The dangers posed by Hezbollah to Israeli grow daily, and with the escalation of danger so too do the chances of war increase.
At the time of the 2006 Lebanese War, triggered by Hezbollah's cross-border kidnapping of three Israeli soldiers, the terrorist group possessed approximately 15,000 missiles. Today, that number is variously estimated to be between 90,000 and 150,000.
But it is not just the quantity of Hezbollah's missiles that has increased, but their quality as well, both in terms of range and precision. Hezbollah possesses missiles that can hit every part of Israel, including large numbers of guided precision missiles.
And Iran has now established weapons manufacturing sites in Lebanon itself, the head of the IDF's Intelligence, Maj.-Gen. Herzl Halevi announced last month at the Herzilya Conference. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman confirmed the report. And a French publication Intelligence Online has now identified two Iranian-backed underground weapons production facilities, one in the Beka Valley and one on Lebanon's Mediterranean coast. The former is being used to produce medium-range missiles.
In addition, Hezbollah has received thousands of anti-tank, anti-ship, and surface-to-air missiles from Iran. And it has become an even more formidable fighting force by virtue of the extensive combat experience gained over years of fighting in Syria in a wide variety of terrain, from house-to-house urban conflict to large-scale maneuvers in open areas.
THOUGH HEZBOLLAH is not currently thought to seek a confrontation with Israel – its officer corps and fighting forces have been greatly depleted by casualties in Syria – the potential triggers are numerous. One such trigger would be the move of large numbers of Iranian and Hezbollah forces into the Golan Heights opposite Israel. Another would be an influx of Iranian-backed Shiite fighters into southern Lebanon.
Though U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701 ending the 2006 fighting forbids Hezbollah from operating south of the Litani River, UNIFIL forces have made no attempt to enforce the agreement. Hezbollah has brazenly set up observation towers close to the Israeli border. Those actions, in violation of 1701, could be another trigger. Finally, there is the question: How long can Israel simply stand by and watch Hezbollah increase its missile stores and military capacities, aided by Iran, without responding?
If and when fighting breaks out, one thing is crystal clear: Israel cannot afford a month-long war, as in 2006. Israel would have to employ overwhelming force to end the fighting early, and do so at the cost of the lives of many Lebanese civilians. It could not endure a month of missile bombardment.
With one-tenth of the number of missiles in its arsenal in 2006, Hezbollah paralyzed the northern part of the country for an entire month. Though Israeli has made great strides in missile defense since then, the number and precision of Hezbollah missiles would overwhelm Israel's missile defenses. Given enough time, Hezbollah would inevitably succeed in hitting the Haifa oil refineries and thereby creating a devastating fireball. So too would Israel's off-shore natural gas drilling sites be prime targets.
Today, four of every five dwellings in southern Lebanon harbors Hezbollah missiles. Israel would have to knock out those missile depots rapidly, despite the inevitable loss of civilian life. And it would also likely strike hard blows at the Lebanese infrastructure around Beirut, and even further north, as it did at the start of fighting in 2006.
The latter is made easier to justify by the fact that Hezbollah is increasingly the de facto ruler of Lebanon, and the distinction between Hezbollah and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) has dwindled. At a recent Hezbollah military parade in Beirut, armored personnel carriers given by U.S. government to the LAF were prominently displayed. (The Lebanese government is, in any event, responsible for military groups operating from its territory.)
In the next confrontation with Hezbollah, Israel must act rapidly, decisively, and without its customary regard for civilian life or subject its own civilian population and economic infrastructure to intolerable degrees of risk. And it must make clear to the world in advance what it will do and why it has no choice. The goal of that diplomatic campaign must be to place the onus on Hezbollah for turning southern Lebanon into a giant munitions depository and on the U.N. Security Council for having done nothing to enforce U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701.
There are signs that the last memo has reached the top echelons of the IDF. Israel Air Force chief, Commander Amir Eshel, recently announced that in the event of war with Hezbollah Israel has the capabilities to strike Hezbollah with five times the bombing power employed in 2006. "If war breaks out in the north, we have to open with all our strength from the start." And with missiles hidden in four out every five homes, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese civilians will have to leave their homes or risk losing their lives as "collateral damage," Eshel said.
IT WOULD BE A STRETCH to blame the Iran deal for Hezbollah's missile buildup and the greater likelihood of war between Hezbollah and Israel as a consequence. Iran was arming Hezbollah long before the Iran deal and would be doing so even in the absence of that deal. Hezbollah missiles pointed at Israel are conceived by Iran as an excellent deterrent to a possible Israeli attack on Iran.
Nevertheless, Iran thoroughly played Obama, and used his strenuous efforts to win it over with love to strengthen Hezbollah and ratchet-up its efforts at regional hegemony. And should war come between Israel and Iran – as most analysts expect it will, sooner or later – Israel will be much better off with Donald Trump in the White House.
As we have argued over the last two weeks, Obama came into office determined to pursue an "Iran first" Middle East policy based on doing nothing to dismay the mullahs. That required remaining silent during the 2009 Green Revolution triggered by massive election fraud. It meant doing nothing when Assad blatantly crossed Obama's red line and used chemical weapons against his own civilian population.
And it led to American passivity in Syria, and the vacuum into which Russia eventually stepped on the side of Iran and its Syrian and Hezbollah proxies. The Russian presence has, at minimum, greatly complicated Israel's ability to defend itself. Israel no longer dominates the airspace above Syria, which now contains Russian fighter jets and is protected by Russian anti-aircraft missiles.
Hezbollah, as Iran's critical ally in its strenuous efforts to create a Shiite crescent from Iran, through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, has greatly benefitted from the effort to placate Supreme Leader Khameini. In a September 2016 meeting with Syrian opposition groups, then Secretary of State John Kerry is reported to have thanked the leaders for their fight against ISIS and Al Qaeda affiliates, but to have told them that they could expect no help from the United States in their battle with the Assad regime or against Iran's surrogate Hezbollah. "Hezbollah is not plotting against us," Kerry told the opposition groups, They understood Kerry's message: The United States would do nothing to endanger the fragile Iran nuclear deal by angering the Iranians. As always, the United States acted as if the nuclear deal were a favor from the Iranians.
As it turned out, Kerry was not even right about Hezbollah's plotting against the U.S. Hezbollah retains greater capabilities than any terrorist group in the world. In June, Marc Johnson reports in National Review, the Justice Department announced the arrest of two Hezbollah operatives, both naturalized American citizens, who were indeed plotting against the U.S. – i.e., casing the American and Israeli embassies in Panama and assessing the security weaknesses of the Panama Canal, in the case of one; analyzing security at airports, military and law enforcement facilities in New York, in the case of the other.
Far from becoming a law-abiding member of the international community after the signing of the nuclear deal, Iran and its proxies have stepped up their quest for regional hegemony. Revolutionary Guard commander Qassem Solemaini has been spotted several times in Iraq, where Iranian Shiite militias are participating in the fight against ISIS, in the country's Sunni areas. Meanwhile the Iranians, and other Shiite groups under their command, together with Hezbollah, are moving through the Sunni heartland of Syria towards the Syrian-Iraq border. Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon is the westernmost edge of the Shiite Crescent being created.
Nor does that represent the full extent of Iranian aggression, Shoshana Bryen of the Jewish Policy Center points out. Iran is also trying to encircle Saudi Arabia. That effort includes support for Houthi rebels (Shiite) in Yemen to Saudi Arabia's south and destabilizing Bahrain to its east. Houthi rebels have fired Iranian-made missiles at both American and Saudi ships in the Red Sea. The Iranian presence endangers both Israeli and Jordanian shipping through the Gulf of Aden. Finally, Iranian weapons smuggled through Sudan and Eritrea are destabilizing the stability of Egypt, Libya, and most of North Africa.
The $150 billion dollar boost to the Iranian economy by virtue of the nuclear deal has, in Bryan's words, been employed so that Iran can play its self-appointed role as "guardian of Shiite Islam and director of Shiite armies to defeat first Sunnis in the Middle East and then the rest of the world." So much for the moderating impact of the nuclear deal.
With Syrian airfields open to it, in part courtesy of the Russians, Iran is much freer that formerly to fly in weapons for both its Syrian and Hezbollah allies. That too has ramped up tensions with Israel.
IN DETERMINING HOW TO RESPOND to the Hezbollah threat, particularly if it should decide to launch a preemptive strike aimed at Hezbollah's underground weapons production sites, one crucial question for Israeli policymakers will be an assessment of the likely level of American support.
Within the Trump administration, there would probably be multiple viewpoints – the foreign policy establishment versus Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, Vice-President Pence, and other key Trump advisors. But that is certainly better than it would have been under President Obama.
The Middle East Media Research Institute has published numerous comments made in recent years by senior Revolutionary Guard commanders and other Iranian officials describing a tacit agreement with the Obama administration that Iran can produce ballistic missiles with a range of 2,000 kilometers. Though that agreement is not found even in the secret annexes of the JCPOA for obvious political reasons, the Iranians have been consistently more accurate than were their American negotiating partners in describing the agreements reached.
In any event, the Iranians are perfectly content for now with the 2,000 kilometer limit, as Israel is well within that range, a fact that surely did not escape the Obama administration.
So if Israel has to act as decisively against Hezbollah, as we argued above it likely will, she can at least be grateful that a U.S. administration other than that of former president Obama will have its back.