Australia/Israel Review

The Next War?

Jul 2, 2024 | Ron Ben-Yishai

Israeli soldiers along the Lebanon border, where nine months of mini-war could quickly become a conflagration (Screenshot: X/Twitter)
Israeli soldiers along the Lebanon border, where nine months of mini-war could quickly become a conflagration (Screenshot: X/Twitter)

How Hezbollah became Israel’s greatest threat


From an Israeli perspective, the war in Gaza began as a catastrophic event within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Initial fears held by security officials – that Hamas’ atrocities on October 7 were the first stage in a coordinated attack by Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran on Israel – were dispelled within days, partly because IDF reserve forces called to the north thwarted any intentions by the Axis of Resistance led by Iran and Hezbollah to exploit the incident and damage Israel further.

Thus, the war began with the primary Israeli objective being to dismantle Hamas militarily and administratively and free the hostages, both alive and dead. The attacks launched by Hezbollah in the north and the Houthis in the south were perceived as secondary incidents, intended to aid Hamas in its war and force Israel to split IDF forces across three fronts (including the West Bank). 

To that end, Israel’s strategic planners were determined to first defeat Hamas in Gaza, believing Hezbollah would be deterred and agree to a political arrangement that would push its elite Radwan Force and its anti-tank missiles northward, to approximately the Litani River, about ten kilometres away from the Israeli border once this happened.


A regional war

Over the past few months, however, and particularly since the Iranian offensive against Israel in April, the situation has shifted. The war transformed from a very violent and even fateful Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a full-fledged regional war with strategic security implications and even existential risks for Israel and its citizens. 

Furthermore, in recent months, Hezbollah, as the vanguard of Iran’s proxy network, has become the primary threat that Israel must urgently remove. Not only because Hezbollah emptied the northern Galilee of its residents, causing massive destruction and fires in the area, but also because it holds about 70,000 Israelis as virtual hostages who can’t return to their homes until Hassan Nasrallah and Ali Khamenei allow them to do so.

The tables have also turned militarily. While the IDF, via its manoeuvring in the Gaza Strip, is close to dismantling Hamas’ military power, significantly undermining its governance capabilities and managing to prevent an intifada in the West Bank through aggressive actions, it has so far failed to achieve any significant strategic goal on the northern border, certainly not one that would bring Hezbollah to seek a ceasefire. 

Contrary to IDF predictions, the footage of destruction in the Strip doesn’t deter the Lebanese terror organisation and its Iranian patrons. Evidence of this is their escalation of retaliatory attacks after every Israeli airstrike. Even the usually cautious and calculating Iranian rulers didn’t hesitate to launch a massive and direct missile and drone attack against Israel, something they had avoided for over a decade.

The strategic implication is clear: If Israel doesn’t end the northern conflict with a decisive victory that restores its deterrence, not only toward Hezbollah but also toward Iran, it could face repeated attacks in the coming years intended to wear Israel down militarily, and especially mentally, leading to its internal collapse. 

This trend will worsen when Iran acquires nuclear weapons or the capability to produce such weapons within weeks. The bottom line is that Israel must change its war goals. Defeating Hamas and freeing the hostages will no longer suffice. The north is now the focus; restoring peace and hoping Hezbollah’s missiles and drones will rust over time isn’t enough.


An agreement isn’t enough

The situation Hezbollah has created in the north in recent months necessitates a fundamental change in security priorities and war goals. Pushing Hezbollah back ten kilometres or even a little further from the border, in a scenario where Hezbollah and the Iranians won’t be deterred, does nothing to change this strategic threat. 

A local political agreement in southern Lebanon, even if the IDF strictly enforces it should Hezbollah breach it, won’t eliminate the real threat of a full-scale war and Hezbollah and Iran’s extensive missile and drone arsenal. No military defence perimeter will help in this scenario.

Indeed, the current war has brought Iran into the northern border equation, so any diplomatic arrangement or, alternatively, a limited military campaign in the north, including a ground operation, will be like prescribing aspirin to treat widespread, terminal cancer. 

Hezbollah and Iran have gained confidence and motivation to continue exhausting Israel, and if Israel doesn’t think about how it can stop them, with the help of the US and moderate Sunni elements in the region, it’s doomed to see more attacks like October 7 soon. 

In simple terms, defeating Hamas in Gaza won’t suffice. A strategic victory in the multi-front war Israel is currently engaged in is needed here. Such a victory can’t be achieved by Israel alone and must involve aid and coordination with the US, pro-Western countries in the region, and the restoration of Israel’s legitimacy that it has lost in the initial months of intense fighting in Gaza. 

What would a strategic victory in a regional war look like? First, the return of the hostages to Israel, either through a deal or a rapid, intense ground operation into key areas of the Gaza Strip to inflict additional severe damage on Hamas’ military power and underground tunnel network, putting pressure on its leader Yahya Sinwar.

Another step in Gaza would be the destruction of the underground tunnels still located under the Philadelphi Corridor and reaching an agreement with Egypt to block the area close to the border and operate the Rafah crossing.

The third move in Gaza, after or during a hostage release deal or another rapid, intense military operation, is reaching an agreement, with the help of the US, the UN and moderate Arab states, for a civilian administration of the Gaza Strip under the supervision and participation of a multinational peacekeeping force. In such an arrangement, Israel should retain intelligence superiority and operational freedom in Gaza.

The war’s main goal should be to create deterrence on the northern border and an improved security situation on all borders, allowing residents close to the Gaza and Lebanon borders to return to their homes knowing they’re safe from infiltrations and missile fire. 

The IDF, Shin Bet and other Israeli security agencies should be capable, in terms of force structure and equipment, of enforcing the agreements reached in the south and the north by force, if necessary, whether as a result of a diplomatic arrangement or after another intense military move. 

The most crucial objective in this context is for Hamas to be unable to rebuild its military capabilities, and barring Hezbollah from restoring and strengthening its current military capabilities.

If the IDF and security officials assess that Hezbollah can be defeated in a short time through a comprehensive air and ground attack across Lebanon in the north, this should be done immediately, even if the Israeli home front must endure heavy missile and drone barrages for several weeks. 

It’s better that this happen now rather than in two or three years when Hezbollah will have more precise missiles, Iran owns nuclear weapons and northern residents have to evacuate again after painstakingly rebuilding from the current war’s ruins.

However, if Israel concludes that it can’t minimise Hezbollah’s missile and drone threat and withstand another Iranian attack, it’s better to reach an agreement now in the style of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the Second Lebanon War, and prepare and equip the IDF in a way that allows it to successfully and quickly deal with a combined Iranian-Hezbollah threat in a few years.

Another consideration is coordination with the US. It’s inadvisable for Israel to enter a full-scale war in the north without guaranteed American support of all kinds. This includes not only diplomatic and logistical aid but also help in intercepting the barrages of missiles and drones launched at us from Iran and Lebanon. 

We must also remember a full-scale war to remove Hezbollah’s threat will require a deep operation into Lebanese territory. However, this manoeuvre must be creative, cunning and bold, targeting Hezbollah and the radical Shia axis’ most sensitive points. Those recommending targeting Lebanon’s electricity, water and transportation infrastructure miss the real targets, which are better left unspecified for now.

It is important to remember Lebanon is already a failed state where electricity is provided by home generators, and all other infrastructure is either already destroyed or crumbling. The aim shouldn’t be to strike Lebanon as a state, which is already close to the Stone Age at the moment, but to target what will damage Nasrallah and the Iranians and force them to at least postpone, if not completely cancel, their intention to destroy Israel through a prolonged war of attrition.


Making amends with the US

Another goal should be to integrate Israel into a regional defence coalition of pro-Western Sunni states with US involvement, creating a counterbalance to the Iranian threat. Normalising relations with Saudi Arabia is desirable but not essential for existential security. However, integrating Israel into a regional defence arrangement led by the US is a security necessity.

These achievements require prior agreement and coordination with the Americans. Israel won’t achieve even a partial victory in the ongoing regional-strategic war without US partnership and active involvement. Prime Minister Netanyahu, who will address both houses of the US Congress on July 24, should prioritise renewing the close alliance with our friend across the ocean in every detail. 

The PM’s upcoming speech in Congress is important, but reaching clear and binding agreements with the Americans regarding the continued conduct of the war is even more important, even if it requires painful compromises that might endanger the integrity of the coalition he currently leads. It’s likely the opposition will provide Netanyahu with a safety net if he reaches agreements during his visit to Washington that will enable Israel to achieve a strategic victory in the war.

Ron Ben-Yishai is a veteran Israeli military reporter and national security correspondent for the Israeli daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot and Israeli TV. © Yediot Ahronot, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.


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