WASHINGTON — Of the dangers presented by the conflict between Israel and Hizbullah in southern Lebanon, the possibility of a broader Middle East war is among the less likely.
In the 1967 Arab-Israeli war – and repeatedly since – Israel has shown its clear military supremacy. So dominant has been Israel's advantage in both technology and tactics that former foes such as Jordan and Egypt sued for peace in those wars, while Tel Aviv's avowed enemies – Syria and Iran – have turned to backing terrorists.
At this moment, the calculus doesn't appear to have changed. There is no coalition of Arab governments willing to unite militarily against Israel. Syria's military prowess has crumbled since the fall of the Soviet Union – its greatest benefactor – while Iran remains too geographically remote to strike effectively.
The result is a new paroxysm of the proxy war that has existed in the region for a generation – ebbing and flowing as Hizbullah, armed and financed by Iran and Syria, harass Israel without provoking a major Middle East war, military analysts say.
"No state is willing to deal with Israel conventionally," says Seth Jones, a terrorism expert at the RAND Corp.
The shape of the conflict so far – sparked by Hizbullah's raid into northern Israel and capture of two Israeli soldiers – reveals both the capabilities and limitations of each side.
Historically, Hizbullah has been able to do little more than nip at Israel's northern border with incursions and sporadic rocket attacks. By and large, its arsenal is primitive, comprising various short-range rockets that can destroy buildings only with a direct hit, yet are difficult to aim with any precision. It has continually fired rockets into northern Israel.
Yet there are signs of increasing sophistication, perhaps due to help from Iran, experts say. On Friday, Hizbullah launched a more advanced missile, which struck an Israeli warship. Hizbullah rockets are also penetrating deeper into Israel than ever before, with several striking Haifa, Israel's third-largest city, on Sunday. Israel claims that four of the missiles were the Iranian-made Fajr-3, with a 28-mile range.
For its part, Israel has so far relied mostly on air strikes as its military response. Monday, Israel acknowledged that its forces had invaded Lebanon, though they returned shortly after. Israel invaded southern Lebanon in 1982. Its army occupied the territory for three years, then withdrew because of the strain of the occupation and broad international condemnation.
History also offers a note of caution to Israel's foes. In 1967, Israel responded to Egyptian aggression by taking the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria. Years later, when Syria and Israel fought over control of Lebanon in 1982, Israeli jet fighters reportedly shot down 80 Syrian planes without losing any of its own.
Israel's military superiority is built on American support and a skill honed by decades of fighting for the very existence of the nation. Israel receives the best equipment that the United States can offer its allies. "They have some of the most highly advanced weapons systems in the world," says Dr. Jones.
Israel's air force, in particular, has no rival in the region, which makes air strikes the most effective – and most probable – means of Israeli retaliation and aggression. Yet Israel has so far focused most of its attacks on Lebanon, despite Hizbullah's links to Syria and Iran. Indeed, both sides have long used Lebanon as a way to harass the other, since Lebanon's military is almost irrelevant, analysts say.
Even though Israel accuses Syria and Iran of backing Hizbullah's attacks, it hesitates to attack them directly. The reason is simple: Though Syria's aging military is no match for Israel's, it has missiles that could strike any part of Israel, as well as stocks of chemical weapons. Moreover, the 60 miles from the Israeli border to the Syrian capital of Damascus is one of the most heavily fortified zones in the world.
"Syria doesn't have the capacity to win [a war against Israel], but it can cause lots of suffering," says Nadav Morag, former senior director for domestic policy in the Israel National Security Council.
By contrast, Iran presents a far more formidable challenge – but one that is so remote from Israel geographically as to make hostilities difficult. As with Syria, Iran's greatest threat lies in its missiles. Yet the prospect of firing missiles at America's greatest ally – at a time when it is surrounded by American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan – is decidedly risky.
Likewise, the notion of an Israeli air strike against Iran presents enormous logistical hurdles. Although Iran does not possess a credible air force and has only mid-grade Russian air-defense systems to contend with Israeli jets, Israel would surely be denied overfly rights by the Arab countries that surround them, meaning it would have to take a circuitous and difficult oversea route to Iran.
It would probably be a measure taken only as a last resort., Mr. Morag says.