This memo addresses the growing threat that Hezbollah poses to Israel both independently and as an Iranian proxy. While peace has held between Israel and Hezbollah since the 2006 conflict, the current situation has become increasingly perilous due to Hezbollah’s expanded access to advanced Iranian and Russian conventional weapons systems and control over veteran fighters who have spent the past several years gaining experience while fighting in the Syrian Civil War. These new capabilities mean that the next time Israel and Hezbollah go to war, the IDF will face a far more experienced and well-equipped force than it did in 2006. Hezbollah will be able to rain missiles down across Israel, eliminating the distinction between frontline and home front, and its new anti-aircraft systems will significantly degrade Israel’s advantage in tactical airpower. While there is no imminent risk of conflict breaking out between Israel and Hezbollah, long-term trends, such as the ending of the Syrian Civil War and the expansion of Iranian influence in Syria, suggest that assumptions based on long-term peace between the two are likely naïve. And now that Hezbollah has access to an even deadlier arsenal of rockets and missiles, any extended conflict promises to be terribly costly in loss of both lives and treasure. Israel must, therefore, proactively work to minimize the risk of conflict.
Issue Analysis –
The security threat Hezbollah poses to Israel is comprised of three major elements. First, Hezbollah is closely aligned with Iran and has helped extend the Islamic Republic’s influence in Israel’s region. Were conflict to breakout between Jerusalem and Tehran, it is likely that the Iranian government would utilize Hezbollah to asymmetrically escalate and hold Israeli targets at risk in a manner that is impossible for Israel to replicate. In other words, by maintaining a proxy in Lebanon, Iran has a functional border with Israel while Israel does not have one with Iran. Second, Hezbollah has gained in experience since it last fought against the IDF due to its extensive involvement in the Syrian Civil War. Hezbollah’s soldiers have suffered heavy losses during the conflict, but they have gained valuable battlefield experience in the process, making them a far more potent adversary for the IDF. Hezbollah has also gained far more tactical and command experience from the conflict, as Hezbollah forces have frequently commanded elements of the Syrian military. This has likely improved their capability to engage in high-intensity urban warfare, raising the costs for any IDF strategy premised on invading parts of southern Lebanon. In sum, the Syrian Civil War has weakened Hezbollah in the short-term by tying it down and weakening its forces, but it should prove helpful for Hezbollah in the long-term by providing the organization with hard-won battlefield experience. Third, and most important, Hezbollah has an immense rocket and missile force that is at least partially composed of advanced Iranian and Russian designs. This capability allows it to hold Israeli population centers and heavy industry at risk, giving it the ability to devastate the Israeli economy and kill large numbers of Israeli civilians. This capability alone makes Hezbollah a strategic threat to Israel, as it allows the group to target almost the entire state of Israel, hitting the home front, forcing a mass mobilization by the IDF, and creating economic chaos by damaging Israeli industry and tourism. Memories of the 2006 war have kept both sides cautious, as everyone remembers the heavy costs of the previous conflict. However, the rapidly evolving situation in Syria and the spread of Iranian influence mean that deterrence might break down, especially if Hezbollah continues to acquire advanced Iranian weaponry. Thus, it is important that Israel takes action to prevent an emerging security dilemma.
Possible Solutions –
Embrace Coordination With Russia – Israel’s strong working relations with Russia allow it to potentially utilize Russian regional influence to shape Iranian strategy in Syria and, by extension, limit the threat posed by Hezbollah. In particular, Russia’s deep involvement in the Syrian Civil War gives it influence over any post-war settlement, allowing it to constrain Iran’s spread in Syria and military support for Hezbollah. Coordinating with Russia might also allow Israel to limit Hezbollah’s access to advanced weapons, one of its major redlines, as Russia is a major provider of weapons to Hezbollah.
Encourage Greater American Involvement in the Syrian Peace Process – The United States has traditionally been a major actor within the Middle East, and it continues to remain involved in Syria, working with local actors on the ground and deploying airpower and special forces units to the country. To date, however, the U.S. has focused almost exclusively on ISIS and has remained largely absent from ceasefire negotiations. Israel should work to leverage its good relations with Washington to encourage the Americans to become more involved in negotiations.
Boost Deterrence – Maintaining a strong deterrent posture toward Hezbollah is crucial for Israeli security. Both Israel and Hezbollah are aware of the potentially catastrophic consequences of another 2006-style war, and this has induced caution on both sides. But Israel can further reinforce this dynamic by pursuing deterrence by denial – making it more difficult for Hezbollah to hit targets within Israel or occupy Israeli border settlements – and deterrence by punishment – making it clear that any attacks by Hezbollah will elicit a massive and crushing retaliatory attack by the IDF.
Strategic Recommendations –
- Israel should work closely with Russia to shape developments in Syria and constrain Iranian expansion and support for Hezbollah. In particular, Israel should reiterate that it will not tolerate an Iranian presence along the Syrian border with Israel, and it should request that Russia urge Iran not to ship advanced weapons to Hezbollah. Russia is already wary of growing Iranian influence in Syria, as it fears that Iran might become a long-term competitor in Syria. Therefore, Russia might be amenable to assisting Israel limit Hezbollah’s military capacity as a means of checking Iranian military power in the region.
- Israel should work with the United States to develop a shared vision for the end to the Syrian Civil War. The United States continues to view Iranian expansion as a threat, but to date the U.S. has failed to develop a coherent approach for containing the Islamic theocracy. This presents a unique opportunity for Israel, as Netanyahu can leverage his solid relationship with Trump to influence America’s nascent Iran strategy in a manner that treats the Hezbollah threat seriously. Specifically, he can push Trump to engage more assertively in Syrian peace talks, limiting Iran’s presence and thus impeding Tehran’s ability to transport advanced weapons through Syria to Hezbollah. There might also be opportunity for cooperation in the air: American ISR capabilities and special forces in Syria could be deployed to identify and track Iranian arm shipments to assist Israel in its enforcement of its Syrian redlines.
- To reinforce deterrence, Israel should work to expand missile defense coverage in northern Israel, including the deployment of David’s Sling and Arrow-3, and move heavy industrial facilities such as chemical and energy plants out of range of Hezbollah’s short-range rockets. By undermining the effectiveness of Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal, Israel might be able to discourage Hezbollah from launching rockets at all. Even if this strategy of deterrence by denial fails, it would still improve the security of Israeli citizens by minimizing Hezbollah’s ability to attack volatile and toxic industrial targets. Israel should also continue to voice its commitment to the Dahiya Doctrine of massive retaliation and increase the quality and quantity of IDF forces along its border with Lebanon. These steps would raise the costs of a potential war, deterring Hezbollah aggressions by making the costs of an attack far higher than any potential gains. Finally, Israel should publicly clarify its redlines regarding Hezbollah’s actions in order to lower the risks of miscalculation and inadvertent escalation.
- Despite a shared concern over expanding Iranian influence in Syria, Russia and Israel do not share the same level of concern regarding Iran and Hezbollah. President Vladimir Putin has publicly declared Iran to be an ally, and thus it is far from certain that Russia would actively work with Israel to contain Iran when this could undermine the largely positive relationship that currently exists between Moscow and Tehran.
- While the U.S. continues to have significant assets deployed to Syria and extensive influence throughout the Middle East, it is clear that Russia, Iran, and Turkey have taken the lead in Syrian ceasefire negotiations. The U.S. can still work to influence the final settlement, but it is doubtful that American policymakers could completely prevent Iran from placing itself in an advantageous position in Syria post-Civil War. Nevertheless, an Israeli strategy that coordinates with Russia and the U.S. can likely disrupt Iran’s strategy in Syria to some degree.
- The constantly evolving security situation in the Middle East complicates deterrence by undermining stability and increasing the risk of miscalculations occurring. For example, it is possible that a Hezbollah/government operation to retake the Golan Heights might accidentally spill over into Israel, bringing the two sides into conflict. Thus, there is a limit to how much a deterrent posture predicated on rational, stable actors can effectively prevent conflict. Deterrence is also limited by the fact that it is targeted at Hezbollah and not Iran. Were conflict to break out between Iran and Israel, Hezbollah would almost certainly be pulled in irrespective of the deterrent measures adopted by Israel.
 Ora Szekely, “Proto-State Realignment and the Arab Spring,” Middle East Policy 23, no. 1 (Spring 2016), 78.
 Shlomo Brom and Yoram Schweitzer, Strategic Survey for Israel 2015-2016 (Tel Aviv: Institute for National Security Studies, 2016), 62-63.
 Dmitry Adamsky, “How Moscow Could Benefit From A Conflict Between Israel and Hezbollah,” Foreign Affairs, October 6, 2017.
 Ruth Eglash and William Booth, “Israel to launch one of the most advanced missile defense systems in the world, with U.S. help,” Washington Post, March 3, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/israel-to-launch-one-of-the-most-advanced-missile-defense-systems-in-the-world-with-us-help/2016/03/03/6383cb88-dfd5-11e5-8c00-8aa03741dced_story.html?utm_term=.4566f56a00e0
 Andrew Sobelman, “Deterrence has Kept Hezbollah and Israel at Bay for 10 Years,” The National Interest, 7-14-2017. http://nationalinterest.org/feature/deterrence-has-kept-hezbollah-israel-bay-10-years-16970