Israeli forces prepare to cross into Lebanon during the Second Lebanon War in August 2006.(Shaul Schwarz/Getty Images)
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The Next Lebanon War

A Lebanon-Israel conflict is a matter of when, not if, and the United States has an interest in the outcome

Lee Smith
June 23, 2010
Israeli forces prepare to cross into Lebanon during the Second Lebanon War in August 2006.(Shaul Schwarz/Getty Images)

In Washington the assumption is that it’s only a matter of time before Israel and Hezbollah will be at war again. But what’s worse is that, according to policymakers and analysts I’ve spoken to, the United States is sharply opposed to Israel finishing the work it failed to get done in its two previous Lebanon wars (1982-2000; 2006). This isn’t just because the Obama Administration wants to keep things cool in the region to allow for relatively peaceful U.S. withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan and to keep terrorists off the streets of U.S. cities. The more disturbing reason is that Israel is no longer trusted to do the job right.

Once regarded as a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Eastern Mediterranean, Israel is now perceived, correctly or not, as a strategic liability. Before the flotilla incident last month—an event that, yet again, earned Israel the opprobrium of the international community—there was the Gaza war in the winter of 2008 to 2009, an inconclusive battle that ended with Hamas still in control and with the Israelis ultimately having to face the Goldstone Report. In July 2006 there was the Second Lebanon War, popularly understood as a Hezbollah victory—or as its Secretary General, Hassan Nasrallah, describes it, a divine victory. But perhaps Israel’s largest strategic blunder was its 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon. Even while Defense Minister Ehud Barak continues to defend the decision he made as prime minister, the facts are clear: Israel abandoned its ally in the South Lebanese Army, made its citizens vulnerable to Hezbollah rockets, and effectively rewarded terrorism as a negotiating tool. Now Hezbollah has 40,000 missiles and rockets.

It is peculiar that most U.S. policymakers and bureaucrats do not believe that the United States has an interest in pushing back against an Iranian asset in the Eastern Mediterranean and going after a terrorist group that operates inside U.S. borders. But the fact is that if Israel has become a strategic liability, U.S. policymakers—from the Clinton Administration through the Bush and Obama Administrations—have helped make it one, forcing Jerusalem to accommodate terrorists and the states that support them, thereby putting our own interests and citizens under fire. Now, instead of asking how we can ensure that our ally wins its next war with the Shia militia, the question in Washington’s halls of power, its think tanks, and dining rooms is: How do we deter Israel from going to war against Hezbollah?

It seems they can’t. Perhaps the Syrians will cross another red line by sending advanced weapons across the border with Lebanon, maybe war will be in response to an Israeli attack on Hezbollah’s sponsor in Tehran, or maybe the casus belli will be another mishap in the wake of another freedom flotilla or a Hezbollah assassination of an Israel official. One likely excuse for Hezbollah’s next war against Israel is the discovery of sizable natural gas deposits off of Israel’s coast. Alongside the Tamar and Dalit fields, the recently discovered Leviathan field will make Israel a net exporter of energy. Since the fields are adjacent to Lebanon’s territorial waters, the Lebanese are already clamoring that the Israelis have stolen their resources.

“If Lebanon needed to pile up hundreds, thousands of rockets to protect our sovereignty, dignity, and hydraulic resources, then the need to protect our hydrocarbon assets motivates us to enhance the Resistance’s capacities,” says Sayyed Hashem Safieddine, head of Hezbollah’s executive council and a cousin to Secretary General Nasrallah. The idea that the United States should get Israel to relinquish its claims on the Shebaa Farms, an insignificant piece of land in the Golan Heights that the Shia militia uses as a cause to justify maintaining tens of thousands of rockets and other offensive weapons, is now off the table for the good. The natural gas fields are Shebaa on steroids, and no one can afford to fool themselves that Hezbollah will ever willingly disarm.

Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon’s Druze clan, understands both the logic of Hezbollah’s eternal resistance and the reluctance of Washington and Europe to confront it, which is why the former hero of Lebanon’s pro-democracy movement has jumped sides. Jumblatt is certain that there will be a renewal of hostilities. He assumes that as Israel pushes into Lebanon and drives the resistance northward, his fiefdom in the Shouf Mountains will be flooded with Hezbollah fighters. And so the man whose Druze community fought the Party of God to a standstill in May 2008 while the rest of the world looked on and did nothing now says: “The arms of the Resistance are crucial for defending Lebanon’s offshore petroleum resources.”

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri is also convinced that war with Israel is inevitable. His patrons in Saudi Arabia convinced him to make his peace with Damascus, because Riyadh calculates that an Israeli attack on Iran and Hezbollah will reshuffle the deck at which time Hariri can put his house in order. The Israelis say that they will hold the Lebanese government responsible for Hezbollah’s actions and make the whole country pay, but they might as well blame Harry Potter’s magic wand, for the source of the problem is in Damascus and Tehran. Still, it is foolish for Hariri to side openly with the resistance, as he has, even as he imagines his governing partners in Hezbollah do not recognize that he is going from one Western capital to another asking the Europeans and Americans to tell the Israelis to target Hezbollah and leave the rest of Lebanon alone.

Hariri has staked the future of his country on the clarifying violence of war, a conflict waged on his behalf by an enemy state against a domestic enemy that has taken over Lebanon. But what if there is no war? After all, Hezbollah doesn’t want war right now; it can’t afford another conflict like 2006. To be sure, Nasrallah’s management of what he calls the divine victory counts as one of the most brilliant campaigns in the history of information warfare. A man bunkered for the rest of his life has convinced the world that he won while his wardens lost.

But of course, Lebanon’s Shia are like all other men—they bleed and die and know when they have been decimated. For instance, during Israel’s war with Gaza in the winter of 2008 to 2009, when a small quiver of rockets was fired against Israel from southern Lebanon, Shia left their homes in droves fearing Israeli retaliation. The Lebanese government was incapable of processing all the passport requests from southerners who wanted to leave the country and remove the targets from their heads for good. In spite of the quasi-hysterical pitch of Hezbollah’s rhetoric over the last few months, they will be careful about starting a war that may turn the Shia community of the south into permanent refugees.

As for Hezbollah’s sponsor in Tehran, the question is how the Islamic Republic conceives of its nuclear program. If a bomb is the regime’s grand prize and the historical patrimony of the Persian nation, then Tehran has no choice but to unleash Hezbollah in retaliation should the Israelis, or the United States, strike. However, if the Iranians conceive of the bomb as just one asset among others in the regime’s arsenal, then it may pause before spending Hezbollah, another expensive investment, at a moment when Israel’s response is likely to be particularly fierce.

Regardless of how Israel’s enemies game it out, sooner rather than later, Jerusalem is going to have to make war on Hezbollah, because the United States is withdrawing from the region, Israel is getting weaker, and its enemies are getting stronger. The only way to ratify or challenge a new balance of forces in the region is through war. Someone will miscalculate or decide that war serves their interests or both.

In the next round, says Nasrallah, Israeli ships will be targeted. In the next round, says Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the war will be widened and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his “family will lose power.” As the rhetoric becomes more expansive, strategic aims will shift. For instance, if Israeli ground forces cannot destroy the long-range missiles that Hezbollah has hidden under schools and hospitals in order to deter pre-emptive Israeli air strikes for fear of civilian casualties and Hezbollah fires on Israeli cities, then the rules will change.

Maybe Saad Hariri is right—that the cancer of Hezbollah can be excised and Lebanon will survive the operation. Or perhaps Lebanon at this point is no longer a country but merely a human shield, captive to Hezbollah and its own inability to imagine the limits of its mortality. In this regard, the Lebanese responses to the Gaza incident last month have been especially poignant. The organizer of the women’s “Freedom Flotilla,” scheduled to leave from the northern Lebanese port of Tripoli this week, is the wife of one of the Lebanese generals allegedly responsible for the murder of Saad’s father, Rafik Hariri, believed to have been killed on the orders of Bashar al-Assad. In other words, the inhabitants of an entity whose public officials murder each other for the benefit of foreign powers have censured a state that protects its citizens by controlling its borders.

Natural gas deposits have also been found in Lebanese territorial waters, which while not as large as Israel’s would go a long way to building up the finances of one of the world’s most indebted states. And yet for all the talent that the Lebanese have for doing business even under the worst of circumstances, those fields will never be developed. The equipment alone is too costly, the investment too dear to hazard on a state run by a terror organization working at the behest of two foreign powers.

In the end, this is why Israel will have to go to war once again. The issue is not merely in rolling back Iranian influence and disabling a terrorist organization whose tentacles reach U.S. shores. Rather, it is a conflict pitting two worldviews against each other, a conflict that has nothing to do with any putative war between the West and Islam, but with two differing forms of social and political organization. On one hand, there is a state with its attendant institutions that embody several thousand years’ worth of the principles and ideals that led to political modernity. On the other hand, there is the primordial chaos of tribal competition throughout a region where violence and obscurantism rule, where “national interest” is a euphemism for the bloody work that security services employ against their countrymen to keep tyrants in power. The United States has an interest in that war coming out right.

Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.