Swords of Iron

Has Israel already lost the war with Hezbollah?

Depth, speed, and decisiveness. When it comes to Lebanon, Israel no longer seems to have any of that.

In 1997, a young colonel in his early 40s wrote a paper for the US Army War Collegein Carlisle, Pennsylvania. His name was Gadi Eisenkot and he was just months away from returning from a year of study in the US to Israel and taking up his role as commander of the Golani Brigade.

A student at the college, Eisenkot‘s paper was titled “Israel Security in the 21st Century: Risks And Opportunities,” and he focused on the lack of a clear national defense doctrine in Israel. While recognizing this vacuum, Eisenkot focused his paper on what he called the “critical security principles” that have shaped Israel’s military strategy.

One of the challenges, he stressed, was the need to create strategic depth, something that became possible in the aftermath of the Six Day War when Israel conquered the West Bank from Jordan, the Golan Heights from Syria and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt following their attacks on Israel.

Israel, he warned in the 1997 paper, “risked losing this strategic depth in the pursuit of peace,” a reference to a possible Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank following the Oslo Accords.

“This situation creates significant military challenges for the IDF in which Arab police and military forces are now, in some cases, within five to 20 miles from main Israeli population centers,” he explained at the time.

In stressing the importance of strategic depth, Eisenkot was referencing the defense doctrine Israel’s founding father David Ben-Gurion outlined in the 1950s. One of the principles was the need for Israel to always transfer the battle to enemy territory. Why? Because Israel lacks strategic depth and the moment the war is in Israeli territory, it not only poses an existential risk but is already something of a defeat.

Eisenkot, who would go on to serve as the IDF chief of staff, would do well to dust off the paper and distribute it to his colleagues in the war cabinet. It is especially relevant in light of what has been happening along the Israeli-Lebanese border, which can unfortunately only be described so far as a military defeat for Israel.

The reason is simple. While Israel claims that Hezbollah does not want war, and that the last 100-plus days of strikes against Hezbollah targets have killed a significant number of Hezbollah guerrillas – including top commanders – the fact is that Israel has ceded territory to its enemy.

Instead of taking the fight to enemy territory as dictated by Ben-Gurion, Israel has withdrawn from the territory and evacuated around 100,000 of its residents along the border.

If after the First Lebanon War Israel created a 24-km.-wide security zone in southern Lebanon, today while there might be a security zone, it is in Israel. In other words, not only is Hezbollah attacking Israel every day – sometimes even killing people like this week – it has also forced Israel to cede territory, something that is almost the equivalent of admitting defeat.

The difference between Gaza and Lebanon is that while there are also evacuees in the South, they have a horizon to look forward to – the IDF ground offensive – that will eventually allow them to return home. In the North, there is nothing except some attempts by the Americans and French to create a diplomatic resolution of sorts that will push Hezbollah forces from the border.

Senior Israeli officials do not believe that those efforts will bear fruit. They are skeptical that the shuttling being done by US envoy Amos Hochstein or his French counterparts between Jerusalem and Beirut will succeed. Anyhow, these efforts are nothing worth taking to the bank.

A Hezbollah withdrawal from southern Lebanon and its redeployment north of the Litani River was supposed to have happened over 17 years ago in the aftermath of the Second Lebanon War under UN Security Council Resolution 1701. As we now know, it never did.

Does this mean war is inevitable? As much as we’d like to hope that it is not, the lesson of October 7 needs to be an assumption that it is. Israel needs to believe an enemy that is deployed along its border, calls for its destruction, fires missiles into its cities, kills its citizens, and has brought about the largest Jewish refugee crisis since the end of the Holocaust.

Photo by Erez Ben Simon/TPS

We can continue to tell ourselves stories that Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah is deterred, does not want war and continues to live in a fortified bunker. But those are exactly that – stories – the same kind we were telling ourselves up until 6:30 a.m. on October 7 when Hamas unleashed its barbaric assault on southern Israel.

Israel’s options here are limited. On the one hand, there is an argument to launch a preemptive strike and try to eliminate as much of Hezbollah’s missile arsenal before they can be launched at Israel.

On the other hand, doing so would be perceived as unprovoked Israeli aggression due to a misunderstanding by the world – and a failure by Israel to articulate – what is really happening in the North and how there already is a war raging there.

The other option is easier and is the strategy that Israel has currently adopted – waiting for the Americans and French to hopefully bring a political resolution even though the IDF and the war cabinet understand that it is just kicking the can down the road and that Hezbollah is not about to change or stop amassing weaponry and using it to threaten Israel.

What will we do, for example, a year from now when Hezbollah is supposed to be north of the Litani River and we start seeing it rebuild positions south of it and patrol along the border with Israel?

This is exactly what happened after the 2006 war, and then the decision was the same as it was with Hamas – Israel decided to “contain” the threat. It wagged its finger, warned the Security Council that 1701 was being violated, but not much more. It never used military means to try and stop Hezbollah.

On page 4 of his paper for the US Army War College, Eisenkot spelled out why the Six Day War was such a critical victory for Israel. “In this war, the IDF struck preemptively against the Arab air and ground forces and within six days Israel achieved a great victory which validated Israel’s Principles of Security.

These principles provided the solutions to Israel’s lack of strategic depth and the requirement to prosecute a war as quickly and decisively as possible.”

Depth, speed, and decisiveness. When it comes to Lebanon, Israel no longer seems to have any of that.