Zvi Bar’el/Haaretz: Analysis/Tunnel Demolition Operation: Hezbollah Is in No Hurry to Battle Israel زفي برئيل من الهآررتس: فيما يتعلق بتمير إسرائيل لأنفاق حزب الله فإن الحزب غير مستعجل على الحرب معها


Analysis/Tunnel Demolition Operation: Hezbollah Is in No Hurry to Battle Israel
زفي برئيل من الهآررتس: فيما يتعلق بتمير إسرائيل لأنفاق حزب الله فإن الحزب غير مستعجل على الحرب معها
Zvi Bar’el/Haaretz/December 05/18

The Shi’ite militia has managed to forge an equilibrium after the 2006 war that allows it to grow stronger in southern Lebanon and act freely in Syria: they have no interest in upsetting the balance at this time.

When Israel cannot bombard Syria, or at least cannot act freely like it did before the downing of the Russian plane by Syrian missiles, it brings the Lebanese front closer, a front that has been quiet for years. Moving the front from Syria to Lebanon, if that is indeed Israel’s intention, narrows its strategic objectives and positions them around Hezbollah – as opposed to the broader objectives of the war against Iran in Syria.

If Israel made it clear in Syria, with the full backing of the United States, that it would not let Iran establish itself along the border, and use its attacks not only to stop the transfer of weapons and equipment from Iran – via Syria – to Hezbollah, and also to convey an aggressive message to Iran; now Israel is restricted to working diplomatically against Iran in Syria. And if Israel plans on working against Hezbollah, it will have to do so in Lebanon.

Another message came from Jeffrey on Tuesday when, in a meeting with the ambassadors of France, Britain, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, he proposed creating no-fly zones in Syria like the ones in Iraq in the 1990s after the first Gulf War. The very suggestion could show a American attempt to restrict not only Russia’s involvement – through the United Nations, but also Israel’s involvement. Jeffrey’s suggestion will probably not come to fruition, especially because of Russia’s opposition, but it contains an undisguised hint to Israel as well.

At the same time, it seems that reviving the fighting in Lebanon, as an alternative to Syria, is an undesirable scenario for both for Israel and Hezbollah. For now, this scenario could only occur as a result of a tactical mistake in the field, such as a strike against Hezbollah fighters or unconstrained shooting by Hezbollah at Israeli engineering equipment.

This turn of events was clearly alluded to by the U.S. special envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey, who in a briefing last month to the media said that the departure of Iranian forces from Syria would come through diplomatic and political efforts, that is, not through the use of force.

Hezbollah has been in the throes of a political entanglement over the past few months that has made it difficult for it to reap the full political capital it desires in its efforts to establish a government in Lebanon. Hezbollah wants to establish a bloc with at least 11 ministers in the Lebanese government, so it can stop crucial decisions that are not to its liking.

According to the Lebanese constitution, such major decisions, like budgets, national projects or treaties, require the support of two thirds of the cabinet. So it is enough if one of the blocs has a majority of one-third plus one (11 out of the 30 cabinet ministers) to block any major decision.

To reach the necessary number, Hezbollah needs one Sunni minister (because it has already exhausted its quota of Shi’ite ministers) from among the Sunni members of parliament who support the organization. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Sunni, is against this, because adding a Sunni minister will not only come at the expense of the quota of ministers from his bloc, he also does not want to give Hezbollah the political power to which it aspires. And as long as no agreement exists on the formation of a government, there is no body that can make decisions, which has been the case since the elections in Lebanon in May.

This political struggle is preoccupying Hezbollah at the moment, and it does not want to test its strength again against Israel in a violent clash now. Such a clash would compel Hezbollah to breach the convenient balance of deterrence that it has managed to forge since the Second Lebanon War.

In Hezbollah’s view, this balance of deterrence has so far kept the peace and quiet on the border and has allowed the Shi’ite organization to grow stronger in southern Lebanon – and not only there; it has allowed it almost unimpeded action in Syria, without fear that Israel will take advantage of the opportunity and attack it in Lebanon, as well as enabling Hezbollah to hold on to its political power – thanks to its ability to threaten that it can always cause Israel to attack Lebanon if it decides to act against it.

Hezbollah’s assumption, or at least its hope, is that Israel is also satisfied with the balance of deterrence and that it does not intend to strike. So far, neither Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah nor any of his senior deputies has issued an official statement about the Israeli army’s operation against the tunnels along the border with northern Israel.

It seems that as long as Israel is operating in its own territory and does not cross the border into Lebanon – on the ground – Hezbollah will continue its policy of shrugging its shoulders. The more serious threat lies in the possibility that Israel will decide to attack the missile factories inside Lebanon and thus force Hezbollah to respond.

Israel has been trying recently to convey aggressive messages to Iran and Hezbollah via European countries and Russia, and to a lesser extent through the United States. The problem is that this pressure does not have an effective address.

Israel can declare that it considers the Lebanese government responsible for developments but with no government, there is also no one to pressure Hezbollah. The United States can freeze the record-high assistance it is giving the Lebanese army, but this will be shooting itself in the foot.

Russia, which wants peace and quiet in Lebanon, can theoretically demand that Iran rein in Hezbollah, but it needs Iran to promote the political process in Syria, just like Iran needs Russia to get around the American sanctions.

Saudi Arabia, which has tried to spark a revolution in Lebanon, folded after the fiasco of Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri’s resignation, and its leverage in Lebanon is very limited. At the same time, Israel is actually the most sensitive to international pressure, both from Russia and the United States, as well as from Egypt, which is working vigorously in Gaza and does not want to be dragged into a diplomatic fight in a conflict that is not a threat to it.

In this tense web of pressure, Israel needs insight and great caution when it tries to push the limits and test its options in Lebanon, because this arena is no longer just a local framework, limited to a Lebanese-Israeli brawl, but rather, it has the potential to lead to a broader conflict in which the world powers might become involved.