Commentary Magazine

A Third Lebanon War?

The Lebanese-Israeli border has been calmer during the last two and a half years than it has been in decades. Hezbollah replenished its arsenal of rockets after the 2006 war, but has chosen to lay low in the meantime. Not one Israeli soldier has been kidnapped since the war’s end, and not a single Hezbollah rocket has landed in Israel. Nothing stays the same in the Middle East for long, though, and Israel and Lebanon may be headed for confrontation again.

One year to the day after Hezbollah military commander Imad Mugniyeh was assassinated by a car bomb in downtown Damascus, Alice Fordham published a piece at NOW Lebanon that makes for sobering reading. She quotes a number of analysts in both Lebanon and Israel who fear another round of violence is coming. Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah blames Israel for killing Mugniyeh, and he vows vengeance. His threat appears to be credible. Terrorist attacks against Israeli interests by Hezbollah cells have been foiled on three continents — in Europe, Egypt, and Azerbaijan.

I wrote recently that Nasrallah appears to have been deterred by Israel’s devastating air and ground assault in July and August of 2006. “We did not believe,” he said on Lebanon’s New TV station, “even by one percent, that the captive operation would result in such a wide-scale war, as such a war did not take place in the history of wars. Had we known that the captive operation would result in such a war we would not have carried it out at all.” Not even during the recent war in Gaza, while the Israelis were busy and distracted fighting Hamas, did Nasrallah think it wise to risk a repeat of 2006. Unless every reported terrorist attempt since Mugniyeh’s assassination is fictitious, though, Nasrallah still seems to think it’s okay to attack Israel outside Israel.

Israel vows to retaliate inside Lebanon if Hezbollah inflicts any serious damage. “The Lebanese government bears overall responsibility, and any attempt to attack Israel will be met with a response,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said. Even a relatively restrained response inside Lebanon by Israelis could escalate into a big war, as it did last time.

Lebanese citizens will go to the polls in June to elect a new parliament. I doubt Nasrallah will want to blow up the country again just before his countrymen vote for or against his “March 8” coalition, but I could be wrong. He expertly used resentment against the last Israeli invasion to his advantage, and he might be feeling cocky enough to think he can do it again.

Lebanon is quiet right now. The capital, Beirut, is in better shape than it has been in more than three decades. It’s like an Arabic version of the French Riviera once again. That’s one side of the country. There is another. More than once since the Syrian military was evicted in 2005, the Paris of the Middle East became the Baghdad of the Levant.

It is going to happen again. No Lebanese people I know think history has tired of molesting their country. Predicting the timing of Lebanon’s chronic outbursts of violence is impossible, but it’s not hard to see that another conflict is coming sooner or later.

I was in Lebanon just before Christmas, and every person I talked to strongly advised me to stay clear of Hezbollah’s stronghold in the south near the Israeli border. Even shortly after the 2006 war I had no trouble going down there. The only time I’ve had trouble in the past was shortly before the 2006 war when Lebanese Army officers turned me away from the south for my own protection. Then, as now, Israeli forces on the border were ready for war. The last time each side was this geared up and tense, both countries exploded.

The Obama Administration’s Middle East team should keep a sharp eye on Lebanon. Maybe nothing will happen there, at least not for a while. But Lebanon is more central to the Middle East’s troubles than it appears when it’s quiet. More fighting between Israel and Iran’s regional proxies is all but inevitable, and Lebanon is where the bloodiest wars are fought.

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