Israel is changing its 'rules of the game' with Iran in its favour

Its deterrence equation with Tehran's proxies relies on brinkmanship, and stamina on the other side is waning

White phosphorus fired by the Israeli army to create a smokescreen on the Israel-Lebanon border. Reuters
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As the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel continues in the shadow of the Gaza war, the term “rules of the game” has been raised many times to explain how the sides have responded militarily to each other while averting an escalation that might cause major damage to both.

However, it is also evident that the purported rules of the game have been repeatedly transgressed by the Israelis. This suggests that the so-called “dialogue of deterrence” between Hezbollah and Israel – a term coined by the Israeli scholar Yair Evron in the context of the Israeli-Syrian relationship during the years of the Lebanese civil war – is neither truly a dialogue nor has it been successful in deterring Israel.

The “rules of the game” first emerged in 1996, when Israel mounted its Grapes of Wrath operation in Lebanon, which was ended by an informal agreement, known as the April Understanding. The agreement sought to protect civilians on both sides of the Lebanese-Israeli border, at a time when Hezbollah was fighting the Israeli occupation. What it effectively did, however, was legitimise the decision of either side to transgress the tenets of the understanding in retaliation for the other side having done so first.

This evolved after the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000. At the time, Hezbollah claimed that Israel still occupied Lebanese land, notably the Shebaa Farms. Israel and the UN challenged this. The farms, if they’re not Lebanese, are technically part of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights. The Israelis accepted a certain level of Hezbollah attacks in this area, as the territory remained contested.

The so-called dialogue of deterrence between Hezbollah and Israel is neither a dialogue nor has it been successful in deterring Israel

Whether it is the April Understanding or Israel’s relative flexibility on Hezbollah’s operations in the Shebaa Farms, the interaction between the sides was governed by a certain level of realism and accepted proportionality. Either side understood that the other could do great damage to Lebanon or Israel if the rules were abandoned, and therefore acted within certain red lines.

These red lines have been increasingly crossed since the start of the Gaza war, and there is a reason for this. What is taking place is an Israeli effort to rewrite the deterrence equation – in Lebanon, but also in Syria – so that it leans more heavily in Israel’s favour.

About a year ago, the pro-Iran “Axis of Resistance” tried to do the same by floating a strategy that came to be known as the “unity of arenas”. The idea was that Iran’s network of regional proxies would collaborate in opening multiple fronts against Israel in response to Israeli actions deemed unacceptable – for instance, violating Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

The risks were immediately apparent to many observers, since the strategy implied that a contained confrontation between Hamas and Israel in Gaza could suddenly spread to Lebanon, Syria, Iraq or even Yemen, should other Iranian allies enter the fray in support of Hamas. Indeed, it may have been this expectation that led the Hamas leadership in Gaza to attack Israel on October 7. If so, the leadership’s expectations were only partly fulfilled.

Almost immediately, Hezbollah clarified that it did not want to see a major escalation of the war with Israel, neither did Iran – and certainly not if the US would intervene on Israel’s behalf. In successive speeches, Hezbollah’s secretary general Hassan Nasrallah stated that Lebanon was merely a “support front” for Hamas, while also implying that the country’s economic and social realities meant it could not absorb a full-scale war.

Such admissions from Hezbollah and Iran encouraged the Israelis to raise the ante. Everything suggests the gamble succeeded. Israel has killed dozens of Hezbollah operatives and a senior Hamas leader, Saleh Al Arouri, in Lebanon, in addition to several Iranian generals in Syria, two of them killed in the Iranian embassy compound last week. The Israelis have also ravaged large agricultural areas in south Lebanon, bombing them with white phosphorous.

Israel appears to be trying to normalise a lopsided deterrence situation in which it can strike much harder blows against Hezbollah and Iran, without expecting them to respond in kind because they are so keen to avoid a major military escalation.

If the Israelis succeed in doing such a thing, then it could push the Iranians to re-examine the “unity of arenas” strategy. The strategy cannot endure if the threshold of violence the participants in the Axis of Resistance can endure is lower than Israel’s, since effective deterrence is about the ability of one side to escalate to the levels of the adversary.

The danger is that Hezbollah and Iran will almost certainly not allow Israel to impose an uneven deterrence equation on them. They may be willing to absorb punishment for now, but sooner or later they will have to readjust the relationship, to ensure that Israel will not continue to restrict their margin of manoeuvre. But for that to succeed, some kind of confrontation may have to take place, so that Israel can feel the pain.

By trying to alter a long-standing status quo with Israel, the Iranians must have known they were taking a great risk. The problem with deterrence is that it is often held in place by brinksmanship. This implies that a direct Iranian-Israeli clash, including through Hezbollah, may lie ahead. When one’s credibility is at stake, blinking is not an option.

Published: April 09, 2024, 2:00 PM
Updated: April 14, 2024, 8:20 PM