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After Israel finishes with Hamas, should it go after Hezbollah in a pre-emptive strike?

Since Oct. 7, Israel has made a decision to avoid a two-front war, namely, deal with Hamas first and then shift the attention to the north

By: EBR - Posted: Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Assuming that the war with Hamas eventually will end one way or another, the dilemma of how to deal with the northern threat will remain: Should Israel continue to contain it, as it has since the Second Lebanon War in 2006? Or should Israel launch a preventive war to eliminate Hezbollah’s capability of harassing the Jewish state?
Assuming that the war with Hamas eventually will end one way or another, the dilemma of how to deal with the northern threat will remain: Should Israel continue to contain it, as it has since the Second Lebanon War in 2006? Or should Israel launch a preventive war to eliminate Hezbollah’s capability of harassing the Jewish state?

by Uri Dromi*

Since Oct. 7, Israel has made a decision to avoid a two-front war, namely, deal with Hamas first and then shift the attention to the north. Hezbollah — obviously as surprised as Israel by Hamas’ move — allowed Israel to focus on Gaza, by limiting its involvement to sporadic exchange of fire over the border. Yet in the meantime, tens of thousands of Israelis have left their homes on the Lebanese border, vowing not to return until the threat is permanently removed.

Hezbollah’s threat to Israel is formidable. Their Radwan Force, established precisely for the task of occupying Israeli northern Galilee, has gained combat experience while fighting for Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war. And its huge arsenal of rockets and high-precision missiles can extract a heavy toll from Israel in human lives and physical devastation.

Assuming that the war with Hamas eventually will end one way or another, the dilemma of how to deal with the northern threat will remain: Should Israel continue to contain it, as it has since the Second Lebanon War in 2006? Or should Israel launch a preventive war to eliminate Hezbollah’s capability of harassing the Jewish state?

In pondering these questions, Israelis can borrow two pages from their own history book. In 1956, following a huge arms deal between Czechoslovakia and Egypt, then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, fearing Israel might lose its military edge, joined the United Kingdom and France in the Sinai Campaign, which dealt a blow to Egypt’s ambitions.

And, on June 7, 1981, Israel launched a surprise attack on the Osirak nuclear facility near Baghdad and destroyed it. Two days after the raid, then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin called the strike an act of “anticipatory self-defense at its best,” and explained: “We chose this moment: now, not later, because later may be too late . . . Saddam Hussein would have produced his three, four, five bombs. . . . Then, this country and this people would have been lost, after the Holocaust…Never again, never again!”

Harvard professor Graham Allison coined the term Thucydides’s Trap, after the ancient Greek historian who wrote on the Peloponnesian War (431?404 BCE): “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.” Indeed, both Ben-Gurion and Begin probably strongly felt what Thucydides described as the feeling of, “It’s either us or them.”

The current situation between Israel and Hezbollah, however, hardly fits in this formula. In spite of the fact that in its 1985 Manifesto Hezbollah declared that its struggle would not end until Israel is obliterated and, with all due respect to its military might, it doesn’t really pose an existential threat to Israel. Even if it drags its patron Iran into a war, the combined forces of Israel and the United States are enough to deter a doomsday scenario.

Still, there are calls now in Israel for a preventive war against Hezbollah to ensure that another disaster doesn’t happen in the north as well. Maj. Gen. Yaakov Amidror, for example, Israel’s national security adviser from 2011-2013, recently wrote that, “Israel must seriously weigh preventive action to push away the buildup of military capabilities which threaten it.”

Israel might perhaps look at the Caroline Test, named after the steamer that, in 1837, transported personnel and equipment from United States territory across the Niagara River to Canadian rebels. The British, then rulers of Canada, raided U.S. territory and set the Caroline afire. The tense controversy that followed resulted in an American-British consensus, which since has established in international law the requirements of self-defense, along the words of then-Secretary of State Daniel Webster: “necessity of self-defense, [which is] instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means and no moment for deliberation.”

The United States, France and some Arab countries are now pushing Lebanon to comply with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which states that Hezbollah forces should not be deployed south of the Litani River. Israelis, though, shouldn’t hold their breath: The weak Lebanese government can’t coerce Hezbollah to retreat. Sooner or later, then, either invoking Thucydides or Webster, Israel will have to deal with the issue of Hezbollah. A life-affirming nation can’t tolerate such a threat on its doorstep and do nothing about it.

*spokesman of the Rabin and Peres governments from 1992-1996
**first published in: The Miami Herald

 

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