U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres is worried that an all-out war between Hezbollah and Israel may soon engulf the Middle East, even though neither party wants to fight. “Sometimes a spark is enough to unleash this kind of conflict,” Guterres warned on Sunday. But how, exactly? Ben Hubbard, Isabel Kershner and Anne Barnard of The New York Times were quick to echo and explain. “[T]he more entrenched Iran’s allies become, the greater the pressure Israeli leaders could face to launch a strike—and the greater the chances that a miscalculation or mistake by either side could provoke new hostilities,” they reasoned.
The U.N. chief and the Times reporters could find ample support in their notions of Middle Eastern causality in the most recent report of the International Crisis Group (ICG), which warned that a regional war that “no one wants” could be only “a miscalculation away.” The idea that a war between Hezbollah and Israel would be an accident—the result of a “mistake” or “miscalculation” rather than a considered choice—is repeatedly made throughout ICG’s latest report, and arguably stands as the organization’s core claim from which all its analyses and recommendations flow. As Joost Hiltermann, program director for the Middle East and North Africa at ICG, explained further in his own comments on the report, “The real [emphasis added] risk here is that of a miscommunication or accident being a trigger of a conflict across their border.”
I should note here that the ICG generally does excellent work. When I first arrived in Lebanon in February 2004—and for several years thereafter—the ICG’s periodic reports on the Levant were invaluable for my understanding of the nature of the various conflicts within and between Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine. Two of the most enriching aspects were the historical reviews that customarily undergirded each report as well as the critical expositions of the ideological bases of the conflicts. The reader was usually treated in both the main text and the footnotes to an analysis of, say, Hezbollah’s ideological origins, its historical fluctuations, and its current positioning. This sort of treatment ran throughout ICG’s work and, as such, provided a particularly strong analytical foundation for their brand of bold, conflict mitigation and peace-building recommendations.
Fast forward to ICG’s latest report last week warning of a potentially climactic clash in the Levant, titled “Israel, Hezbollah and Iran: Preventing Another War,” and much of the historical and ideological frameworks that are evidently lubricating what is now routinely described as an “inevitable” regional conflict are largely absent. One is therefore left with a present-day set of disembodied “actors” that could simply “miscalculate” and therefore “inadvertently” spark a descent into wide-ranging violence. As for why this all may happen, little guidance is provided beyond the matter-of-fact statement that the crossing any of several (apparently shifting) “redlines” will likely trigger some kind of military action.
ICG’s extremely stripped-down policy recommendations for preventing the “next war” (Europe and European pressure are not even mentioned) are equally hobbled. No systematic historical or ideological basis is provided as to why, for example: “Israel [would] acquiesce in foreign forces remaining in the rest of Syria pending a deal on the country’s future;” why Russia might want to or be able to constrain its vital allies Iran and Hezbollah; or why Iran and Hezbollah themselves might submit to ICG’s key recommendation of “halt[ing] [their] construction of precision missile facilities and [their] military infrastructure in Syria,” much less in Lebanon where, incredibly, no recommendations are forthcoming despite ICG’s estimation that this effort restarted as of early 2018? Indeed, the only justification for why any of the powers involved might take up ICG’s recommendations seems to be, simply, that “everyone stands to lose from an intensification of the Syrian war.”
As we know from so many past conflicts, however, this brand of “balance of terror” argument can easily crumble as a result of underestimation or mistakes as well as—crucially—plainly irrational decision-making, perceived ideological necessity and/or rational calculations (defined by any one of the sides gauging their long-term interests or moral thresholds). Perhaps not surprisingly then, the different parties to the conflict have invested considerable resources in parroting the first part of the analysis since they are, without exception, eager to absolve themselves of any moral or political responsibility for their choices going forward. After all, as ICG uncritically quotes one Hezbollah official (along with several Israeli and Iranian officials along similar lines), nobody “wants war” so, presumably, no one will be guilty for kicking it off; everyone’s hands will have been “forced” by someone else’s mistakes or outright malignity.
But now is not the time to explore why or to what extent the head of the United Nations, the Times’ Middle East desk, and the world’s premier conflict mitigation group have all gone down this particular road. Given the unprecedented military engagements this month over the skies of Syria, Lebanon, and Israel, the pace leading up to what should properly be termed the first Israel-“Resistance Axis” War has quickened considerably, adding urgency to the central task of better understanding what is happening and then proposing policies commensurate with the extreme level of danger that the region, Europe and perhaps the international system as a whole now faces.
Beyond the moral deficiency of accepting the “accidental war” thesis as a necessary and predictive one, at least two other problems present themselves.
First, as ICG itself points out in its report, Hezbollah, Iran and its allies are quietly and deliberately building up their military power while Israel is quite openly and deliberately calculating a variety of self-proclaimed “pre-emptive” attack strategies across Lebanon and Syria (perhaps even including Iran) in the hopes of stopping something deemed existential: the significant degradation of its Qualitative Military Edge (QME). Should one of the Israeli attack scenarios come to pass in Lebanon specifically—for example, a more limited strike that Israel has now effectively promised against “precision weapons facilities”—a broader war would be enormously difficult for any of the sides to resist. This is because contrary to ICG’s claim that Hezbollah has generally “signaled that the consequences of such a strike [in Lebanon] are unpredictable”—ICG incorrectly extrapolates comments concerning Syria by one Hezbollah official to include Lebanon—the secretary general of the Party, Hassan Nasrallah, has actually repeatedly made clear that Israeli attacks in Lebanon would warrant commensurate counterattacks into Israel, including from Lebanon. He has even specifically said, “If you bomb our factories, we will bomb your factories.” Israeli leaders, on balance, seem to implicitly understand that this sequence of events would very likely mean an all-out confrontation because, as but one indication, there have been no substantial military strikes in Lebanon even as Israel has conducted “thousands of missions” in Syria and has repeatedly cited the “unacceptable” danger that the alleged Hezbollah weapons program in Lebanon represents.
ICG, however, asserts that the Israeli “military establishment assesses it could [engage in a limited strike in Lebanon] without provoking an all-out confrontation.” This kind of broad supposition, when combined with the faulty extrapolation from the one Hezbollah official above, allows ICG and many others to claim that a terrible war might “perhaps” arrive as the result of “miscalculation” rather than deliberate, well-acknowledged actions and reactions by the various sides. Unfortunately for the prospects of stability, ICG’s confident assumption is not only contradicted by a multitude of Hezbollah’s statements and the lack of Israeli action in Lebanon to this point, it is also undermined by the official fighting posture of both the State of Israel and Hezbollah.
Inexplicably, however, ICG fails even to mention, much less discuss, either the Dahiye or Tel Aviv Doctrines, despite the fact that the former was largely devised by the current IDF chief of staff and calls for “apply[ing] disproportionate force” in the event of a substantial attack from Lebanon. Because Hezbollah’s doctrine calls for hitting Israel as hard as Lebanon is hit, i.e., by bringing down factories or buildings if Israel does so, both actors have publicly locked themselves into what Israeli officials have termed “the proverbial kindergarten” scenario: A substantial attack on “precision missile factories” in Lebanon, one that would do the stated job of seriously degrading a core Hezbollah capability, will lead to counter-strikes against Israeli military bases and factories. To expect that a kindergarten, or anything, for that matter, equal to the impact of killing a large number of school children, doesn’t then get hit either deliberately or mistakenly—and therefore activates the full extent of both Doctrines—is betting along the lines of Lottery odds. Which is to say, a wholly irrational calculation. In fact, this is precisely why the overwhelming majority of public analysis concerning both doctrines has repeatedly emphasized that the 12 years of relative “quiet” along the Lebanon-Israel border has largely been determined by a frank private recognition among the different sides that meaningful strikes in Lebanon by Israel (or the reverse) inexorably leads to full war.
There is, in short, no “bloody nose,” “mowing the grass,” or “Little Pines” (as in the original “limited” 1982 Israeli invasion plan for Lebanon) strategy when it comes to a “pre-emptive” attack by Israel that would adequately degrade its enemies’ power in Lebanon. Nevertheless, and even though the combatants appear to be quite cognizant of this, the main sides are evidently and consciously continuing to move further and further down a path they all say publicly they “don’t want.”
The central problem here—beyond the severe problem that all of this is leading to a massive war—is that by not at least exploring the history and meaning of the combatants’ own fighting postures and their own discourses over the years, whilst suggesting that the Israeli military as a whole unambiguously assesses that a limited strike could in fact work, ICG dramatically undermines its own stated purpose of raising the alarm about precisely how dangerous the situation has become. After all, if an underestimation or “miscalculation” of Hezbollah’s response to a “limited” attack in Lebanon is the primary deficiency—and nobody “wants war” in any case—then one can safely assume that strictly construed rationality is preponderant among the different sides. As such, all the potential combatants just need to better understand each other’s positions, move a bit farther away from each other, accept some face-saving but hollow “reconciliations” in Syria and reduce their force projection in order to avert a major war (i.e., ICG’s core recommendations).
But the situation has moved well beyond strictly construed rationality. Although there is a slim chance of some field mistake or false flag setting off a war, the far more powerful reason leading to disaster needs to be said clearly and as loudly as possible: Hezbollah, Iran and their allies are consciously and progressively choosing to degrade Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge to a point where Israel will have to choose between a “pre-emptive” strike leading to a wide-scale war or one of several non-war options at least some Israelis believe are available to it.
Which leads to the second problem with the “miscalculation” formula posed by ICG and so many others: A tendency to diminish the irrational, ideological drivers that are arguably at the heart of the current march towards war. As ICG sees it, “today, none of the parties can soberly contemplate the prospect of a conflict that would be uncontrolled, unprecedented and unscripted.” But what if several of the parties are, in fact, “soberly” planning for and taking steps that will very likely lead to all-out war, as described above, even as they ready their constituencies to blame the other side for forcing a “war of no choice”? And what if the different sides even desire a climatic confrontation for moral, religious or even long-term strategic reasons and are willing to take an ends-justifies-the-means approach when it comes to the morality of their own actions? Indeed, what if some of the sides think they could actually weather such a war as their enemies likely fade away? These are all crucial questions to examine for anyone invested in peace-building since they further raise the urgency of the matter at hand whilst also precipitating a cry for more radical actions by the actors involved and the international community in general.
As a first exercise in this regard, by just analyzing public statements from Hezbollah over the decades and especially statements by Nasrallah, numerous indications emerge that the Party’s discourse is guided by pragmatism, rationality and (on some occasions) Iranian strategic interests but also by a messianic faith in its moral and religious mission. Indeed, as Nasrallah imagined it almost exactly eight years ago, this inherent contradiction is at the heart of the entire “Resistance” project and a key aspect influencing its posture towards conflict with its primary enemy, Israel:
In the last war we told you that if you hit Beirut we would hit Tel Aviv. We do not want war; we do not want anyone in Lebanon to start theorizing about the war-and-peace decision. We do not want war, not because we are afraid, and not because we are cowards or weak. We crave war but we do not want it. We do not want it but we crave it. [Applause] But we told you that if you launch a war, and if you hit the Suburb the next time round, we will hit Tel Aviv [Applause].
By incessantly building up its military power and securing both Syria and Lebanon (not to mention an even wider strategic depth beyond both), Hezbollah has said that it knows it is steadily degrading Israel’s vital QME. In the party’s view, this is a combined moral, religious, Arab and national duty. If this “deterrence equation,” as Nasrallah puts it, leads to a terrible war—one that the Party justifies on the basis of both rational considerations as well as a deep “craving”—then so be it. Ultimately, it will be Israel’s fault since, as Nasrallah has also explained on numerous occasions, the Party and its allies have said that they are presenting the Israelis with a “peace” option, albeit one that the current Israeli body politic will not possibly accept. Accede to a diminished balance of power with the “Resistance Axis,” Nasrallah has suggested, while radically scaling back your negotiating demands with the Palestinians and the Arab states so you can reduce your overall threat via a final settlement, or choose to pre-emptively attack us.
This is, in effect, the “peace plan” that Nasrallah has been deftly “encouraging” Arab states—and Israel, at least rhetorically—to pursue for more than a decade as a way to stave off the climactic war he says his party both “craves” and doesn’t “want”:
How can these [Arab] states secure a just and honorable settlement between quotes,” he once asked? ”Does the Israeli recognize them in the first place? I tell you: The Israelis today view the Resistance and the resistance men in Lebanon with great respect. As for all those lowly ones, they are not worth anything. Even the Arab [Peace Plan] calls for a stand. It calls for men and power. If you can’t use power, you can at least threaten with it. The talk that we are weak will not do. … Realistic political behavior [says:] first convince the Israelis of the need to have a just and comprehensive peace before asking the resistance movement to lay down its arms… Even those who have opted for a settlement have a need for this resistance. Indeed, we want them [the Arab states] to benefit from the resistance.
Of course, Nasrallah and Hezbollah know that there is little chance of the Israelis changing the hardware and software of their negotiating position on the moribund peace process, much less accepting a greatly strengthened “Resistance Axis” in the process (whether they should or not is a different matter). So, as Hezbollah and its allies continue to pursue a military buildup, rather than a pause or a reduction in their strength, all the parties knowingly move forward to war, albeit with Nasrallah in the quite advantageous position of forcing Israel to decide if it will be the one to attack first.
As if all that wasn’t enough, there is an additional powerful element that hampers a reversal of course by any of the parties: The prospect of total victory. “In the next war we will triumph,” Nasrallah has repeatedly promised, “and change the features of the region” decisively, including ending the Jewish state of Israel and realizing one democratic state of Palestine (in his preferred, though exceedingly vague formulation over the decades, some number of Jewish “settlers” would have to emigrate).
Can he and the Party actually believe this? In fact, the answer is yes and not just for seemingly messianic reasons. Nasrallah (and quite a few “Resistance Axis” officials) have consistently laid out what they believe to be a “reasonable” path to winning. It recognizes the power of the Dahiye Doctrine and recognizes that Lebanon will likely be turned into a proverbial parking lot as a result of its implementation (Syria is already partially destroyed). But in the next war, Hezbollah will be joined by tens of thousands of skilled fighters (if not more) from around the wider Middle East (especially regional Shia militias). The full power and depth of Iran, Syria and Gaza, at least, will also stand together on a vast “Resistance Axis” frontline enveloping tiny Israel. Perhaps most importantly, however, the imbalance in either side’s ability to bear war and intense pain will ultimately push the “Resistance Axis” to victory. “Our adversaries,” Nasrallah once explained, “cannot comprehend that this battle has entered a totally different stage. This new stage’s motive, title, and incentive are the belief in God, trust in God, content in God, dependence on God, and hope to win God’s reward whatever the worldly results were. In such cases,” he added, in an uncanny parallel to the threat that lies at the heart of Israel’s nuclear program, “the ability to bear calamities and to stand the loss of the beloved, the dear, the children, money and wealth becomes something else.”
In this scenario then, Lebanon would certainly lie in ruins as per the Dahiye Doctrine. But Israel will also be severely damaged, enough, “Resistance Axis” officials seem to think, that a massive emigration would ensue. In the wreckage—supposedly—the region would eventually recalibrate itself, perhaps even, Hezbollah certainly hopes, toward some kind of a system akin to that which the party doctrinally adheres: the guardianship of the jurisprudent, i.e., a clerically guided republic. As Nasrallah put it last month in a TV interview: “I said to the mujahedeen of the resistance: Prepare yourselves for a day when you may be asked by the command of the resistance to enter the Galilee or to liberate it. As for what lies beyond the Galilee, it is connected to the general idea. … Regardless of the number of missiles we possess, trust me: You do not need 100,000-200,000 missiles to defeat the Israeli enemy. This is what terrifies the Israelis. They themselves say this. The Israelis themselves say: ‘Hezbollah does not need 100,000 missiles. If Hezbollah has several dozen accurate missiles, and if it selects its targets accurately, it will inflict a great catastrophe upon us.’ ”
When it comes to the Israeli side, too, the ideological factors involved—beyond the possible “miscalculations” of strictly rational actors—should not be underestimated either. Nor should the widespread public discourse confidently predicting victory given certain structural advantages Israel would seem to have, including its three-layered Iron Dome, its overwhelming firepower and this unique moment of strong U.S. and Sunni Arab state backing for it.
Indeed, as on the ‘Resistance Axis” side, all of these aspects need to be fully interrogated by those who have demonstrated a deep understanding of the different lines of thought among Israeli decision-makers and the Israeli body politic over the decades. As but one small example complicating ICG’s claim that nobody in Israel desires a new war, Thomas Rick’s wrote recently for Foreign Policy that, “conversations with Israelis these days tend to end up in one place: casus belli. Specifically, the casus belli—the one that will spark the next war in Lebanon.” Israel, he writes further, “isn’t necessarily trying to avoid this war, however ugly it promises to be. Indeed, Israelis generally agree the clash is unavoidable and possibly opportune…”
Analyses like this would seem to lend credence to the widely held sense over the past 12 years that there is a barely latent desire on both sides of the border for a “climactic round” given that the end of the last Israel-Hezbollah war in August 2006 was frustratingly indecisive (for Israel) and perceived as just the beginning of a much anticipated final victory (by Hezbollah). What role might a strong desire to significantly hurt Hezbollah (and Iran) play in tipping Israel towards launching pre-emptive strikes in Lebanon rather than pursuing non-military options? What role, for that matter, does Zionism and the history of the State of Israel play in maintaining Israel’s iron belief in an enduring QME advantage over its enemies? ICG itself recommends that Israel essentially live with the bolstered presence of Iranian and Hezbollah forces in Syria (it leaves out any recommendations for how Israel should deal with the crucial issue of Hezbollah’s allegedly re-started precision weapons program in Lebanon). But how might it be possible—in terms of pure rationality, political self-interest or ideological path dependency—for Israel to change its position on its own QME and accept such a recommendation? And if it should affect a major strategic and ideological shift when it comes to Syria (in exchange for some carrots there), should it also accept the same kind of bargain in Lebanon (and what bargain exactly?) where the danger of sparking an all-out war is most evident?
By not raising or answering these questions—in effect, ignoring the deliberateness of each side’s march to war and then dispensing with a rigorous analysis of the substantial ideological and historical dimensions of enmity—ICG not only undercuts the impact of its warning to the international community, it also fails to provide a basis for understanding why any of the sides might agree to its recommendations. Indeed, as mentioned above, the only rationale we are treated to in their latest report is the hope that all of the potential combatants might somehow come to their senses and realize that “everyone stands to lose” if the current trajectory holds. But, as we have also seen, there is much in the public domain from the two opposed sides that suggests they each think they will be perfectly capable of bearing the pain of an all-out war which they may partially desire anyway. One side might even emerge as a decisive winner for years, if not decades, to come as both Hezbollah and Israeli officials have specifically predicted.
All of which should prompt peace-building organizations, diplomats and potentially affected citizens to hold the combatants rigorously to account for the choices that they are making right now whilst, perhaps most importantly, demanding a far more expansive discussion about all of the waning nonmilitary options that might prevent the “Israel-Resistance Axis War” from coming to pass.
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