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Israel and Hezbollah cannot afford war

Neither Israel nor Hezbollah can afford all-out war, but the situation could nonetheless spiral out of control

Ten days after an Israeli strike in Syria killed several Hezbollah fighters, the Lebanese movement made good on its threat to retaliate. In an attack in the occupied Shebaa Farms, Hezbollah killed and wounded Israeli troops.

With Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman saying retaliation should be "harsh and disproportionate," and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah saying his movement is ready for war, there is heightened speculation that the situation could escalate to that point. Israel has already shelled southern Lebanon. However, both sides have reason to avoid a full-blown conflict.

Hezbollah is militarily bogged down in Syria in support of Bashar al-Assad. Its involvement there has led to jihadist attacks on its home turf, which look set to continue, if not intensify. Earlier this month, al-Qaeda's Syrian wing, al-Nusra Front, addressed the following threat to Hezbollah: "We will spare no effort to strike you in your heartlands." Last month, the Islamic State (IS) issued a call for "all the jihadis to move to Lebanon to break Hezbollah."

According to opinion polls, Hezbollah's popularity domestically and regionally has nose-dived due to its intervention in Syria. This has galvanised its political opponents at home, and led to dissenting voices within its own support base.

Nasrallah cannot necessarily rely on his primary regional allies, Assad and Iran. Both are far weaker today than they were during Israel's 2006 invasion of Lebanon. Assad, whose position is reliant on foreign fighters and weapons, has lost control of large swathes of Syria to various armed groups.

Iran's military is increasingly involved in Syria and Iraq. This has strained its economy, which is suffering greatly from plummeting oil prices and Western sanctions (American sanctions have recently been increased). Hezbollah, Assad and Iran are too invested in each others' conflicts, as well as internal pressures and regional rivalries, to afford an all-out war with Israel.

The situation today is far removed from 2006, when Hezbollah was able to take on its long-time foe with the help of its allies, who were able to focus on providing sufficient weaponry through stable supply routes.

In any case, neither Syrian nor Iranian troops have fought alongside Hezbollah in its previous wars with Israel, and Assad has never retaliated against repeated Israeli strikes in Syria. As such, there is little if any reason to believe that Damascus and Tehran would get directly involved this time.

Similarly, although Hamas last week urged Hezbollah to form a united front against Israel, the Palestinian faction is in no shape for another war just months after Israel's devastating Gaza onslaught.

Nasrallah has earned a reputation for putting his money where his mouth is, so when he said Hezbollah would retaliate against Israel's repeated provocations, it was a matter of when, not if. Not doing so would have made the movement look weak and hurt its credibility as part of the self-proclaimed "axis of resistance". Indeed, Hezbollah was established specifically as a resistance movement against Israel.

The location of its attack - occupied territory rather than Israel itself - suggests a strategic calculation that would fulfil its promise to retaliate while minimising the risk of escalation. If Tuesday's rocket attacks from Syria are also retaliation against Israel (no one has yet claimed responsibility), targeting the occupied Golan Heights might serve the same purpose.

With Israelis going to the polls in March, acting tough prior to elections tends to be a vote-winner, so it serves Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's domestic standing to sabre-rattle, but only if things do not get out of hand. 

Just as the Lebanese have no appetite to re-live the devastation inflicted on them during Israel's 2006 invasion, Israelis have no appetite for another war just months after the conflict with Hamas, particularly since Hezbollah is a far more powerful foe with longer-range missiles than it - or Hamas - has ever had.

Furthermore, Netanyahu will be mindful that his domestic popularity plummeted after the last conflict with Hamas because Israelis did not view it as a victory. Another war with Hezbollah, which Israel has yet to defeat, could easily seal Netanyahu's electoral fate. Such a war would also further increase Israel's already unprecedented international isolation.

Neither side can afford all-out war, and both may be strategising against it. However, history amply shows how easily such incidents can spiral out of control, all the more so now given that Israel's current government is widely regarded as the most extremist in the country's history.

With the civil war in Syria and spill-over into Lebanon, the increased number of opposing forces on the ground makes the situation far more complicated and combustible. Against this backdrop, war may occur whether or not it has been planned.

Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and analyst on Arab affairs. He is a regular contributor to Al Arabiya News, Al Jazeera English, The National, and The Middle East magazine. In 2008, he received an award from the International Media Council "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting" on the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

PhotoIsraeli soldiers on a military armoured vehicle near the border with Lebanon in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights on January 29, 2015 (AA)

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