Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Should Israel Attack Hezbollah First?

Last week, I wrote about the Israeli public’s preparation for one aspect of a possible attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities: the vast threat of Iran’s likely response, which would begin with thousands of rockets from Hezbollah’s stronghold in southern Lebanon. At this point, most of Israel is within range of rockets from either Lebanon or Gaza, though the rockets in Lebanon are more advanced and more numerous, and defended by a better-trained and more resilient terrorist organization.

Today, former Israeli defense minister Moshe Arens tackles what this means in practical terms for Israeli military strategy, and concludes that Israel should attack south Lebanon before a Western attack on Iran’s nuclear installations:

What is certain is that we are facing a real and imminent danger to our civilian population. Hezbollah’s rockets are the Iranian nuclear project’s first line of defense. Is it not reasonable to attack that first line of defense before doing anything else? Should it not be made clear to one and all that Hezbollah’s armory of rockets in Lebanon must be dismantled? They are a weapon of terror, pure and simple, and they now stand guard over the preparation of the worst terror weapon of all – an Iranian nuclear bomb. If all agree that the world will not accept the existence of an Iranian nuclear weapon, will it agree to the continued existence of the first line of defense guarding that weapon?…

Here, too, as in the case of the Iranian nuclear project, it would be preferable to do this without resorting to military action. The majority of Lebanon’s citizens are almost as interested as Israel is in dismantling Hezbollah’s armory of rockets. And Hezbollah, a terrorist organization and a supporter of Bashar Assad in Syria, has few friends aside from Iran in the world. A public campaign can be launched to send them the message that they must dismantle their rocket armory. It would exert pressure on them from other quarters of the world. And if that doesn’t work, there remains the military option. It is going to take some preparation, but it can be done. It needs to be done. First things first.

This may sound provocative, but Arens notes that if Hezbollah were allowed to unleash its missiles unabated the attack could easily result in hundreds of Israeli civilian casualties. Arens is wrestling with a very real question about the government’s responsibility to protect its citizenry from a known, expected threat. (We can assume Hezbollah won’t voluntarily disarm.) Of course, not only would an attack on Lebanon first inspire howling from the international community, it would also telegraph an attack on Iran. While such outrage from the international community probably won’t move the Israelis, it could increase public opposition in the United States to the main attack on Iran, thus endangering American support. But such international condemnation will come Israel’s way whether or not they attack Lebanon first, and neither the U.S. nor Israel is likely to be swayed much by it.

But there’s another element to this as well. The discussion of Hezbollah’s response to an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities usually treats it as an inevitable consequence Israel would have to deal with. But the Iranians likely see it as much more. To Iran, Hezbollah’s response would have to be a centerpiece in a post-attack response designed to convince the West of the futility of trying to stop Iran’s quest for the bomb. If an attack only sets Iran’s nuclear schedule back a few years, the possibility of using military force to stop it again (and again) would represent an untenable proposition for the West if Iran was able to set the region on fire every time.

There would only be two ways for the West to prevent the regular outbreak of hostilities over Iran’s nuclear program if Iran’s leaders stay in power and resolve to continue their mission: let Iran have the bomb, and focus on “containment”; or hit Iran with a much more comprehensive military attack in the first place. Such an attack would be far more consequential, but also far more dangerous and unpredictable, than just dropping the bunker busters.

It’s fair to say the international community finds the latter idea abhorrent, and the U.S. and Israel consider the first option to be unacceptable. Perhaps Arens has just given the West a third option.