years Lebanon has been ruled by moderate, pro-West leaders. This leadership views Hizbollah as a bitter and hostile rival, and it too is interested in clipping the organization’s wings. At the same time, Lebanese leaders are afraid of a confrontation, and in practice allow Hizbollah to operate against Israel in a “bloodletting” effort, while stressing their inability to restrain the organization. When Israel responds against Lebanon, the Lebanese leadership uses its good relations with Western countries, in particular the United States and the moderate Arab countries, to exert pressure on Israel not to harm it.

This phenomenon was evidenced in prominent fashion on July 12, 2006. In a Cabinet discussion held after the serious consequences of that day's Hizbollah operation became clear, then-Chief of Staff Dan Halutz proposed attacking infrastructure installations in Lebanon, including electric plants, oil refineries, and water sources. His suggestion was supported by a number of ministers. However, the senior political echelon, and in particular the prime minister, defense minister, and minister of foreign affairs, vetoed the idea. The reason: unequivocal clarifications received by Israel that very same day from senior levels in the American administration and the British government to the effect that Israel must refrain from damaging Lebanese targets because this might undermine the stability of the pro-Western government headed by Fouad Siniora. Consequently, the proposal was shelved.

We lack adequate tools to assess whether that proposal, if implemented, would have generated an essentially different outcome from the events of July-August 2006. Nonetheless, it is clear that an American-British veto of this option stemmed from the fact that the official government in Lebanon was pro-Western and enjoyed the support of the United States. The fact that Israel was not able to exercise the option to attack Lebanon represents a significant constraint on Israel’s freedom to maneuver.

Should Hizbollah in fact take control of Lebanon, Israel’s options of maneuvering vis-à-vis Hizbollah are significantly increased. It will become clear to all sides that no international element will get involved to protect Hizbollah from Israeli attacks. Obviously, this does not mean that Israel would necessarily attack Lebanon’s infrastructure should Hizbollah cast down the gauntlet. Beyond international constraints, the Israeli leadership also has to contend with a set of legal and normative, value-based constraints and restrictions that would make it very difficult indeed for Israel to take steps against civilian infrastructure. This has become clear in Israel’s refraining from damaging the electrical and fuel infrastructures of the Gaza Strip under Hamas control. At the same time, there is no doubt that Hizbollah's taking control of Lebanon would expand Israel’s ability to maneuver vis-à-vis Lebanon in case of another armed conflict, at least from the international perspective.

From Israel’s own perspective, Hizbollah is first and foremost a body representing a military threat against Israel. However, Hizbollah is also a powerful body with economic and financial assets, and an organization with far-reaching political ambitions. Therefore, in any military confrontation with Israel, if Hizbollah holds the reins of leadership it would conclude that there is nothing stopping Israel from severely damaging its assets. The very awareness of this fact, i.e., that there would not be anyone trying to delimit Israel’s scope of action in terms of damaging Lebanon, may cause it to refrain from a confrontation with Israel.

Beyond this, one may speculate that Hizbollah’s taking control of Lebanon will bring about a new awareness on the part of various international elements of the “Iranian threat.” To date, the concerns of the international community regarding Iran have focused on its intention to develop nuclear capabilities. Hizbollah’s taking control of Lebanon would bring the danger inherent in Iran into sharper relief, not only regarding the nuclear question but also vis-à-vis the stability of other pro-Western regimes in the region, chief among them Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the Gulf states. Such a development might very well match the interests of the State of Israel.
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Source:INSS
The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) is an independent academic institute that studies key issues relating to Israel's national security and Middle East affairs.

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