Israel should focus more on Iran’s nuclear weapons than on Hezbollah’s missiles

The main focus has to be on Iran and particularly on its nuclear project.

By
October 6, 2019 10:10
4 minute read.
A late night view of the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel during an extended round of Iran nuclear talks

A late night view of the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel during an extended round of Iran nuclear talks in Lausanne. (photo credit: REUTERS)

A senior Israeli official recently said that Israel’s top priorities are to prevent Iran from producing a nuclear weapon and to thwart Hezbollah’s precision missile project.

Those are the biggest security challenges Israel faces but there is a huge difference between them. An Iranian nuclear attack might annihilate Israel and cause hundreds of thousands of casualties. Hezbollah’s precision missiles present a major problem, but on a much smaller scale than the nuclear one. The gap between the two issues is so vast that it requires putting each one of them in its own category.

Iran has been taking steps to breach the agreement about its nuclear program, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed in July 2015. If Iran actually tries to produce a nuclear weapon, then Israel must stop it, almost at any cost. Iran with a nuclear arsenal will be an existential threat to Israel.

Therefore Israel must focus on that, at the expense of other major issues, such as Hezbollah’s precision missile project. Israel should not neglect, let alone underestimate, Hezbollah’s missiles but it is much less of a danger compared with Iran’s nuclear project. Nevertheless it often seems that Israel concentrates too much on Hezbollah’s missiles, instead of zeroing in on Iran’s nuclear project. 

Israel should prevent Hezbollah from producing accurate missiles in large quantities but it does not necessarily mean that Israel has to go to war over it. Such a war will cost Hezbollah dearly but that’s no comfort for Israel which would likely also pay a significant price.

In the past, Israel tolerated the fact that its sworn enemies had a formidable military, without going to war over it. This had been the case with Syria since the 1980s, until more recently, when the Syrian armed forces lost much of their strength during the civil war in their country. Hezbollah, already at kind of a low point following its many casualties in Syria and economic hardships, might become even more vulnerable in the future. That’s why Israel might be able to avoid a conflict with them.    

In the worst case, if Hezbollah manages to produce and deploy its accurate missiles en mass, it doesn’t mean the group will fire them. Their purpose, together with the rest of Hezbollah’s arsenal, is to deter Israel from bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities. Yet, considering the Iranian nuclear threat, it might be worthwhile for Israel to risk attacking in Iran. Israel could still deter Hezbollah from striking or it could launch a massive surprise offensive against Hezbollah, at the same time it bombs Iran. 

In the 2006 war, the IDF destroyed Hezbollah’s long range missiles before they could be used. It will be difficult, but not impossible, to do the same with Hezbollah’s accurate missiles. In addition, part of those missiles that will be launched will be intercepted by Israel’s air defense that will protect the country’s most vital infrastructure, both civilian and military. Although some of those sites would be hit, they could be fortified in advance, which would reduce the damage. There should also be alternative facilities to produce vitally needed electricity. Israel also has to be ready to repair and rebuild key infrastructure points as fast as possible.

The last war between Israel and Hezbollah was in 2006. In the ensuing 13 years, both sides have been preparing their forces for another round. Destroying Hezbollah’s accurate missiles will be a top mission for the IDF, but Hezbollah’s unguided missiles and rockets are a problem too. Hezbollah had about 30,000 rockets in 2006. Now it holds up to 150,000 rockets and missiles.  During a war, Hezbollah might fire 1,500 of those projectiles per day. This kind of firepower will hurt Israel but Hezbollah can’t destroy Israel, not even a small part of it. An Iranian nuclear weapon can do that.

Currently, neither Israel nor Hezbollah wants war, but  the situation could escalate at any time. Nevertheless, Israel has to be careful not to be entangled in an unnecessary war. If Israel concludes it has no choice but to attack, it has to be done in the optimal terms for Israel in the military and diplomatic levels.  

The 2006 war went on for 34 days. The next one might be shorter. Israel will try to end the war quickly in order to reduce the cost to its people. Israel’s leadership will have to make decisions quite quickly, while under pressure. Yet it will pale in comparison to the scenario Israel would face during a war with Iran, when the latter has nuclear weapons that might reach Israel in a matter of minutes. 

The main focus has to be on Iran and particularly on its nuclear project.  Dealing with Hezbollah, and for that matter with the Iranian presence in Syria, must not taken on at the expense of neutralizing Iran’s nuclear program.

The writer is a senior fellow with the Gold Institute for International Strategy. He has been dealing and studying Israel’s national security for more than 25 years, and has served in the Israeli military and the Ministry of Defense. He has published five books in his field  in the US  and UK.


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