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How Israel can be restrained as it eyes an attack on Lebanon

If a war were launched on Lebanon, it would not just be Lebanon at stake but the entire region (File/AFP)
If a war were launched on Lebanon, it would not just be Lebanon at stake but the entire region (File/AFP)
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15 May 2024 09:05:32 GMT9
15 May 2024 09:05:32 GMT9

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant last week warned of a “hot summer” with Lebanon. He said that Hezbollah had been pushed away from the border areas but it had not “disappeared.” This implies that, after Rafah, Israel will go north and hit Lebanon, hoping to weaken Hezbollah and prevent it from reconstituting itself, at least in the short to medium term. However, Hezbollah is not Hamas. It is far more powerful. Hezbollah is also far more important to Iran than Hamas. All this means that a war with Lebanon would turn into a regional war.

A war has many unforeseeable consequences. Wars are endeavors usually undertaken with a high degree of uncertainty. Regarding Hezbollah, the uncertainty for Israel is the greatest. Despite the different assessments and intelligence reports, no one really knows Hezbollah’s capabilities. It is said that the group has 200,000 missiles, many of which are precision-guided. Does anyone know how the group operates its arsenal? Can it fire them simultaneously, hence overwhelming Israel’s Iron Dome defense system? What is the range of Hezbollah’s missiles? Can they reach Haifa or Tel Aviv? No one really knows.

Waging a war would be a big risk, especially if Iran gives Hezbollah its air defenses. So far, Iran has kept its air defense system on its own territory. However, late last year, reports started emerging that Iran was planning to supply its Khordad-15 advanced medium-to-high-altitude air defense missile system to its proxies in Syria and Lebanon. If this is as effective as Iran claims it to be, this would be a game-changer in any potential fight with Israel. One thing is for sure, for Iran, Hezbollah is its first line of defense against Israel. Protecting Hezbollah means protecting Iran. Tehran will mobilize Hezbollah if attacked and will also use all its capabilities to protect the group.

A war on Lebanon would definitely not be a walk in the park. What any observer can deduct is that Hezbollah does not want war. However, parties usually go to war not because they want to or because it is in their interests to do so, but because they have no other choice.

A strike on Lebanon would be very unlikely to permanently eliminate the threat posed by Hezbollah

Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib

Iran will not watch its main deterrence get destroyed. It will mobilize. The report about the transfer of its air defense system shows that Iran will not spare any tool to defend the group. Hence, the US should make sure to tame Israel. So far, Israel has been unhinged. Despite the calls not to enter Rafah, Tel Aviv gave the US a slap in the face and is now conducting an assault. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week bluntly rebuked American President Joe Biden and said Israel would conduct the incursion with or without the US’ blessing.

A regional war would definitely not help Biden in the upcoming presidential election. A recent poll conducted by The New York Times showed that Biden is trailing Trump in five key states, as young and nonwhite voters are dissatisfied with the economy and his handling of the war in Gaza. Hence, the US should coerce Israel into stopping the war, or at least prevent a strike on Lebanon. An attack on Lebanon would lead to a regional war and would not eradicate Hezbollah. It can merely give Israel five to 10 years of peace of mind. After an Israeli strike, the group might be busy reconstituting itself and managing internal divisions, but it would not go away.

Therefore, a strike on Lebanon would have grave repercussions for the region and for the US. At the same time, it is very unlikely that it would achieve the goal of permanently eliminating the threat posed by Hezbollah.

The US should do its best to contain the situation. So far, beyond the narrative, the US is not really restraining Netanyahu. If the US is incapable of preventing Netanyahu from going into Rafah, where the civilian population is concentrated and has nowhere to go, would it be willing and able to prevent him from going into Lebanon? Maybe not. However, the stakes are really high for the US and for Biden personally.

The US should invite a strong state to be the core of any buffer between Lebanon and Israel

Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib

Though the US and its regional allies do not want the war to spread to Lebanon, they do not want to hand a win to Iran. They definitely do not want to see Hamas or Hezbollah emerge victorious. On the other hand, the Israelis might say that they need assurance that what happened on Oct. 7 will never happen at their northern border. In this respect, the US should work hard to make sure there is a solid buffer between Israel and Hezbollah — a buffer that cannot be broken and that will restrict the freedom of Hezbollah to operate in the south of Lebanon, while also restraining Israel.

Perhaps the Kosovo model should be revisited. Kosovo was successful because it had one strong state that was ready to deploy: the US. Hence, no one wanted to mess around with the Americans. The US should invite a strong state to be the core of any buffer between Lebanon and Israel. It would also be the security guarantor. A security guarantor that can make sure Hezbollah keeps its arms in the basement and that keeps Israel from attacking Lebanon or breaching its airspace.

The risks are too high and the current arrangement, which is led by the UN Interim Force in Lebanon, is not enough. If anything happened to break the status quo, who would be held responsible? The UN? The individual observers? The UN mission alone cannot make sure that both parties abide by UN Security Council Resolution 1701. There is a need for a security guarantor.

I suggested in a previous article Turkiye could play this role. This would also help balance out the Iranian influence. In a nutshell, the US should make sure to impose a buffer that removes the possibility of a war on Lebanon. Again, if a war were launched on Lebanon, it would not just be Lebanon at stake but the entire region.

  • Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese nongovernmental organization focused on Track II.
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