Israel vs. Iran and Hezbollah: Towards a Military Clash?

Against the backdrop of the largest IDF exercise in the past two decades that was held during the past 10 days along Israel's northern border, Ehud Eilam considers the possibility of another confrontation between Israel and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah

From the Or Hadagan drill on Israel's northern border (Photo: IDF)

Since 1979, Israel and Iran have been in a state of cold war, a conflict which has intensified since the early 2000s with the development of Iran’s nuclear program. Israel is deeply concerned about Iran, which has called for Israel’s destruction, arming itself with nuclear weapons. It is unlikely that Israel has the military capability to destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure completely, without using an arsenal it does not officially admit is in its possession, i.e. nuclear weapons. Yet Israel could continue to threaten to strike Iran with conventional weapons – if only indirectly – in order to put pressure on the world powers to supervise Iran’s actions and to prevent Iran from obtaining the Bomb.

Israel may collaborate with the United States and/or Arab states against Iran. However, this anti-Iranian bloc would be fragile due to conflicts of interests between Israel and the Arab states, as well as with the United States. The US government might support an Israeli raid on Iran or not.

Israel does not want to be in a position in which a raid on Iran would be its last option. One of the possible shortcomings of such an attack would be a war between Israel and Hezbollah. The latter has up to 150,000 rockets that cover all of Israel. Still, the Iranian-sponsored group has good reason not to confront Israel while thousands of its men are pinned down in Syria, fighting to save their ally, Assad. Hezbollah is a powerful non-state organization, but it is not that strong. It is unable to focus on two fronts, Syria and Israel. Therefore, Hezbollah would have to choose its priority: to retaliate against Israel if the latter attacks Iran and thus to get entangled in a war against it or to keep its deployment in Syria.

Prior to its decline due to the civil war, the Syrian military was Israel’s greatest concern, as far as a clash with a conventional military. The relatively poor condition of its armed forces is one reason Assad would not join his Iranian ally in a war against Israel. Furthermore, Assad fears an Israeli retribution that would render him weak and vulnerable to his enemies within Syria, enabling them to defeat him. Israel has not intervened in the Syrian civil war. Since the beginning of the unrest there, Israel was not sure if its interests lied with Assad staying in power or with all kinds of outfits taking over Syria. Either way, Israeli air strikes inside Syria would likely continue, in order to prevent the delivery of advanced weapons to the Hezbollah. In the past ten days, the IDF held its biggest exercise in almost two decades, dubbed "Or Hadagan," aimed against Hezbollah.

Since the fighting in Syria erupted, the Israeli-Syrian border, in the Golan Heights, has not been calm. In 2014, armed groups seized almost all that border, from the Syrian side. As long as they are busy clashing with Assad, it is unlikely they will open another front against Israel. Furthermore, Hezbollah and Iran can have a strong presence on that border, which they might use to attack Israel. If this happens, Israel could strike back against Assad. Israel’s aim would be to convince Iran and Hezbollah that their ally, Assad, would pay dearly for any campaign against Israel in the Golan Heights.

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This article is based on Ehud Eilam’s article: “Israel in the Face of Evolving Security Challenges,” the Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 19, No. 2, Summer 2015

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