27 August 2016

"The Third Lebanon War"

Chuck Freilich, Senior Fellow, International Security Program
August 23, 2016

A Hebrew-language version of the op-ed appeared inHaaretz on August 15, 2016. The translation was provided by the author.

Following the recent tenth anniversary of the Second Lebanon War, the media and think tanks have flooded us with contradictory assessments by current and former military leaders. On the one hand, we have heard the all too familiar reassurances from the past, on the other, a simply terrifying picture of what awaits us is.

Those who have chosen to sound the alarm warn that we will be hit in the next war far harder than in 2006. Hezbollah now has approximately 130,000 rockets, dispersed in thousands of sites in heavily populated areas of Lebanon. Tens of thousands rockets will hit Israel each day for a protracted period and will cause severe damage to cities and vital infrastructure sites. The defensive system (Iron Dome, Magic Wand) will provide an only partial shield.

The IDF, we are assured, has learned the lessons of 2006. Its intelligence, offensive and inter-service capabilities have improved immeasurably and the response will be tens of times harder than it was at the time. Thousands of targets will be attacked from the air each day and a broad ground campaign will be conducted to push the short range rockets out of range. The fighting is expected to last a month or more and Lebanon, so we are informed, will suffer unprecedented destruction which will set it back by decades. Thousands of civilians may be killed and Lebanon will become a "country of refugees." In a worrisome throwback to 1982, some even foresee that the Lebanese government will be weakened, Hezbollah will lose control over the country and the resulting void will be filled by Salafists and Jihadis. Others believe that Israel will make do with a more limited objective: restoring the status quo ante, with some improvements.

So much for the public picture.

In practice, the IDF faces a difficult dilemma. It has to present a "solution" to the Hezbollah threat, but it is unclear whether it has an "effective" offensive response to it, i.e. one that assures, with high probability, that we can achieve two conditions: 5–10 years of quiet with Hezbollah, at a price that is acceptable to Israel both diplomatically and in terms of the damage to the home front. To be sure, the IDF has built truly impressive offensive capabilities in recent years, which may be able to achieve the first condition. It is not clear, however, that they can achieve the latter and, as such, whether they will thus actually be implemented in practice.

Indeed, it is far more likely that the international community, including the United States and Security Council, will exert heavy pressure on Israel to terminate the fighting long before we can dictate the terms of a cease fire. International tolerance for such developments has changed and, considering the multiplicity of operations we have been engaged in since 2006, particularly when it comes to Israel. International legitimacy for a determined Israeli response will surely increase when thousands of rockets rain down on us, but will dissipate rapidly when faced with pictures of the destruction and dead on the other side.

Israel's home front has demonstrated impressive resilience in the face of severe and almost incessant threats. The new threat, however, is of a completely different order of magnitude and even if it is reasonable to assume that we will successfully withstand it, too, it would be a mistake to test the public's tolerance for pain when the objective is little more than a return to the preexisting cease fire, in preparation for the next round. Until the IDF has an effective offensive response, as defined above, and the conditions necessary for its successful implementation exist, a policy based on the following principles is recommended.

First, we should make a determined effort to avoid being dragged into a further round, i.e. should respond to future provocations with even greater restraint and fortitude. It is not entirely up to us, of course, but only we determine when to respond, if at all, and Israel is strong and secure enough today to show the requisite forbearance. What is needed is a leadership capable of containing the understandable public rage and of infusing the public with a sense of confidence in its staying power. The need to prevent Hezbollah from further entrenching itself in the Syrian Golan and from transferring advanced weapons to Lebanon, further complicate the task, but continued low-profile operations will help achieve this.

Second, we should neutralize the Hezbollah rocket threat and in so doing change the entire strategic balance. To this end, we should deploy an (almost) complete nation-wide rocket shield within one-two years, at most, and procure as many interceptor missiles as needed in order to present Hezbollah with a fait accompli, much as we did two years ago with Hamas, when Israel's defenses essentially neutralized its rocket capabilities. Some argue that Israel cannot afford an arms race between the expensive interceptors needed for its defenses, and Hezbollah's cheap incoming rockets. The correct comparison, however, is not to Hezbollah's rockets, but to the overall cost of a protracted confrontation to Israel's economy, societal resilience, international standing and deterrent posture. When viewed in this light, the costs of a rocket shield become quite reasonable, almost cheap.

Finally, Israel must continue building an effective offensive response. Victory and military decision are only achieved through offense, not restraint and defense. The Hezbollah threat has, however, been with us for a long period and will unfortunately remain with us for many years to come. A war postponed may be a costly war, but it may also be a war that never breaks out. In this case, an effective offensive response may be even more costly than the threat itself, and we should thus seek to postpone resort to it for as long as possible.

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