Nothing Good Would Come of an Israeli War in Lebanon

Last week, former Israeli Minister and retired General Benny Gantz said that Israel could destroy Hezbollah’s military in a matter of days. But if such a thing could be done, Israel would have already done it. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu similarly promised “total victory” against Hamas after October 7.

These declarations are dangerous bluster. Not only do they ultimately portend devastation, for Lebanon as for Gaza, but the military goals they suggest are maximalist and largely unattainable. Israel tends to underestimate the militias it’s fighting and to take a hammer to a problem that a hammer has never fixed.

War has been a fact of life for civilians on both sides of the Israel-Lebanon border since October 8, when, after 17 years of relative calm there, Hezbollah launched its first missiles against northern Israel in support of Hamas. Israel’s relentless, methodical shelling of a five-kilometer-deep area along the border inside Lebanon has created a de facto, uninhabitable dead zone. Some 90,000 Lebanese have been displaced, and civilian infrastructure, livestock, and agricultural land have been destroyed. Israel has targeted Hezbollah fighters with some success, killing 349 of them—but at least 50 Lebanese civilians have also been killed.

Hezbollah’s shelling of Israel has been less intense and damaging, but it has struck deeper into Israeli territory. Some 60,000 Israelis have been evacuated from their homes in the north. Twenty-five Israelis, including civilians and soldiers, have been killed. The conflict has remained at a steady simmer but is now threatening to boil over as both sides stockpile weapons and Israel masses troops on the border. U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has warned that full-blown war would be “catastrophic.”

The contours of a deal that would stop the fighting are already known. Israel wants Hezbollah to end cross-border attacks and withdraw its top fighters and heavy weapons from the border area, and the Lebanese army to deploy in larger numbers near the frontier. Hezbollah wants Israel to stop shelling Lebanon, withdraw from disputed border points, and stop overflights of Lebanon. And yet, diplomacy has stalled—in part because Hezbollah has tied Lebanon’s fate to the prospects for a cease-fire in Gaza, while Netanyahu’s political survival is linked to the continuation of that conflict.

The alternatives to diplomacy are grim. As I have written before in this space, neither Hezbollah’s patron, Iran, nor Israel particularly wants a full-scale war in Lebanon. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. The most destructive scenario would involve a widespread Israeli bombing campaign in Lebanon along with a ground incursion. Hezbollah would then fire barrages of missiles against northern Israel—enough to overwhelm the Iron Dome and cause substantial damage and loss of life. A protracted war might restore Hezbollah’s credibility as a resistance movement against Israel, an aura it lost when it became a major player in Lebanon’s corrupt political system and fought in the Syrian civil war to support the rule of the dictator Bashar al-Assad.

No definitive blow could take out Hezbollah’s military capability within a short period of time. A full-scale war would embroil Israel and Lebanon for months, even years. Today’s Hezbollah is not the militant group that Israel fought to a stalemate in 1996 and 2006. It now has 150,000 missiles at its disposal, including precision-guided ones, and hundreds of battle-hardened men who have fought in Syria and elsewhere. A conflict in Lebanon could draw in militias from Iraq and Syria. In the ultimate nightmare scenario, such a war could pull in Iran and the United States.

Maybe the two sides could manage a more limited escalation, focused on specific areas and military targets, with unspoken but clear rules of engagement. In this scenario, Israel would increase the tempo of its strikes against Hezbollah and Iranian targets in Syria, as well as strikes against Hezbollah targets in southern Lebanon and the Beqaa Valley, without targeting Lebanese infrastructure, such as the airport, power plants, or bridges, which it has often struck in the past. Hezbollah would likely respond with more sustained barrages into Israel, mostly in areas that civilians have vacated, and by targeting military sites and launching cyberattacks. But real life is not a war exercise, and keeping such an escalation within bounds would be difficult and dangerous.

The border clashes could also continue at their current intensity, a war of attrition with no clear end in sight. But in hardly any scenario would Israel gain more from military confrontation with Hezbollah than it would through diplomacy. And Israeli leaders should know this from history: Fighting Hezbollah, even before it grew as strong as it is today, has never delivered the resounding defeat that Gantz and others have promised, nor has waging outright war in Lebanon.

Hezbollah was born after Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon—an incursion initially meant to push Palestinian guerrilla fighters operating there away from the border with Israel. But the Israeli government didn’t stop there. In his book Slopes of Lebanon, the Israeli journalist and peace activist Amos Oz writes that Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin imagined that he could “clean up, once and for all, the mess in the Middle East.” Israel sent troops all the way to Beirut, seeking to install a friendly Christian president in Lebanon, pound the Syrian military positioned there into submission, and finish off the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Israel laid siege to Beirut for two months, and the fighting left 17,000 dead in Lebanon.

The PLO did indeed leave Beirut, but in every other sense, the war was a strategic disaster for Israel. The Christian president was assassinated, Lebanon canceled the peace agreement it signed with Israel within a year, Syria became even more powerful, Iran gained a foothold in Lebanon, and Israel wound up occupying southern Lebanon for two decades.

And yet, this was not the last time Israel went to war there. In 2006, Hezbollah kidnapped and killed several Israeli soldiers at the border, and Israel responded with a devastating military campaign against Hezbollah and Lebanon. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared that Israel’s goal was not only to bring home the captured soldiers but to destroy Hezbollah.

Israel later adjusted its goals, saying that it intended only to cut down Hezbollah’s capacity to launch rockets against Israel. Within a month, Israel had sent troops into Lebanon and was bogged down, asking the U.S. to call for a cease-fire. Lebanon had lost 1,200 lives and a good deal of infrastructure, but Hezbollah could still fire as many rockets as ever. Although Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, later expressed regret about the devastation the group’s initial operation had brought onto Lebanon, the militia declared victory, and its popularity rose across the Arab world. Mutual deterrence was established, and calm on the border held for almost two decades. In that time, Hezbollah built up its arsenal, amassed political power in Lebanon, and became a regional paramilitary force, with influence and fighters in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. It has much to lose if war erupts, which is why it has shown remarkable restraint—though those living in northern Israel might not see it that way. But like Hamas and other guerrilla groups, Hezbollah knows it can play the long game much better than a traditional army, even one as mighty as Israel’s.

The 1982 invasion of Lebanon was the first time Israel fought a guerrilla force instead of a traditional army, as it had previously done, successfully, against Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. It was also the first time it invaded and bombarded an Arab capital. It didn’t win that war and hasn’t won one since. In 1982, Oz wrote that “there can be no atonement for what we did in Beirut.” Yet that campaign became a template. Today, Gaza lies in ruins and thousands are dead, but most of the hostages are still in Hamas captivity, and the group is still standing. The war has been a strategic disaster for Israel. Netanyahu may consider it a kind of victory, if only because he is still in power. But as he looks to the north, where a much more formidable adversary awaits him, he should remember the lessons of the Begin era, when he was deputy ambassador to the United States: There is no military victory to be had in a large-scale war against Lebanon.

The Atlantic

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