Is Hezbollah seeking open war with Israel?

The facts on the ground have changed such that Iran and Hezbollah currently have much to gain by engaging in war with Israel.

January 12, 2016 21:23
4 minute read.
Lebanon's Hezbollah members carry Hezbollah flags during the funeral of Adnan Siblini

Lebanon's Hezbollah members carry Hezbollah flags during the funeral of Adnan Siblini, who was killed while fighting in Syria. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Tonight the border between Israel and Lebanon is relatively quiet, but that calm is being tested each day. In fact, Iran and Hezbollah desire a third Lebanon war and have acted recently toward that end.

Hezbollah forces recently attempted to carry out a bombing attack on two armored vehicles along the border region in the Mount Dov area. The attack was unsuccessful and there were no casualties, but if this bombing had gone as planned the damage would have been severe. Israeli retribution would have been swift, as promised many times by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

History has proven that events like this can lead to war.

The Second Lebanon War was started by a cross-border attack that quickly escalated. Given the probability of war being the inevitable consequence of a successful attack of the kind attempted recently, it must be surmised that Hezbollah and its financial benefactor Iran desire open war with Israel.

Traditional thought in the Israeli defense establishment is that Hezbollah is too bogged down in the Syrian civil war next door to want a full-blown conflict on the border with Israel. According to Yossi Melman’s recent Jerusalem Post article, Hezbollah has lost nearly a quarter of its total fighting force in Syria defending the Assad regime.

However, the facts on the ground have changed such that Iran and Hezbollah currently have much to gain by engaging in war with Israel.

First of all, domestic considerations in Lebanon could serve as at least a partial impetus for Hezbollah to want a conflict with Israel. The organization has long touted itself as the defender of the Lebanese people against “Israeli aggression.” This led it to unprecedented popularity after the Second Lebanon War. Recently though, the image Hezbollah had worked so carefully to create among the Lebanese people has been eroded tremendously.

The war in Syria has left many grieving families wondering why their children are being returned in bags by the hundreds as a result of an unpopular foreign war. A conflict with Israel whereby they can achieve a trophy victory like kidnapping an Israeli soldier or hitting a high-value target with a missile from its vast arsenal will boost its popularity on the Lebanese street. The group’s leadership might calculate that they can withstand the inevitable large-scale Israeli bombing campaign by holing up in bunkers until the dust settles.

Second, it is no coincidence that the attempted attack on the IDF convoy followed directly on the heels of Iran undergoing a major regional diplomatic assault due to the Saudi Arabian embassy being sacked and set on fire in Iran. Saudi Arabia has severed all ties with the Islamic Republic.

Sudan, Kuwait and Bahrain have followed suit in one way or another and cut ties with Tehran.

The negative effects of the Saudi embassy attack in Iran will continue to be felt as Sunni states line up against the Shi’ite ayatollah- led regime. In the past, leaders in the region have found that attacking Israel can see their popularity rise and take the heat off of them in times of crisis. The Islamic Republic’s leaders might calculate that they can order an attack by their proxy Hezbollah, and through their ensuing public support of the group fighting Israel stem the political damage they are suffering.

Finally, the Iranians are in jeopardy of losing sanctions relief under the recent international nuclear agreement due to breaching its terms by testing ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons. In any conflict with Hezbollah the Iranians will play a role, whether the Israelis like it or not. The international community will inevitably lose focus on the nuclear agreement violations when the Iranians posit themselves as necessary to end a war between Hezbollah and Israel.

With Iran and Hezbollah interested in war on the Lebanese/ Israeli border, it is hard to imagine a scenario whereby more attacks similar to the one carried out recently do not occur. If Hezbollah can drag Israel into an unwinnable war it is to its benefit to carry out an attack, which it will do as often as necessary until one is successful. In order for Israel to not hand Hezbollah and Iran a victory, it must change this equation.

When (not if) this attack comes, the Netanyahu government and IDF top brass must not respond with overwhelming force in a way that can easily spiral out of control into full-scale conflict.

Patience and preparation for the inevitable will allow Hezbollah and Iran to fester in their own bed of problems without pulling Israel into the muck with them.

The writer, a graduate of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs, has written extensively on conflict in the Middle East and North Africa.

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