Hezbollah on Offense

Hassan Nasrallah is ramping up his rhetoric. Is a Hezbollah-Israel war in store?

The spate of popular uprisings in the Arab world has overshadowed all other “traditional” problems in the Middle East. That is why when Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary-general, recently called upon his fighters to be ready to invade Galilee in case Israel wages war against Lebanon, it attracted little attention.

His threat to dispatch Hezbollah units into Galilee is the first public articulation of a tactic Hezbollah fighters have privately hinted at since the end of the last conflict in August 2006. It bolsters Nasrallah’s previous carefully phrased warnings of what Israel can expect from Hezbollah in the next war. They include a vow in February 2010 to rocket Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport if Israel bombs Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International airport. And a declaration by Nasrallah three months later that Hezbollah can and will attack shipping along Israel’s entire coastline if the Israeli navy shells Lebanese infrastructure.

Now, with his vow to send fighters into Galilee if Israel invades Lebanon, Nasrallah is announcing that Israel can no longer take for granted its long-established doctrine of fighting wars solely on the soil of its neighbors.

This tit-for-tat approach is a cornerstone of Hezbollah’s military strategy. The group claims it serves as deterrence during times of peace and as a plan to be implemented in the event of war.

Hezbollah’s statements and actions since 2006, therefore, suggest that the next war with Israel is not likely to be one based on defensive “resistance” on Lebanese territory as in the past but one of offense, penetrating deep into Israel. Israel’s home front will become a front line for the first time since 1948.

Nasrallah’s specific goal behind threatening to invade Galilee was to increase the pressure on Israel, which is anxiously reassessing its external security environment in light of fast-moving developments in the region (specifically the collapse of the Mubarak regime in Egypt). Rightly or wrongly, Nasrallah sees these revolutionary changes weakening Israel and, therefore, benefiting Iran and Hezbollah. He believes that if Israel feels vulnerable, it will refrain from attacking Lebanon. Waging aggressive psychological warfare – of which Nasrallah is a master – augments that goal.

Despite the massive arms build-up, recruitment and training drive since 2006, history suggests that Hezbollah is perfectly capable of maintaining peace with Israel when it suits its interests and those of its benefactors in Tehran and Damascus. Since the end of the 2006 war (which began when Hezbollah miscalculated Israel’s response to the kidnapping of two soldiers along the border), the Lebanese group has not fired a single shot in anger toward its Israeli adversaries.

Whether Hezbollah launches a war depends a great deal on Tel Aviv.

The billions of dollars Iran has invested in Hezbollah over the years (including armaments and intelligence capabilities comparable to a medium-sized European state) is intended first and foremost to deter against the possibility of an attack by the West and/or Israel against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Architects of such an attack have to assess Hezbollah’s response, certainly a complicating factor in any plan to challenge Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

For over a decade, Israel has been eyeing Hezbollah’s arms build-up (a process that rapidly accelerated after the 2006 war) with discomfort. The dilemma facing Israel is whether it is worth attempting to degrade Hezbollah’s military capabilities and upset what has been the quietest four-year period along its northern border since the late 1960s. Of course, the longer Israel takes to weigh the options, the stronger Hezbollah becomes.

Of all the unknowns, the one certainty is that the next war will be of such magnitude and lethality that it will make the month-long conflict of 2006 look like a Sunday afternoon stroll in the park.

There is one way to ratchet down tensions.

The revolutionary change in the Arab world—and the resultant uncertainties felt in Tel Aviv and Damascus—offer a potential opening for the United States to forcefully push for renewed peace talks between Israel and Syria. The parameters of an Israeli-Syrian peace are well known and achievable. What it will require is robust and determined leadership from the White House and zero tolerance for the kind of evasiveness that thwarted the recent effort to revive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Other than being desirable for its own sake, an Israeli-Syrian peace would significantly dilute the tense standoff along the Lebanon-Israel border. Without it, the mutual fear of destruction may be the only factor forestalling another war between Hezbollah and Israel.