'Balance of terror' sustains tense calm between Hezbollah and Israel

On the fifth anniversary of the 2006 war between Israel and the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah, the border remains calm as both sides worry about the scale of devastation a new war would bring.

By , Correspondent , Correspondent

As Lebanon’s militant Shiite group Hezbollah and the Israeli army prepare to mark the fifth anniversary of the 2006 war on Tuesday, the tense calm along the traditionally volatile Lebanon-Israel border is being tested by recent regional developments.

Still, analysts say, the calm should hold for now. The durability of the “balance of terror” that has helped deter another conflict is rooted in the reluctance of Hezbollah and Israel to embark upon another conflict that both appreciate will be of a far greater magnitude than that of 2006.

“Despite all the rhetoric, I think the calm will prevail. Both sides cannot afford to start another war. The next one will be a major war with extreme destructiveness,” says Timur Goksel, a lecturer on conflict resolution in Beirut and former long-serving official with the United Nations peacekeeping force in south Lebanon.

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That view from Beirut is echoed in Tel Aviv, underlining the awareness on either side of the border of the terrible consequences for both countries if another war should occur.

“We’ve never witnessed such a quiet border since the 1960s. No doubt about it,” says Eyal Zisser, a political science professor at Tel Aviv University. Israel and Hezbollah “are both committed to doing what they can to prevent a new round of violence.”

The 2006 war

The month-long war in 2006 broke out on July 12 when Hezbollah abducted two Israeli soldiers along the border. Israel responded by launching air attacks against Lebanese infrastructure and Hezbollah targets which quickly escalated into a full-blown conflict.

Hezbollah, which had not sought a war with Israel, had miscalculated Israel’s response to its kidnapping operation. But the Israeli government of then-prime minister Ehud Olmert, and the Israeli army, miscalculated the capabilities of their Lebanese enemy.

The war ended inconclusively after a month. Hezbollah celebrated a “divine victory” over Israel, but it came at the cost of yielding the southern border district to the Lebanese Army and a strengthened United Nations peacekeeping force. Since then, Hezbollah has established new lines of defense, recruited and trained thousands of new fighters, devised fresh battle tactics, and augmented its arsenal with guided rockets capable of striking almost any target in Israel.

Israel was humiliated by its poor military performance in 2006 and its deterrence posture was undermined. It has since retrained its army and introduced new weapons systems geared toward the asymmetrical conflict with Hezbollah, including a multitiered antirocket shield.

'Balance of terror'

Should another war break out, the level of destruction on both sides of the border could be unparalleled in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Instead of being confined to the traditional theater of south Lebanon and northern Israel, the next war will likely encompass the territories of both countries. Yet the “balance of terror” remains inherently unstable and none of the underlying drivers that led to war in 2006 have been resolved.

“The risks of miscalculation are still huge, but there have been some lessons that have been learned by the two sides,” says Bilal Saab, a Middle East analyst and Hezbollah expert at the University of Maryland. “Deterrence is by default a [temporary] solution, not a lasting one.”

Threats to stability

Although the “balance of terror” should hold for now, developments in Lebanon, Israel, and the region continue to threaten that stability:

  • In Syria, a strategic ally of Hezbollah and Iran, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is engaged in a bloody struggle with an opposition protest movement that shows no signs of yielding after four months of street demonstrations that have left up to 1,500 people dead.
  • In Lebanon, an international tribunal based in The Netherlands last week issued indictments for the arrest of four people, two of them senior Hezbollah activists, for their alleged role in the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister.
  • In Israel, a lingering dispute over the path of its maritime border with Lebanon resurfaced over the weekend when Tel Aviv announced that it objected to a boundary proposal submitted by Beirut to the United Nations. At stake are the exploitation rights to massive fossil fuel deposits that are believed to exist in the eastern Mediterranean.

Hezbollah appears confident it can weather the crisis over the tribunal indictments, and international mediation may help prevent the maritime border dispute from turning violent. That leaves the fate of the Assad regime in Syria as Hezbollah’s biggest wild card for now.

Two wild cards: Syria and Iran

Syria serves as the geostrategic linchpin connecting Iran to Hezbollah and as the conduit for the transfer of weapons into Hezbollah’s arsenal. If the Assad regime collapses, it would deal a strategic blow to Hezbollah and Iran.

Some analysts believe Tehran may instruct Hezbollah to launch a diversionary war with Israel to distract attention from the unrest in Syria.

“The key is Iran, nothing else,” says Shmuel Bar, director of studies at the Institute of Policy and Strategy at the Herzilya Interdisciplinary Center. “If Iran wants to provoke a conflict that serves its goals, then it will tell [Hezbollah] to do so.”

Other analysts disagree, pointing out that Iran and Hezbollah have no interest in provoking Israel into war in an attempt to save the Assad regime.

“Any argument that Hezbollah would resort to a diversionary war is not only baseless due to history, but also in terms of the very dynamics at play today,” says Saab, the Middle East analyst.

By the same token, Israel is unlikely to take advantage of Hezbollah’s concerns over Syria to launch a preemptive strike against the Lebanese group to degrade its military capabilities.

Such a step would trigger the long-feared war with no guarantees that the outcome would be favorable to Israel.

“I think the lesson of 2006 still resonates very deeply in Tel Aviv: that there is as yet no military solution to Hezbollah’s rockets and upgraded armaments,” says Saab.

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