Israel-Lebanon Border Dispute: Saber-Rattling Revisited

By Amanda Kadlec
Staff Writer
February 15, 2010

The 2006 War between Israel and Hezbollah left both sides wounded, but did not resolve critical points in the dispute. Resolution 1701—the Security Council resolution that presumed to settle the conflict—required that Hezbollah disarm and for Israel to respect Lebanese sovereignty. Yet after four years, neither party has complied faithfully with its terms. The resolution is effectively a dead letter. So when Middle East leaders traded not-so-subtle threats early this month, some observers started questioning the possibility of a return to warfare.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman sparked the war of words when he sent a bellicose warning to Syria. He said that if President Bashar Asad attempted a military move in tandem with Hezbollah or Iran, Israeli forces would topple the Syrian government along with Bashar’s family. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak also chimed in, saying that a continued delay in a Syria-Israel peace process could lead to a regional war. Despite efforts by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to divert attention from the comments and calm tensions, talk of imminent war is nonetheless making headlines.

Another Israel-Lebanon war, although possible, is unlikely in the immediate future. The newly formed, and still fragile, unity government led by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri is struggling to maintain stability, but it has been embarrassed by an increase in Israeli reconnaissance flights into Lebanese air space. Hariri declared last week that Lebanon would stand behind Hezbollah if faced with Israeli aggression.

Israel’s military buildup is not a direct response to land disputes, or Hezbollah alone. Jerusalem continues to view Tehran’s rapid nuclear development as the primary threat to the security of the Jewish state, and some have called for military strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities. Israeli attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities could trigger an immediate response from neighboring Syria and Hezbollah. Lebanon’s vow of support for Hezbollah is crucial to maintaining regional balance and keeping Israel’s movements in check. Damascus also declared that if Syria were threatened, it would face Israel side-by-side with Beirut.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration is far from signaling that a military strike on Iranian soil is even an option. Presently, sanctions are Washington’s weapon of choice. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other U.S. officials argue that the effects of offensive action toward Iran would be temporary, and perhaps counterproductive. It would also be unpopular domestically in the United States. Therefore, if Israel is considering taking military action, it will most likely have to do so unilaterally. Even as late as December, Israeli officials hinted that military intervention is not a realistic option going forward. As Washington attempts to discourage Jerusalem from resorting to an act of force, U.S. officials are pressing Israeli leaders to redirect their attention to restart peace talks with Palestine.

Despite the saber-rattling and heated exchanges, Israel is ill-poised to advance its military aims in Iran, Lebanon, or anywhere else. Its bargaining chips are further diminished by international criticism of its conduct during the 2008-2009 war in Gaza, as well as its contrary position to the UN-commissioned Goldstone report, which found evidence the Israeli military is culpable for war crimes. On the other side, Hezbollah, because of its desire for political as well as military power, is unlikely to make a preemptive move; and the new Washington-backed Lebanese government is more interested in achieving stability than fighting wars. Indeed, as both sides are preparing their defenses, a lead-up to heightened conflict is plausible, but it is not imminent. Even though Israel is a powerful regional force with a strong patron in the form of the United States, it does not currently possess enough political clout to back up its hawkish rhetoric.

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