Israel has a roadmap for its current war against Hamas in Gaza, as potholed as it might be.
But in northern Israel, Hezbollah’s capacity to inflict mayhem is a nightmare that for too many is a bad dream to which they hope never to awake. But now they must. The seeds of an existential confrontation have sprouted and must be removed now while the IDF is mobilized, Israel’s people united and the population along the border evacuated.
Why? Because the status quo in the north is unacceptable. Since the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre, Hezbollah has gradually escalated its cross-border attacks from one or two per day to 10 or more.
The danger is so great that Israel has evacuated 60,000 people living within three miles of the border. Those people now live in temporary facilities, their children’s schooling has been interrupted, their towns lie vacant and all movement and commerce along the border has stopped. Further back, Israelis live in fear of Hezbollah’s missiles and a possible ground incursion.
This is not sustainable. No country would accept this loss of territory and livelihood caused by a terrorist entity allied with Iran.
But there is more: Not only is the present situation in the north unacceptable, so, too, is a return to the pre-Oct. 7 status quo.
Why? Because having watched the events of Oct. 7 with horror, few Israelis will bring their families back to their homes along the border, where they would daily face the fear of what those on Gaza’s border experienced.
You might think that Israel should simply put better security measures in place.
Unfortunately, such measures are no guarantee. There are always ways around the most airtight security. Walls and technology, as proven on Oct. 7, are not foolproof. Moreover, the border with Lebanon is too long and rugged for soldiers, backed by sufficient forces to immediately stop a sudden, massive incursion, to guard every inch of it.
Then there is the issue of tension. During war, combat tension translates to vigilance. But that tension dissipates over months and years. Procedures are ignored and norms produce rigid thinking. Eventually, complacency becomes pervasive. A recent New York Times article outlined how Hamas took advantage of this complacency. Hamas’ plan came directly from Hezbollah’s playbook and Hezbollah’s plan has not changed. If Hezbollah remains in place, it will likely wait for the right moment to strike a blow far worse than the Oct. 7 massacre.
Moreover, Israel cannot afford to keep reserves mobilized on the northern border for years.
Eventually, it will risk going broke. One report has estimated that the present war is costing Israel $260 million a day. Israel’s tax revenues and GDP will go down while the war continues.
There are only two options, both of which demand prompt action before Israel’s economy spirals into ruin.
The first is to convince the United Nations to put teeth into Resolution 1701, which mandated that UNIFIL — the U.N. peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon — must patrol the border region in conjunction with the Lebanese army to ensure Hezbollah’s removal of its terrorists and weapons from the area.
However, during UNIFIL’s 45-year neutered existence, that has not happened. Instead, the region is a Hezbollah fortress teeming with weaponry hidden in civilian areas, tunnels and armed terrorists. To fix that, the U.N. will have to order UNIFIL to use force. That would require a huge international deployment willing to sustain significant casualties that would take months or years to assemble.
It won’t happen.
That leaves the second option: Forcing Hezbollah back to the other side of the Litani River by negotiation or force. The space created by this 18-mile pushback would prevent a Hezbollah surprise attack on Israel. It also would move many, though not all, of Hezbollah’s missiles out of range of Israel.
Diplomats always favor negotiations, but talks would fail unless Hezbollah believes Israel is willing to attack, that the international community would support that attack and Hezbollah decides it is not willing to bear the cost of such an attack.
This is a doubtful proposition, but should Israel attempt negotiations, there must be a time limit, such as 60 days. Otherwise, Hezbollah will drag out the talks until it can attack at a moment of its choosing. Meanwhile, Israel’s northern border would remain barren and the IDF would have to keep its reserves on duty.
Alternatively, Israel could launch a preemptive attack, perhaps with air power and artillery alone, but likely with a long-lasting ground incursion that would recreate the security zone Israel established from 1985-2000.
Both sides of this conflict can strike a devastating first blow. However, only Hezbollah can wait out Israel while maintaining the status quo. With the IDF now present in force along the border and citizens evacuated, now is probably the best opportunity the IDF will ever have to successfully preempt. Although other options might exist, like a declared free-fire zone in southern Lebanon, none would come free of retribution and all will be costly, receive world approbation and invite the preemptive attack from Hezbollah that Israel hopes to avoid.
I hate beating the drums for war, but I see no alternative to dealing with the problem of Hezbollah now. Hezbollah will only grow stronger and Iran will likely acquire nuclear weapons, while Israel will be weaker because of demobilization and loss of morale due to the aftershocks of Oct. 7 and the evacuation of the northern border region. All of this is a recipe for disaster if Israel does not act resolutely now.
The lesson of The New York Times article is that Israel’s government must consider acting based on capacity and intent. Hezbollah has both. Therefore, although I wish we were at the beginning of the end, I think we are at the end of the beginning. T
Clifford Sobin is the author of “Israel’s Struggle with Hezbollah: A War Without End.”