Does Israel really want to open a two-front war by attacking Hezbollah in Lebanon?


Ian Parmeter, Australian National University

Among the many sayings attributed to Winston Churchill is, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

This sentiment seems appropriate as Israel potentially appears ready to embark on a war against the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said this week a decision on an all-out war against Hezbollah was “coming soon” and that senior commanders of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had signed off on a plan for the operation.

This threat comes despite the fact Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza is far from over. Israel has still not achieved the two primary objectives Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put forth at the start of the conflict:

  • the destruction of Hamas as a military and governing entity in Gaza
  • the freeing of the remaining Israeli hostages held by Hamas (about 80 believed to still be alive, along with the remains of about 40 believed to be dead).

Why Hezbollah is attacking Israel now

Israel has cogent reasons for wanting to eliminate the threat from Hezbollah. Hezbollah has been launching Iranian-supplied missiles, rockets and drones across the border into northern Israel since the Gaza war began on October 8. Its stated purpose is to support Hamas by distracting the IDF from its Gaza operation.

Hezbollah’s attacks have been relatively circumscribed – confined so far to northern Israel. But they have led to the displacement of some 60,000 residents from the border area. These people are understandably fed up and demanding Netanyahu’s government takes action to force Hezbollah to withdraw from the border.

This anger has been augmented this week by Hezbollah publicising video footage of military and civilian sites in the northern Israeli city of Haifa, which had been taken by a low-flying surveillance drone.

The implication: Hezbollah was scoping the region for new targets. Haifa, a city of nearly 300,000, has not yet been subject to Hezbollah attacks.

The most far-right members of Netanyahu’s cabinet, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, have openly called for Israel to invade southern Lebanon. Even without this pressure, Netanyahu has ample reason to want to neutralise the Hezbollah threat because residents of northern Israel are strong supporters of his Likud party.

US and Iranian interests in a broader conflict

The United States is obviously concerned about the risk Israel will open a second front in its conflicts. As such, President Joe Biden has sent an envoy, Amos Hochstein, to Israel and Lebanon to try to reduce tensions on both sides.

In Lebanon, he can’t publicly deal directly with the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, because the group is on the US list of global terrorist organisations. Instead, he met the long-serving speaker of the Lebanese parliament, Nabih Berri, who as a fellow Shia is able to talk with Nasrallah.

But Hezbollah answers to Iran – its main backer in the region. And it’s doubtful if any Lebanese leader can persuade it to desist from action approved by Iran.

Iran’s interests in the potential for an Israel-Hezbollah war at this time are mixed. It would obviously be glad to see Israel under military pressure on two fronts. But Iranian leaders see Hezbollah as insurance against an Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities.

Hezbollah has an estimated 150,000 missiles and rockets, including some that could reach deep into Israel. So far, Iran seems to want Hezbollah to hold back from a major escalation with Israel, which could deplete most of that arsenal.

That said, although Israel’s Iron Dome defensive shield has been remarkably successful in neutralising the rocket threat from Gaza, it might not be as effective against a large-scale barrage of more sophisticated missiles.

Israel needed help from the US, Britain, France and Jordan in countering a direct attack from Iran in April that involved some 150 missiles and 170 drones. Israel and Hezbollah conflict: escalating cross-border tensions.

Lessons from previous Israeli interventions in Lebanon

The other factor – especially for wiser heads mindful of history – is the country’s previous interventions in Lebanon have been far from cost-free.

Israel’s problems with Lebanon started when the late King Hussein of Jordan forced the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), then led by Yasser Arafat, to relocate to Lebanon in 1970. He did that because the PLO had been using Jordan as a base for operations against Israel after the 1967 war, provoking Israeli retaliation.

From the early 1970s, the PLO formed a state within a state in Lebanon. It largely acted independently from the perennially weak Lebanese government, which was divided on sectarian grounds, and in 1975, collapsed into a prolonged civil war.

The PLO used southern Lebanon to launch attacks against Israel, leading Israel to launch a limited invasion of its northern neighbour in 1978, driving Palestinian militia groups north of the Litani River.

That invasion was only partially successful. Militants soon moved back towards the border and renewed their attacks on northern Israel. In 1982, then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin decided to remove the PLO entirely from Lebanon, launching a major invasion of Lebanon all the way to Beirut. This eventually forced the PLO leadership and the bulk of its fighters to relocate to Tunisia.

Despite this success, the two Israeli invasions had the unintended consequence of radicalising the until-then quiescent Shia population of southern Lebanon.

That enabled Iran, in its early post-revolutionary phase under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, to work with Shia clerics in Lebanon to establish Hezbollah (Party of God in Arabic), which became a greater threat to Israel than the PLO had ever been.

Bolstered by Iranian support, Hezbollah has become stronger over the years, becoming a force in Lebanese politics and regularly firing missiles into Israel.

In 2006, Hezbollah was able to block an IDF advance into southern Lebanon aimed at rescuing two Israeli soldiers Hezbollah had captured. The outcome was essentially a draw, and the two soldiers remained in captivity until their bodies were exchanged for Lebanese prisoners in 2008.

Many Arab observers at the time judged that by surviving an asymmetrical conflict, Hezbollah had emerged with a political and military victory.

For a while during and after that conflict, Nasrallah was one of the most popular regional leaders, despite the fact he was loathed by rulers of conservative Sunni Arab states such as Saudi Arabia.

Will history repeat itself?

This is the background to discussions in Israel about launching a war against Hezbollah. And it demonstrates how the quote from Churchill is relevant.

Most military experts would caution against choosing to fight a war on two fronts. Former US President George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq in 2003 when the war in Afghanistan had not concluded. The outcome was hugely costly for the US military and disastrous for both countries.

The 19th century American writer Mark Twain is reported to have said that history does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes. Will Israel’s leaders listen to the echoes of the past?

Ian Parmeter, Research Scholar, Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.