The surprise unity deal struck between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Kadima chairman Shaul Mofaz has spurred a flurry of speculation, including in the Arab media, about its ultimate significance. Was Netanyahu’s move driven entirely by domestic politics? Or does it indicate that an Israeli strike on Iran might be imminent? If so, how would that impact Lebanon?
It would be hasty to draw conclusions about an impending Israeli attack against Tehran from Netanyahu’s political maneuver. However, it is worth noting that the expanded coalition does strengthen the Israeli Prime Minister’s position externally, affording him more leeway to better deal with the fallout of a strike, should it actually come to pass. As cabinet minister Gilad Erdan put it: “When a decision is taken to attack or not, it is better to have a broad political front that unites the public."
Therefore, as some have noted, the deal may have some impact on Israel’s security policy. Since Iran has placed itself on the border with Israel through Hezbollah, Lebanon features prominently in this policy. Two recent interviews by high-ranking Israeli military officers provide a good exposition of Israel’s military strategy in any future engagement in Lebanon.
Last Sunday, an unnamed senior officer in Israel’s Northern Command warned that any retaliation by Hezbollah against Israel for a possible strike on Iran would result in massive devastation for Lebanon. “In these villages where Hezbollah has infrastructure, I will guess that civilians will not have houses to come back to after the war,” he said. “The day after [we attack] the village will be something that it will take 10 years to rebuild.”
Some might read this as a typical exercise in psychological warfare. However, the officer’s comment is in fact a reiteration of the so-called “Dahiyeh Doctrine,” coined by Major General Gadi Eizenkot, former commander of the IDF’s Northern Command, in 2008. The doctrine is premised on applying disproportionate force against any village from which Israel is fired upon.
Eizenkot’s successor, Major General Yair Golan, also gave an extensive interview a month ago in which he further elaborated the IDF’s military strategy. Golan observed that although “asymmetrical warfare is viewed as a disadvantage for organized states,” he holds the opposite to be true. “There is total asymmetry between us and Hezbollah, and our job is to demonstrate to Hezbollah our might in action in the most muscular way possible.”
This doctrine signals a fundamental departure from the rules of engagement that Israel had followed in the decade prior to the 2006 war, especially since the April Understanding of 1996. In his book, Hezbollah’s second in command, Naim Qassem, described the April Understanding as having been “tailored to the Resistance’s demands.”
The agreement prohibited targeting civilian populated areas, but as Qassem explained, Hezbollah had its own reading of the clause forbidding the use of these areas as “launching grounds for attacks.” While the group didn’t have to fire from within villages, it could still retreat back into their safety, and also use them as logistical centers.
Especially following the 2006 war, turning the majority of the villages of South Lebanon into veritable clandestine military bases became an essential element of Hezbollah’s revamped infrastructure. Eizenkot’s doctrine addressed precisely this phenomenon. “These are not civilian villages, they are military bases,” he said in 2008. The senior officer’s comments last Sunday reaffirmed this doctrine.
Along with this reassertion, the officer presented Hezbollah with a choice: “They will have to think about whether they want it or not. I hope that Iran will not push them into a war that Iran will not pay the price for but that Lebanon will.” The aim behind this ominous formulation was to highlight the dilemma of Hezbollah’s chief, Hassan Nasrallah: balancing the obligation to obey Iran’s orders with the devastation that will befall his followers and Lebanon more broadly.
With Syria now in open rebellion against the Assad regime, the group’s dilemma has only deepened. One could easily detect it in Nasrallah’s recent interview with Julian Assange, where he made a point of referring to the 1996 April Understanding, whose framework he doubtless would wish still existed today.
That’s hardly the only thing Nasrallah cannot bring back. His once secure strategic depth in Syria is no longer reliable. Although he and his Iranian patrons have been doing their best over the last 14 months to help Assad put down the revolt against his rule, they have not been successful.
Making matters worse for Nasrallah, the decision to involve Hezbollah in a retaliatory strike against Israel is not his to make. Indeed, Yahya Rahim Safavi, military adviser to Iran’s Supreme Guide, Ali Khamenei, already declared last November that Tehran’s retaliation will come from Lebanon. All Nasrallah could do at the time was to call on his followers to jump with him into the fiery abyss.
Therefore, the real question, as that senior Israeli officer noted, is whether Khamenei will deem it worthwhile to ultimately issue that order to Nasrallah. This is especially so in light of the additional constraints that the deteriorating situation in Syria will impose on Hezbollah in a subsequent war with Israel.
In the end, it’s worth noting that Netanyahu has not presided over a war during his tenure. However, should he finally decide to launch an attack, the broad-based coalition he now has secured—with three former IDF chiefs of staff in his cabinet—will be a valuable asset reflecting the wide support his government enjoys.
In sharp contrast, Nasrallah’s margin is shrinking, and his position, both domestically and regionally, is increasingly strained.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.