Adam Brodsky at the New York Post says that if Israel wants to kneecap Iran, it should take out Hezbollah in Lebanon. That would indeed go a long way toward rolling back Tehran’s imperial ambitions in the Middle East. Hezbollah moonlights as a Syrian proxy militia, but it is first and foremost Iranian “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei’s army in Lebanon, effectively the Mediterranean branch of the Pasdaran.
It’s also the most resilient and capable terrorist army in the world and, for that very reason, difficult to root out conventionally. The Israel Defense Forces fought Hezbollah to a standstill between 1982 and 2000 and failed to destroy it during the Second Lebanon War in July and August of 2006. Hezbollah emerged stronger than ever after the 18-year counterinsurgency in 2000 and emerged stronger still from the 2006 war. After neutralizing the Lebanese government during another short war in the spring of 2008, it is now, like Israel itself, an undefeated heavyweight of the Levant.
Effective counterinsurgency of the type General David Petraeus waged in Iraq is impossible for Israel in Lebanon for three reasons. First, it takes a long time, years when applied correctly, and time is something Israel just doesn’t have. Second, the American counterinsurgency effort in Iraq would have failed if the insurgents hadn’t murdered and terrorized so many Iraqis while fighting Americans — something Hezbollah is most unlikely to do in the Shia regions of Lebanon where it is embedded. Third, anti-Israel sentiment is too broad and too deep in Lebanon for the IDF to recruit sufficient local assistance — especially after the abrupt collapse of its allies in the South Lebanon Army following the withdrawal in 2000.
Prior to getting bogged down in Lebanon in the early 1980s, the Israelis racked up one lightning fast military victory over their enemies after another. That was before hostile Middle Eastern governments learned they stood no chance of prevailing in conventional warfare and before they opted for asymmetric terrorist warfare instead. Hit-and-run guerrilla tactics work for them, sort of, so it’s in the interest of those who haven’t yet made peace with Israel, or at least acceded to some kind of modus vivendi, to keep at it.
It is therefore not in Jerusalem’s interests to let them. Israel has a perfect record against standing state armies in the Middle East foolish enough to pick fights they can’t win. So why agree to fight some of the very same states asymmetrically in wars with ambiguous endings?
The Israelis should consider returning to what they do best, if and when they have to fight again. If they want to beat their enemies rather than fight to bloody and destructive standstills, they’ll wage the kind of war they’re good at and shatter one or both of the governments that field third-party proxies against them.