Still playing by the rules

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It would be no exaggeration to say that there are those at the highest levels of Israel’s security establishment who are awaiting the moment when Hizballah makes a mistake, thereby providing the trigger and the justification for the Israel Defense Forces to "settle the score" with the Lebanese organization.

This "closing of accounts" was originally predicted to overlap with the onset of the American campaign in Iraq, with Israel’s strategists seeding the public climate in anticipation of this eventuality. At first, assessments circulated that Hizballah was poised to ignite Israel’s northern front, aiming to disrupt America’s impending drive into Iraq; then, press reports routinely surfaced in the Israeli media amplifying the threats posed by the organization.

For example, there was a spate of press releases with descriptions of Hizballah’s long-range rockets (allegedly supplied by Saddam Hussein and Iran), hints of chemical weapons, and suggestions of collaboration between Hizballah and al Qaeda. IDF intelligence subsequently conceded that Israel had no information linking Hizballah to Osama bin Laden’s group. Nor was there a transfer of rockets from Iraq.

Now, however, with the American campaign behind us, what we see is an Israel-Lebanon border untouched by the war in Iraq. The supposedly inevitable flare-up has not only failed to materialize, but seems to be indefinitely on hold.

In reality, what transpired on this border following the May 2000 Israeli withdrawal is quite different from what Israel had envisaged during the years of conflict in South Lebanon, especially as the unilateral pullout approached. The IDF had remained in the south for almost two decades, consistent with its view that its presence assured the defense of Israel’s northern towns. This strategic objective did indeed become attainable, and was indeed to be finally realized–but only once the withdrawal was complete.

Hizballah has continued its activity against Israel since the withdrawal, but its scope and nature have been more limited and less troubling than what had been forecast by Israeli intelligence. Instead of the expected deterioration in security, both sides engaged more and more in redefining the "rules of the game". Since the withdrawal, these rules have regulated both the intensity of engagement and the parameters of mutual disengagement. We might describe the current situation as a "war of minds" in which the parties periodically try to refashion these "rules", seeking to gain advantage over one another.

By and large the sides have abided by these ground rules, prudently avoiding disproportionate moves. Infrequently, when one party identifies an apparent imbalance, steps are quickly taken to re-impose the status quo ante. This dynamic has become one of the most important stabilizing features in the border landscape.

But what of the future? Every few months Israeli authorities update the public about threats to national security, stressing the latest numbers of katyusha rockets available to Hizballah–13,000 to date. Yet on the other side, taking into account that the weaker side in the strategic equation is Lebanon and Hizballah, it should not be surprising that the Shiite organization is cautiously observing the rules of the game. After all, Hizballah faces an army whose might is certainly not measured in katyushas. Casting Israel into a limited tactical skirmish-counter skirmish mold is clearly in the interest of Lebanon and Hizballah. It is more surprising that so far Israel is accommodating this situation.

The conflict between Israel and Hizballah has thus changed from one of ongoing combat to one of intermittent outbursts (every few months); even then the eruptions are restricted in nature. Israel has only gradually accepted that the scenario of the Shiite organization initiating a rocket assault across the entire north of Israel is unrealistic for the foreseeable future. By the same token, none of the parties–Hizballah, Lebanon, Syria and Iran–is oblivious to the devastating repercussions that such an attack would wreak upon Lebanon.

Today, Hizballah enters public and official discourse in Israel within two contexts. The first is the organization’s penetration into the Palestinian arena. Until recently Hizballah tried to maintain an opaque facade, but it now confirms the existence of a special unit devoted to bolstering the Palestinian intifada. Israeli intelligence maintains that up to 80% of Palestinian violence this year has been either financed or directed by Hizballah. It is always difficult to corroborate such intelligence claims independently; however, the buildup of Hizballah’s image of deep involvement in terror activity against Israel cannot be dismissed. This association with the Palestinian theater could unravel the status quo at the northern border.

The second, and equally disturbing context in which Hizballah is significant pertains to scenarios of an Israeli clash with Iran, possibly following an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. In such a case Israel might expect an Iranian response in the north via Tehran’s Shiite proxy.

What is the likelihood of such ominous scenarios? Israel’s contingency blueprints have tended in the past to become operational under certain–perhaps self fulfilling–circumstances. For now, though, there is a quiet but tense mood along Israel’s border with Lebanon–albeit, with a sense of the temporary. Every quiet day reinforces the status quo and the rules governing the situation. As these rules become more entrenched, and as the sides grow accustomed to the inherently circumscribed parameters of the border conflict, this seems to augur well for a period of relative tranquility.

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