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The Israel-Hezbollah War of Words

Lee Smith

In the last couple of weeks, Hezbollah and Israel have crossed swords in a war of words that has led many to wonder if the genuine article is soon to follow.

First, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon explained Hezbollah will pay a heavy price should it shed the blood of Israelis abroad. Ayalon, like the rest of Israel’s government as well as its security establishment, is concerned that the Party of God will seek retribution for the assassination of Hezbollah Commander Imad Mugniyah in Damascus last winter, an operation for which the Israelis are believed to be responsible, and do nothing to disclaim.

Perhaps of more concern was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s warning that the Lebanese government will be held accountable for any Hezbollah attacks on Israel. Later, perhaps to cool tensions in the wake of Netanyahu’s admonition, Israeli President Shimon Peres made a point of distinguishing between the government of Lebanon and Hezbollah. In a speech last week on the third anniversary of the end to what the Israelis call the Second Lebanon War, Peres said that “There was not in the past nor is there now any reason for Lebanon to be Israel’s enemy or for Israel to be Lebanon’s enemy.”

Nonetheless, it is Netanyahu’s position that seems to reflect Israeli policy, or what has been called “the Dahiyeh Doctrine,” wherein Israel will no longer make any distinction between the Lebanese state and the Hezbollah state within it.

How serious are these threats? Let’s consider the context, or rather, contexts.

First, Israeli officials across the political spectrum assume that it is only a matter of time before a resumption of hostilities with Hezbollah, and there are several scenarios that might kick off such a conflict.

Israel believes that the Islamic Resistance will continue to try to avenge Mugniyah, perhaps, as Ayalon suggested, abroad rather than inside Israel proper. Should the Islamic Resistance succeed, Israel will likely respond, and in a fashion that the international community has come to call “disproportionate.”

Also, with rumors afloat that Syria has passed on or will pass on anti-aircraft missiles to Hezbollah, such an arsenal quite possibly constitutes an Israeli red line. In an unfortunate, albeit typical, fashion, Israel will let Damascus off the hook while Lebanon bleeds.

But the most significant context of course is Iran. Given Israel’s existential fears of an Iranian nuclear program, Hezbollah is a distant second on the Jewish state’s to-do list. To be sure, the Netanyahu government assumes that Hezbollah would enter the fray on behalf of its Iranian patron, but, correctly or not, Israel believes that it has an answer for Hezbollah. The Israel Defense Forces is not the same institution the Party of God held to a standoff three years ago, nor is the Israeli government that leads it.

The chances that Israel would strike a pre-emptive blow against Hezbollah before taking on Iran are unlikely. An unprovoked attack would be difficult for Netanyahu to sell on the diplomatic stage, even to its US ally, which, under the stewardship of President Obama, may fear an Israeli war against any Muslim body more than an Iranian nuclear program.

Clearly that’s not the case for Israel, even if over the weekend, its new ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, told CNN the Israelis are “far from even contemplating” an attack on Iran. Since Netanyahu aides confide that Israel has numerous options for setting back the Iranian program, Oren’s statement is perhaps more indicative of Israel’s efforts to mend fences with Washington, for relations between the two are strained, certainly compared to the administrations of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Bad US-Israel relations is not good news for Beirut, or even Hezbollah. One of the paradoxes of the 2006 July War was that good US-Israel relations actually minimized the bloodshed and damage in Lebanon. Once the Americans saw that then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert could not set back Hezbollah, as he had boasted, the Americans rushed to a ceasefire to prevent the Siniora government, which Washington saw as a key regional ally, from falling. Partly to avoid antagonizing the Bush White House, and partly because it embarrassedly, albeit belatedly, recognized its own incompetence, the Israelis complied. To be sure, the Obama administration still sees Beirut as an important asset and ally, but while its Lebanon policy has been deft and consistent, insofar as Obama has put “daylight” between himself and Israel, the latter will find less reason to tailor its own strategic exigencies to suit Washington’s hopes and fears.

For its own part, Hezbollah has yet to live up to its reputation for comprehending regional and international realities in all their complexity. Remember that Israel’s recent threats come after the explosion of the arms cache at Kherbet Selem and the “protest” in Kfar Shouba, when southern residents broke through a barbed-wire fence to plant flags on the Israeli side of the Blue Line. The latter episode was perhaps meant to resonate within Lebanon’s domestic arena, and yet the fact is that after three years of quiet, Hassan Nasrallah got Israel’s attention. In response to the subsequent Israeli warnings, Nasrallah said, “Whoever talks a lot and threatens a lot, doesn’t frighten.”

And yet talking before acting is a function of how the national security apparatus of liberal democracies operates. Teddy Roosevelt may have believed in a policy of speaking softly and carrying a big stick, but that is just not how most presidents and prime ministers really act. For instance, as US troops massed in Kuwait in the buildup to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it should have been clear to Saddam Hussein that the Americans meant to wage war unless he complied with their demands. Even more relevantly, in late May 2006, Israel had warned that Lebanon would pay for continued provocations, like the salvo of missiles fired by one of Hezbollah’s Palestinian affiliates.

“Let there be no doubt that we will deal a very painful blow to whomever tries to disrupt life along our northern border,” Olmert said at the time. “They will receive an unequivocal and very aggressive response without hesitation if they don’t stop.” A little less than two months later, Hezbollah initiated the July War by kidnapping Israeli soldiers and firing on Israeli towns, which, along with the fact that Nasrallah later expressed his surprise at the Israeli response, suggests that the Hezbollah secretary general had not taken warnings seriously then either.

Three years on, it is true that neither side really seems to be girding for battle, but the fact is that wars are less often planned than they are stumbled into, especially by a military tactician who believes that frank warnings are nothing but empty talk.

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