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The Israel-Hezbollah dance – how does it end?



To understand the security situation and strategic issues on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, one must understand three preliminary issues that frame this potential conflict:

The 7 October attacks changed Israel fundamentally. The exact nature of how it has changed will become apparent only after the war ends, and this will be reflected in the elections which will have to be held, but in the meantime, it’s clear that the situation in the north cannot remain as is. More than 100 000 Israelis have been displaced for security reasons, and the Israeli public won’t allow that situation to endure indefinitely. In addition, having seen what transpired on the southern border, no-one will be willing to go back to their homes in the north with all the security risks on that border. Israel therefore cannot allow the risks on the northern border to remain unchecked.

The failure of Netanyahu’s Hamas strategy was shown up in brutal detail with the 7 October attacks. The strategy involved some form of accommodation with Hamas, allowing it to receive monthly payments from Quatar to keep the Gaza Strip running, with a bombing campaign whenever the attacks from Gaza became too intense. Generally, it involved looking the other way when rockets came over, assuming that the security fence would give Israel all the security it needed and Hamas would never dare to escalate to a full-scale war. The 7 October attacks have made it clear to all that a well-armed group which calls for Israel’s destruction cannot be left alone nor accommodated. The problem must be sorted out without delay, and the can cannot just be kicked down the road.

Hezbollah seems to have signalled that it doesn’t want a major escalation. When Israel was at its weakest on 7 October, Hezbollah decided not to join the war. This was probably because it knew Israel would respond with great force, given the existential risk it would then face, and would very likely have been very supported by the United States (US), which initially had two aircraft carriers sent to the region. Instead, it opted for a “pro-forma” response, shooting a few rockets very close to the border, and never too deep inside Israel. Israel, of course, responded in kind, and there was almost a tacit “rule of engagement” between the two, where the rockets and responses weren’t too deep inside each other’s territory and Israel didn’t respond too forcibly.

However, things have changed rapidly in the past few weeks, and there has been a noticeable escalation. There’s a strong school of thought in Israeli military circles that given that things on the northern border must change, now is the time to bring that change about. Of course, no-one wants a full-scale war, but given that the US still has a warship in the region, which it would most likely use to support Israel if Hezbollah initiated a major war, and as discussed above, Hezbollah has signalled its desire to avoid a full-scale escalation, the time seems ripe to push for major change. A paper has been released on the Begin Sadat website and a few articles published by academics calling for an “escalation to de-escalate” strategy. That involves escalating the situation in the north gradually, not enough to force Hezbollah into a war for which Israel would be blamed and would probably lose US support, but escalate enough so that Hezbollah begins to feel some pain. Then it would have to decide what to do to de-escalate a war it wants to avoid and in which it would likely face the US as well, or start to talk about a deal. In addition, all sides know that the Lebanese government definitely wants to avoid a war that will devastate Lebanon.

That’s what we’re seeing. Israel has been upping the ante in assassinating some Hezbollah and Hamas leaders in Lebanon, and bombing more forcibly. The ball is now in Hezbollah’s court, and the question is how it will respond. Although neither the US nor Israel talks directly to Hezbollah, and Israel doesn’t deal directly with the Lebanese government, the US does have relations with Lebanon. It’s thus able to negotiate on behalf of Israel with Lebanon and thereby indirectly with Hezbollah, with the US envoy, Amos Hochstein, now leading the diplomatic track to try reach a deal on the Israeli-Lebanese border. The Lebanese prime minister, Najib Mikati, was quoted by Reuters on Friday as saying that Beirut was “ready for talks on long-term border security”, and Israeli government spokesman Eylon Levy was quoted in the same article as saying there was “still a diplomatic window of opportunity to push Hezbollah from the border”.

The outlines of a deal are there, and enshrined in United Nations Resolution 1701 that ended the Second Lebanon War. Hezbollah should move north of the Litani River, which would mean that its forces would be 29km from the Israeli border. That would allow the population in the north to return to their homes with some degree of safety. At this stage, according to the Reuter’s report, a proposal has been communicated by the US envoy/Lebanese authorities to Hezbollah that its forces move 7km from the border, a proposal currently not acceptable to Israel or Hezbollah. That will probably mean that further escalation is likely before the situation de-escalates.

However, some form of deal is still likely. Both sides ultimately understand how ruinous a major war would be to all parties. Hochstein has also achieved a rare successful mediated agreement between Lebanon and Israel before. In 2022, he successfully brought a deal to a successful conclusion delineating the two countries’ disputed maritime boundary, a deal that Hezbollah would have had to agree to even if only quietly and behind the scenes. That means there’s hope, even if it was a far easier deal to bring to fruition as it involved delineating a maritime border which allows money to start to flow to both countries because it allows for the gas in the area to be extracted. Moving forces back behind a river – and ensuring its compliance – is a far harder act to achieve.

There’s a good chance a deal will eventually be reached, as war is in neither side’s interest, but given how far apart the two sides are, this will be an extremely bumpy ride. The situation is likely to escalate quite intensely before it eventually de-escalates. The danger is always present that although neither side wants a major war, there is a miscalculation or error on one side which crosses a red line and brings everyone into a war no-one wanted.

  • Harry Joffe is a Johannesburg tax and trust attorney.

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