Eye on the Middle East | A Damocles’ sword hangs at the Israel-Lebanon border - Hindustan Times
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Eye on the Middle East | A Damocles’ sword hangs at the Israel-Lebanon border

Jun 09, 2024 09:30 AM IST

As the threat of a wider regional war looms, key to understanding the Israel-Hezbollah conflict is the question of where the locus of the present conflict lies

Since October 8, 2023, Israel and Hezbollah have exchanged near-daily fire at the disputed Israeli-Lebanese border. These exchanges have featured rockets and missiles fired at northern Israeli towns (several of which are now evacuated), and Israeli air and artillery strikes in Hezbollah’s bastions in South Lebanon (along with sporadic deeper strikes into the Lebanese hinterland). While this exchange has killed around 400 in Lebanon, it has killed around 20 Israel Defence Forces personnel and 10 civilians. Running parallel to, and because of, the war in Gaza – the steady stream of rocket fire by Hezbollah has allowed the group to work as an active deterrent – one that holds its full arsenal in reserve but maintains kinetic pressure on Israel to halt its Gaza war. Israel itself has mostly remained focused on Gaza, allowing sections of its Golani Brigades and other IDF units to manage the northern border.

(FILES) An Israeli strike illuminates the sky above the southern Lebanese village of Khiam late on April 17, 2024, amid ongoing cross-border tensions as fighting continues between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.(Photo by Rabih DAHER / AFP)(AFP) PREMIUM
(FILES) An Israeli strike illuminates the sky above the southern Lebanese village of Khiam late on April 17, 2024, amid ongoing cross-border tensions as fighting continues between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.(Photo by Rabih DAHER / AFP)(AFP)

However, as international pressure on Tel Aviv mounts, along with global criticism of the conduct of its Gaza war, the Hezbollah-Israel calculus has shown signs of potential shifts. While the intensity of the strikes has increased, Israel seems to be preparing for a “limited war” or a ground offensive into South Lebanon. With Benjamin Netanyahu announcing on June 5 that Israel would restore security in the North “one way or the other”, alarm bells have gone off in multiple capitals, including Washington, about an even wider regional war in the Middle East. Key to understanding this change is the question of where the locus of the present conflict lies – in the eyes of either belligerent.

Israel’s Hezbollah calculus

The Israel-Hezbollah relationship is fundamentally antagonistic. However, both have also proved to be pragmatic actors. Even as the post-October 7 cross-border action has thrown up the highest casualty figures for both sides since their last war in 2006, there has been enough restraint built into the Israel-Hezbollah dynamic. The focus of Israeli action in South Lebanon has been to actively prevent Hezbollah from opening a second front – which in any case is a historically recurring priority for Tel Aviv whenever a skirmish with Hamas in Gaza has been underway. Israeli rhetoric accompanying the constant exchange of strikes with Hezbollah (especially across November and December 2023), has been to warn the group against escalation.

The key change, however, has been internal to Israel. Along with rising international pressure for a ceasefire in Gaza and an unprecedented public announcement of a potential three-phased ceasefire deal by the White House, Israel’s diplomatic bandwidth is declining. Even as it considers the deal pitched by Washington, Netanyahu has already long been pressured by the far-right allies of his government to cross the red lines being set internationally for Israel – evident especially in Rafah. The Netanyahu government has struggled to reconcile its publicly stated objective of eliminating Hamas in Gaza and its inability to militarily fulfil that objective, even as it prosecutes a war that has killed over 37,000 in Gaza (including at least 12,000 children). Indeed, a ceasefire will imperil Netanyahu’s political position (as well as personal, given long-standing corruption charges) within Israel – making it easier to pander to the far right’s current demands.

This logic now extends to the Israel-Lebanon border. While deterring Hezbollah has been an ancillary objective thus far in the crisis, Israeli far-right leaders are now defining new military objectives for the state that necessarily require conventional force-on-force action at the border. For instance, Israel's finance minister Bezalel Smotrich has called for a “military takeover of southern Lebanon” if Hezbollah does not withdraw beyond the Litani River (according to UNSC Resolution 1701). National security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir has reiterated this, explicitly calling for war. Already by late February 2024, Israel had moved its largest army division (36 Armored) from Gaza to the Lebanese border - reflecting strategic shifts. Now, making the Israel-Lebanon border an independent area of focus – based on the merits of the historic territorial/political dispute between Israel and Lebanon/Hezbollah rather than the Gaza war – allows Tel Aviv to present South Lebanon as a new locus in the conflict and expand its casus belli.

Hezbollah’s Israel calculus

On November 3, 2023, almost a month after Israel’s war in Gaza began, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah made his first statement, addressing the conflict. In it, he unleashed the expected hostile rhetoric against Israel and committed to defending Lebanon but stopped short of committing to a wider war. In the last eight months, this characteristic has been constant in Hezbollah’s rhetoric (with its intensity waxing and waning). In January 2024, Hezbollah deputy chief Naim Qassem explicitly stated that Hezbollah does not want a wider war with Israel, with the usual caveat of being prepared to respond to Israeli escalation.

Hezbollah’s causes for restraint have been both internal and external. Internally, the group has been navigating multiple crises within Lebanon, especially pertaining to its political position and influence, as the Lebanese economy struggles. Among other things, this led the group to exercise more restraint with Israel (even allowing a Lebanon-Israel maritime border agreement in 2022) and focus on improving its internal position, particularly after the 2019 anti-government protests and the 2020 Beirut port explosion. Externally, the group remains Iran’s standing deterrent against Israel, even as it shows some streaks of independence (motivated by the desire to rejig its internal image within Lebanon). This means that the group still cannot allow a non-Iran locus (Gaza) to trigger the full use of its personnel and arsenal for a conventional war. The steady exchange of rockets and missiles then, still works best for the group – as it allows Hezbollah to protect its anti-Israel credentials while avoiding a larger war. For Hezbollah, the locus of the conflict remains Gaza as it continues to link its casus belli with Israel’s continued bombardment of the strip and the need for a ceasefire.

In a February 2024 piece for Foreign Policy, columnist Steve Cook warned that the restraints that theoretically apply to Israel and Hezbollah could change, given the volatility of Middle Eastern politics. This change has now manifested through an evolution of Israel’s war aims. The steady intensification of its exchanges with Hezbollah can cumulatively act as its trigger for a wider war, should the political objectives of either side change at any point. Indeed, the rising casualties could drive this change – muddling the difference between cause and effect.

For Israel, a second locus would allow it a better national-security/territorial-integrity-based bargaining position when dealing with its allies - at a time when its war in Gaza is turning increasingly unpopular internationally. While Washington itself has warned Israel against war with Hezbollah (arguing that it will necessarily draw in Iran, and not be a limited conflict), it would be hard-pressed to blindside Tel Aviv, should war break out. Given the logic of the second locus, Israel’s incentives to further intensify its response to Hezbollah’s attacks only grow. For Hezbollah itself, a full-fledged attack by Israel will arguably allow it to re-consolidate support for itself at home when its domestic image has taken successive hits in recent years. Key to whether this Damocles’ sword will fall at the Israeli-Lebanese border, is the degree to which international pressure (both public and private) for a ceasefire is successful. Internally, Israel has enough reason to cut the sword free.

Bashir Ali Abbas is a research associate at the Council for Strategic and Defense Research, New Delhi, and a South Asia Visiting Fellow at the Stimson Center, Washington DC. The views expressed are personal.

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