The Stakes of Hizballah’s Next War with Israel

November 7, 2017 | Thomas Donnelly
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In recent months, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Iran’s Lebanon-based proxy army, has been speaking about the Jewish state with even greater bellicosity than usual, suggesting that, with the war in Syrian winding down, he might be readying to turn his attention southward. Most experts believe the subsequent conflict could be far deadlier than in 2006: an all-out attack by Hizballah could overwhelm, at least temporarily, Israel’s sophisticated missile-defense systems, especially if it were coupled with coordinated rocket fire from Gaza. By the same token, the IDF’s response would be devastating for Lebanon. Thomas Donnelly comments:

Israel has not faced such a powerful threat since the 1973 war, and confronting the Iran-Hizballah-Assad coalition will tax the IDF heavily. . . . [Such a conflict’s] daunting tactical challenges also, as in the past, generate strategic and geopolitical problems. The perception of victory often counts more than the battlefield result, both in the region and in the larger international contest.

Nasrallah excels at spinning defeat into victory. [In 2006, notwithstanding Hizballah’s considerable losses], survival became triumph, a bit of propaganda that caught on in outlets such as the Economist, which declared, “Nasrallah wins the war.” By now even many Israelis, especially on the political left, concur. . . . The standard of victory for Israel remains almost impossibly high.

Despite the gloomy view of the past and the foreboding about the future, it is also the case that since 2006 Israel’s northern border has been remarkably quiet. That’s even more remarkable considering the chaos that’s ripped Iraq and Syria apart and catapulted Iran to the fore. This is a ceasefire worth preserving. It particularly behooves the United States to try to do so. . .

At the same time, the looming war presents an important opportunity. . . . Should deterrence fail and conflict resume, it will be important for the United States to back the Israelis clearly and forcefully. . . . A decisive Israeli victory against the Tehran-backed Hizballah forces would be an unparalleled opportunity to stem the regional Iranian tide, thereby serving a prime U.S. national-security interest. Such a victory would both reassure and relax America’s Arab allies, particularly in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, and Egypt—those most nervous about a flagging U.S. commitment in the Middle East. It would also remind the world that, despite Vladimir Putin’s meddling, the United States remains the most powerful external force in the region. . . . Just as Israelis have begun to prepare themselves for this [prospective conflict], so should [the U.S.].

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