Hezbollah fighters rise their group flags and shout slogans, as they attend the funeral procession of their two comrades who were killed by Israeli shelling, in Kherbet Selem village, south Lebanon, Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023. The Iran-backed group Monday night announced that three militants died following heavy Israeli shelling in border towns across southern Lebanon.…
After the tragedy of Hamas’ surprise attack in Israel’s south, can Israel live with a far greater threat on its northern border — the terrorist state of Hezbollah that controls Lebanon?
The Biden administration has made it clear to Israel that it would not support an Israeli preemptive action against Hezbollah, not wanting it to ignite a regional war America would be pulled into. We also have to acknowledge, which the administration has been reluctant to do, that most of the problems of the Middle East are due to Iran and its desire for regional dominance. Ironically, if the Biden administration announced it holds Iran responsible for Hezbollah’s actions, that would decrease the chance of a war from the north.
Iran’s Supreme Leader controls Hezbollah, according to their interpretation of Twelver Shiitism. Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, follows the orders of the Ayatollah. He is not independent of Iran like the Sunni Hamas organization, which chooses to take one hundred million dollars per year from Iran due to its their shared goal of eliminating the Jewish state. Hezbollah and Iran are always on the same page, unlike their terrorist associates to the south, Hamas, who were, for example, on different sides of the Syrian civil war.
What would it take to plunge Israel’s northern border into a major war? One can conjecture that if Tel Aviv’s Azrieli skyscrapers were destroyed, reminiscent of the World Trade Center on 9/11, or a direct hit was perpetrated on the Knesset or Dimona, Israel’s nuclear facility, that would rise to the level demanding an overwhelming Israeli response.
But mistakes in the northern war can happen if Hezbollah sends a missile towards a moshav or northern city, striking a school and killing hundreds of civilians. Could Israel restrain itself under tremendous pressure from the Biden administration, which would rather let Hezbollah have a war of attrition than allow all-out regional war? Would President Biden allow a war of attrition with Mexican drug cartels, periodically sending hundreds of rockets into California, Texas, and Arizona, killing American civilians and soldiers?
The association is not just theoretical. Drug cartels already work with Hezbollah to launder their money, enriching both terrorist groups.
Suppose Hezbollah’s actions cross an Israeli red line, rising to a level where the Jewish state is no longer willing to incur devastating losses from Hezbollah’s 150,000 missiles and the thousands of rockets that Iran controls in Syria, Iraq, the West Bank, and Yemen. Would America remain supportive of Israel?
If Israel asks for help, would Biden unleash the full force of our carrier strike groups to help Israel devastate Hezbollah, a neighbor whose avowed raison d’être is the destruction of Israel? Iran and its proxies aim to make living in Israel untenable and force a migration, making the Jewish state more vulnerable in a future war.
Already, Israelis who live in the north believe they cannot return to their homes if Hezbollah continues to indiscriminately target civilians and threaten an invasion at any time. But is there any safe place in Israel anymore? I learned in Israel from the first day of the war that this is an existential crisis; it is 1948, with Israel fighting for its very right to exist.
I have visited Hezbollah’s most sophisticated tunnel into Israel, over twenty stories deep and a half mile long underground. It was built to allow hundreds of Hezbollah terrorists to invade Israeli communities in minutes.
Hezbollah dwarfs Hamas in its capabilities.
The question in Israel is never whether, but when the next attack will occur. Hezbollah was built to destroy Israel. It is unknown whether Iran wants to use its power now after Israel gets entrenched in Gaza or hold it for another day as part of their long-term strategy to eliminate the Jewish state. Many analysts think the presence of the American carrier groups has changed the Iranian calculus; perhaps they are willing simply to enjoy the devastation their Hamas ally has done to the Israeli psyche and wait for another day.
But if Hezbollah does attack, or Israel’s political leadership concludes that they cannot live with the menace of Hezbollah threatening Israel from the north indefinitely, will America join the fight, or will it be a paper tiger?
If America chooses to kinetically engage Hezbollah and help Israel decrease the threat from the north, this would restrain Iranian expansionism, give the Iranian people hope that they can overthrow their Islamist government, resurrect the Israeli-Saudi normalization process, and send a message to China to keep its hands off Taiwan.
However, even if you could destroy Hezbollah, its radical ideology cannot be washed away. According to Washington Institute polls, over 90 percent of Lebanese Shiites have a positive attitude toward Hezbollah, year-in and year-out.
Being perceived as strong and willing to use force is necessary for survival in the Middle East. It decreases the chance of future war, as it means that adversaries will think twice before acting. Iranian proxy strikes over the years against American forces and assets in the Middle East have rarely led to any significant consequences. This week, the Pentagon reported fourteen attacks against American forces in the Middle East, with twenty-four servicemen injured.
This spring, the American Ambassador to Qatar in Doha said that we had not responded to Iranian provocations because everyone knows we have the strongest military in the world. But if you allow attacks against our soldiers in places like al Tanf in Syria, that is perceived as a weakness, not a strength.
The question is, are America’s and Israel’s strategic goals for the day after this war ends the same concerning Hamas and Hezbollah? It could create the daylight Obama sought between the U.S. and Israel if they are not. Right now, their tactical coordination is unprecedented. But it will be tested if a northern war becomes a regional one.
This article originally appeared in The Hill on October 31, 2023
Eric Mandel is the Director of the Middle East Political Information Network and senior security editor for the Jerusalem Report.