We are approaching the 10th anniversary of the Second Lebanon War; the conflict fought between Israel and Hezbollah between July 12 and August 14, 2006. I was in Israel during the war and witnessed the terror that was inflicted on northern Israel by Hezbollah’s indiscriminate firing of inaccurate, short-range rockets from its redoubts in southern Lebanon.
The results of the war were ambiguous: Israel inflicted some damage on Hezbollah but left its military largely intact. It is obvious that Israel achieved some degree of deterrence, as witnessed by the fact that Hezbollah has been careful not to attack Israel again, even when Israel has been distracted wars against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. But, as reporter Willy Stern reminded us in The Weekly Standard, the Hezbollah threat against Israel has hardly gone away. Instead, it has grown in the intervening years.
As Stern noted in very first sentence: “Hezbollah has a nasty collection of more than 130,000 rockets, missiles, and mortars aimed at Israel. This is a bigger arsenal than all NATO countries (except the United States) combined.” It is also considerably bigger than the arsenal that Hezbollah had in 2006 when it was estimated to deploy 50,000 rockets.
And not only is Hezbollah’s arsenal bigger; it is more destructive. Stern wrote: “In Hezbollah’s arsenal are about 700 long-range, high-payload rockets and missiles with names like Fateh-110 and Scud D. They are capable of taking down entire buildings in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, wreaking havoc at Israel’s major military bases, killing thousands of Israeli civilians, shutting down the nation’s airports and ports, and taking out the electric grid. And that’s just in the first week.”
Israel does have the best missile defenses in the world but, writes Stern, “Israel’s top military brass acknowledges that its high-tech missile-defense system will be ‘lucky’ to shoot down 90 percent of incoming rockets, missiles, and mortars. Hezbollah has the capacity to shoot 1,500 missiles per day. That means 150—likely more—deadly projectiles could get through in a day.”
The Israel Defense Forces are preparing for what would be a nasty and destructive conflict in which, to shut down the Hezbollah missile threat, Israeli aircraft would have to target the civilian neighborhoods where the launchers are located. This will inevitably bring international opprobrium down on Israel’s head–just as Hezbollah intends.
Attacking Hezbollah strongholds would be even more difficult today than it was in 2006 when the IDF met heavier-than-expected resistance. “Iran has supplied its favorite terrorist organization with other top-of-the-line weaponry,” noted Stern. “For military aficionados, these would include the latest guided, tank-piercing Russian-made ‘Kornet’ missiles, SA-17 and SA-22 air defense systems, and even the ‘Yakhont’ class surface-to-ship cruise missiles. Making matters worse for IDF planners, Hezbollah boasts a standing army of more than 10,000 soldiers—a figure that could add two or three times that amount of reservists in the event of a war with Israel.”
On the plus side, Hezbollah is currently bogged down in a conflict in Syria, trying to prop up Iran’s client regime, and thus is too distracted to risk a war against Israel. On the downside, the nuclear deal with Washington will further enrich Iran, and some of the oil benefits are certain to trickle down to Hezbollah, which has emerged as Iran’s most potent and reliable proxy force.
The IDF needs to prepare for war and the Israeli population for the possibility of spending long weeks living in bunkers with the electrical grid not functioning. That is a grim fate that can best be averted if the U.S. and its allies were to pursue a strategy of weakening Hezbollah before it can strike again against Israel.
Hezbollah’s greatest vulnerability at the moment is the extent to which it is reliant on the unpopular and murderous Assad regime. If the U.S. and its allies pushed to topple Assad, that would do great damage to Hezbollah’s prestige and capabilities.
The U.S. could further undermine Hezbollah by taking advantage of popular dissatisfaction in Lebanon. Hezbollah is fighting not against Israeli “occupiers” but against the people of Syria, who do not want to live under an unpopular tyrant. Even many Lebanese Shiites are not happy to have Hezbollah turn their country into an outpost of the Persian Empire, and that dissatisfaction could possibly be fomented by a skillful campaign of political and information warfare of the kind that the U.S. often deployed in the early days of the Cold War but seldom in the decades since.
Or we can just hang back, do nothing, and wait for the day when our allies in Israel are assailed by an unprecedented barrage of missiles from next door–as if Manhattan were being rocketed from New Jersey.