Ten years after, the threat of another conflict is real

The United States should prioritise preventing another deadly confrontation between Hizbollah and Israel, write Bilal Saab and Nicholas Blanford.

Two Israeli soldiers and a Spanish peacekeeper were killed last year in an exchange of fire between Hizbollah and Israel.  Maruf  Khatib / Reuters
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This month marks the tenth anniversary of the 33-day conflict between Hizbollah and Israel. The 2006 war caused massive physical destruction in Lebanon, and led to 1,109 Lebanese deaths, the vast majority of whom were civilians, and an estimated 1 million displaced.
Hizbollah's rocket attacks on Israel, which brought normal life to a halt in the Jewish state for more than a month, killed 43 Israeli civilians and 12 Israel Defence Force soldiers. These numbers could pale in comparison, however, to those of another round, given Hizbollah's much improved and increased military capabilities and an increasingly uncertain regional security environment.
Over the last decade, a balance of terror between Hizbollah and Israel has helped preserve the fragile peace. Neither side wants another costly confrontation, and both are aware of the risks of miscalculation. However, mutual deterrence is inherently unstable, and the chances of one side misreading the actions of the other are much higher now due to the spillover of the conflict in Syria, where Hizbollah is involved militarily. Hizbollah's presence in the Israel-occupied Golan Heights is a major complicating factor that has put Israel on edge.
Another war between Israel and Hizbollah, if it happens, is likely to be regional and include Iran, which could carry with it disastrous consequences for the Middle East. The only parties that would benefit from such chaos would be ISIL and Al Qaeda, who could use the resulting power vacuums and instability to expand their so-far modest presence in Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories.
The threat of a regional conflagration means that, although there are no good options for Washington when it comes to Hizbollah, the United States should prioritise preventing another deadly confrontation between the militant group and Israel.
Here, preventive US diplomacy with Tehran and Tel Aviv will be indispensable. Months of intense negotiations between US and Iranian officials over the nuclear deal have created a channel of communication that can now be used to delineate red lines on Lebanon, and, if an accident happens, to immediately defuse tensions and stop escalation between Israel and Hizbollah. Indeed, it is the first few moments of any future flare-up that will be most critical and consequential.
As for Israel, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads one of the most right-wing cabinets in the country's history. This adds a layer of unpredictability to Israeli security policy, even though the Israeli military has counselled the political leadership against taking advantage of Hizbollah's current vulnerability.
Washington, however, can influence Israeli decision-making through closer consultation and security reassurances, and can help to ensure that cooler heads prevail in the interest of averting another catastrophic war and preserving regional stability.
Bilal Y Saab is senior fellow and director of the Middle East Peace and Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council. Nicholas Blanford is the Beirut correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor and a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council