Hassan Nasrallah and the Dangerous Game of Chicken in Lebanon

The ongoing conflict between Israel and Iran-backed Hezbollah has deep roots, threatening both regional stability and the security of Israel. 

Media outlets in Beirut have reported that British diplomats recently delivered harsh warnings to their Lebanese counterparts: if Hezbollah continues its attacks on northern Israel, Israel will scale up its military campaign against Lebanon by mid-June. 

On the military side, the border reports have quoted the IDF Chief of Staff saying that the “time is near for a decision.” Public pressure from mayors in the north is rising to put an end to Hezbollah's attacks, which have nearly paralyzed life in this part of the country. 

These verbal threats are the result of a spike in hostilities in recent weeks, with both Israel and Hezbollah expanding their operations. Israel's air force struck deep in the Beqaa Valley, while Hezbollah fired UAVs and suicide drones at an Israeli coastal town some 20 km south of the border. 

As the cycle of violence between Israel and Hezbollah escalates without any effective mechanism to prevent further deterioration, the chances of avoiding an all-out war seem slim. 

Hezbollah has created a clear linkage between its attacks and the status of the fighting in Gaza. Therefore, as long as any agreement between Israel and Hamas regarding a ceasefire in return for hostages is stalled, the Lebanese front will remain active. 

Domestic criticism of Hezbollah’s war in southern Lebanon is limited to the organization's known political rivals. As long as the wider public, let alone the government, will not put pressure on the organization’s leadership, no change in their calculations should be expected. 

Operationally, Hezbollah suffered damages to its military infrastructure located in Shia villages in south Lebanon, lost some 300 men, and Israel hit a limited number of its military sites in the Beqaa Valley. Nevertheless, it is safe to assume that the vast majority of its 50,000 armed and trained personnel and its estimated stockpile of 120,000 to 200,000 short and medium-range rockets and missiles hidden all over Lebanon are still operational. 

The sole and final decision-maker on the Lebanese side is Hassan Nasrallah, who has served as secretary-general of Hezbollah for the last 32 years. Nasrallah is a savvy political leader who has proven to be an avid analyst of Israeli politics and the forces operating in the Jewish state over the years. Knowing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for decades, Nasrallah appears to be betting that Netanyahu's risk-averse nature will prevent him from taking a hazardous military move in the form of a ground attack on Lebanon. After all, from Nasrallah’s perspective, Netanyahu's government always adopted a conservative approach towards Hezbollah, operating only at the tactical level, maintaining the status quo along its northern border. 

It so happens that the three major events that created a strategic outcome for Israel’s policy in Lebanon were all products of other prime ministers: the 2000 IDF withdrawal from Lebanon under Ehud Barak’s government, the 2006 war led by Ehud Olmert, and the 2022 maritime border agreement signed by the Lapid-Bennett government. 

Adding to this dynamic is the clear distrust and obvious tensions between Netanyahu and the Biden administration. The chances of U.S. support for an Israeli offensive move in Lebanon look slim. Under these circumstances, there is a logic to Nasrallah’s brinkmanship, and it seems that he is nowhere near changing his course of action by trying to contain the situation. 

With the self-confidence demonstrated by Nasrallah and the current balance of cost-benefit calculations he follows, the ball is deep in the Israeli court. Israeli messages regarding the unacceptable situation have been going on for months, but it appears that Hezbollah does not consider them as a serious threat. 

By now, after a month of exchanging fire, previous red lines have been crossed by both Hezbollah and Israel, and the two are wandering through an uncharted strategic landscape. Each side tests its limits by “trial and error” through military actions, a risky endeavor that could lead to an unwanted war. Nevertheless, when Nasrallah confronts an Israel that is domestically unstable, internationally isolated, and militarily weak after months of fighting in Gaza, he should not be expected to be the one to turn the steering wheel in this strategic game of chicken.

Dror Doron is a senior advisor at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) focusing on Hezbollah and Lebanon. He spent nearly two decades as a senior analyst in the Office of Israel’s Prime Minister. Dror is on Twitter @DrorDoron