The Case for Averting War Between Israel and Hizballah


According to a well-known Jewish proverb, “It is not the mouse that is the thief, but the hole.” In other words, some of the problems we face (mice entering our home) are perhaps more a result of our own actions or lack thereof (plugging the holes in its walls), than of the malign intentions of others. What does this tell us about the security challenges Israel faces from Hizballah, the Lebanese militant group and Iranian proxy? It suggests that the best way to deal with threats such as those posed by this violent non-state actor (the “mouse”) might not be to try to eliminate it by force but, rather, to prevent it from exploiting the ambiguous situation in the Israeli-Lebanese border (the “hole”) to its advantage and to Israel’s detriment.

Israel’s political and military leaders — with a little help from their American counterparts — should not launch a massive military operation against Lebanon in order to eliminate Hizballah, or try to establish new “rules of the game” with it, but instead put their best efforts into reaching a political settlement with the Lebanese state regarding the border between the two states that, in time, might prevent Hizballah, and possibly other violent non-state actors active there, from attacking Israel from Lebanon’s territory.



Against a Major Operation

There are several reasons why a massive Israeli military operation designed to eliminate Hizballah might be counterproductive. Some of these reasons have to do with the past experience of foreign actors, including Israel, which has previously tried to dominate Lebanon. Others flow from the difficulties that states encounter when confronting violent non-state actors such as Hizballah.

First, foreign powers never succeeded in occupying Lebanon. Indeed, the common denominator between France, the United States, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Syria, and Israel is that all of these actors tried to establish a political and military foothold in Lebanon, but all have failed.

Second, Israel’s own experience in Lebanon shows that the military operations that it launched there did not bring stability. The best example is Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in June 1982: Israeli troops entered Lebanon, captured large swaths of its territory, and imposed a siege on its capital, Beirut. Israel tried to hold on to a “security zone” that it created in the Israeli-Lebanese border area, and even established a militia called the South Lebanon Army that fought alongside it. But in 2000, Israel had to withdraw from Lebanon, abandoning its clients. The same is true of other Israeli military operations in Lebanon during the 1990s, and also the war between Israel and Hizballah in 2006 (the Second Lebanon War) that Israel launched after a Hizballah attack against its territory.

Third, Israel will not be able to eliminate Hizballah. It is not only a guerrilla or “terrorist organization” as it is referred to many states, including the United States, but is also a political party and a social movement that enjoys considerable support in Lebanon — especially in the Shi’ite community, which is the largest in the country. Hizballah also commands huge stockpiles of rockets and missiles, making any attempt to defeat it a dangerous adventure. But over and beyond, all Hizballah needs to do in a military confrontation with Israel is to survive.

Fourth, “rules of the game” between states and violent non-state actors, such as those that exist between Israel and Hizballah (and between Israel and Hamas, until the latter attacked Israel on Oct. 7, 2023), mainly serve the non-state actor. This is because the non-state actor exploits these “rules” to limit the state’s use of superior military power against it. In the case of Israel and Hizballah, it was the non-state actor, Hizballah, that managed to force its rival, Israel, to exercise limits on its military power, enabling Hizballah to build itself as a political and military actor at Israel’s expense. This is in contrast to the “rules of the game” established between states, such as the “Red Line” between Israel and Syria in Lebanon. In 1976, Israel agreed that Syrian troops would enter Lebanon and suppress the Palestinian armed factions there, but Israeli leaders feared that the Syrian army might advance towards the Israeli-Lebanese border. Consequently, an arrangement was reached with American and Jordanian mediation that imposed restrictions on the Syrian operation, to prevent a clash with Israel but also to preclude a potential Soviet-American confrontation.

Fifth, the “rules of the game” between states and violent non-state actors — including attempts to bribe them — are unstable because these actors may break these “rules” when their existence is at stake. Violent non-state actors are not states and have no sovereignty, legitimacy, or clearly defined boundaries like states do. Therefore, survival is a primary goal for these actors, but they have no guarantee that they will survive in a world dominated by states. Therefore, when non-state actors face an existential threat, they may decide to attack the state to escape their predicament. For example, in 2006, when Hizballah faced an internal and external campaign to dismantle its weapons, it launched a military operation against Israel that led to the Second Lebanon War. Similarly, on Oct. 7, 2023, when Hamas feared that a U.S.-brokered regional deal would be reached at its expense, it decided to thwart it by attacking Israel, and to some extent succeeded.

Sixth, states are far better in dealing with other states than with violent non-state actors. This is because other states have political and security institutions that state leaders can work with, as well as clear and defined borders. In contrast, violent non-state actors lack both. On a more general level, too, international stability goes hand-in-hand with the establishment of political settlements between states.

Seventh, the weakness of the state on the other side of the border and the ambiguity of the border itself do not contribute to a state’s security, but rather the opposite. This is because a “weak state” enables violent non-state actors to claim that they “defend” the state because it cannot protect itself, and an ambiguous border gives these actors grounds to engage in “resistance” to the “occupation” of its territory. This enables violent non-actors to survive in their own state and in a world of states. For example, the “security zone” that Israel established in Lebanon on the grounds that Lebanon is weak not only accorded legitimacy to Hizballah’s “resistance” but also provided the latter with an opportunity to improve its military capabilities. In fact, from the end of the 1982 war to Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, Hizballah built itself as a guerrilla organization with considerable military skills, and the situation in southern Lebanon played to its favor and to Israel’s detriment. The ambiguity of the Israeli-Lebanese border also served Hizballah well.

Eighth, in Israeli relations with its Arab neighbors, diplomatic settlements between sovereign states have been more stable than arrangements between states and violent non-state actors. In the case of Lebanon, Israeli-Lebanese relations were stable in the period from 1949 to 1967, when the Israel-Lebanon Mixed Armistice Commission, which was established following the Armistice Agreement between the two states in 1949 — and which included representatives from both sides and a United Nations observer — achieved stability on both sides of the border. In 1967, after Israel’s victory in the Israeli-Arab War, Israel tried to annul the Armistice Agreement with Lebanon, although the latter did not fight against Israel. Later, Israeli leaders such as Moshe Dayan admitted that this was a mistake. But elsewhere, too, Israel has had stable peace agreements with its neighboring states: with Egypt since 1979 and with Jordan since 1994, as well as with other Arab states. The same cannot be said about Israel’s agreements with non-state actors.

Ninth, Israel is not the only foreign actor that has interests in Lebanon. Other actors are the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Syria. The United Nations has also been involved in Lebanon, and U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701 in 2006 emphasized “the importance of the extension of the control of the Government of Lebanon over all Lebanese territory … for it to exercise its full sovereignty, so that there will be no weapons without the consent of the Government of Lebanon and no authority other than that of the Government of Lebanon.” Since all these actors have interests in Lebanon, they will not allow Israel to operate there freely. It is important to note that the United States has a large Lebanese diaspora, including in swing states that are critical in any presidential election. Therefore, the United States will not abandon Lebanon and will not allow Israel to act there as it pleases, especially during an election year.

Finally, students of international relations acknowledge that the power and sovereignty of states are not absolute but they are mutually constitutive. What follows is that Israel should work to strengthen Lebanon as a state despite its weakness. Today, Lebanon is unstable and weak. But before the civil war of 1975 to 1990, Lebanon was relatively stable, and this was in Israel’s interest since it had someone to work with on the other side of the border. If Israel decides to see Lebanon — and not Hizballah — as its partner for a political settlement, then this may help strengthen Lebanon. Also, more “state-based” behavior towards Lebanon may decrease the motivation of at least some Lebanese to fight Israel, especially since there are no major disputes between the two countries. In such a situation, moreover, it might be more difficult for Hizballah to appeal to the Lebanese, and the “resistance” will be less legitimate. Indeed, even today, many Lebanese oppose Hizballah and its confrontation with Israel — which, in their eyes, embroils Lebanon in conflicts that are not its own. By adopting a “state-based” approach towards Lebanon, Israel can strengthen this trend.

Toward a Diplomatic Settlement

How can a diplomatic settlement between Israel and Lebanon be reached? What might it look like? First of all, Israeli political and military leaders should adopt a “state-based” approach towards Lebanon by clearly distinguishing between the Lebanese state and Hizballah. For example, Israeli leaders should make it clear that every political and military action that they take in and vis-à-vis Lebanon is not intended to hurt Lebanon as a state but, rather, to strengthen it and its sovereignty. What follows is that Israel should avoid attacking Lebanon’s state institutions, including its security forces, focusing only on Hizballah. In recent years, Hizballah — which has the Lebanese Armed Forces — has acquired significant military capabilities, and some argue that members of Lebanon’s security forces, including some military personnel, have close ties to the Shiite party-militia. However, the Lebanese Armed Forces are not an instrument of Hizballah, nor are they one and the same, and some members of Lebanon’s security agencies — the armed forces included — have little sympathy for Hizballah. Keeping the Lebanese military out of the conflict may drive these two actors further apart. Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure, too, should not be attacked since this is liable to alienate the population and push it toward Hizballah.

Second, Israel should work in earnest to remove all existing border disputes with Lebanon so that this would be recognized as an international border, thereby strengthening both states’ sovereignty and depriving Hizballah of this “card.” In 2022, an agreement was reached through U.S. mediation on the maritime border between the two states — this political settlement, which is in the interest of both states, can serve as a precedent for a comprehensive agreement on the land border. In January 2024, Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati expressed his state’s “readiness to conduct negotiations to achieve a long-term stabilization process in southern Lebanon, with a commitment to respect international decisions,” including Resolution 1701, and even envisioned “the revitalization of the armistice agreement [of 1949], its application and the restoration of the situation in the south to what it was before 1967.” As explained above, achieving both goals is also in Israel’s interest.

British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli famously argued that “We make our own fortunes and call them fate.” If Israel and Lebanon decide to settle the political disputes between them in a peaceful manner, with a little help from their American (and other Western and Middle Eastern) counterparts, then another bloody and devastating chapter in their mutual relations might be averted and stability could return to their shared border, to the benefit of both states and their peoples, and of the region as a whole.



Oren Barak is the Maurice B. Hexter Chair in International Relations – Middle East Studies and professor of political science at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His research areas include conflict and peace, civil-security relations, and popular culture. He is the author of The Lebanese Army: A National Institution in a Divided Society, Israel’s Security Networks: A Theoretical and Comparative Perspective, and State Expansion and Conflict: In and Between Israel/Palestine and Lebanon.

Image: Midjourney