(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The last thing Israel and Lebanon need is another conflict: both countries are beset by political strife and resurgent coronavirus outbreaks; the Lebanese, additionally, are dealing with the gravest economic crisis in their history. But sabers are again rattling on the border separating them, thanks to Hezbollah and its patron, Iran.
On Monday, Israel said it thwarted an attempted incursion by Hezbollah fighters in the Shebaa Farms area. The Iran-backed militia claimed it had done no such thing, and instead accused an “anxious and tense” of making up a story. But some elements of Hezbollah gave the game away by celebrating and boasting about the action.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that any Hezbollah attack “will be answered with great force.” His Lebanese counterpart, Hassan Diab, said he feared that “things are slipping into the worst amid high tension on the border.”
The escalation is part of a protracted, low-intensity exchange of provocations between, on one side, Iran and its proxy militias, and the U.S. and Israel on the other. It also highlights Hezbollah’s growing status as a regional force rather than simply a Lebanese-Shiite militia.
Last week, a Hezbollah fighter was killed in Syria in one of the now-routine Israeli airstrikes against pro-Iranian forces. The attempted infiltration was presumably intended as retaliation. Hezbollah says insists a forceful reprisal is “definitely coming.” Iran reiterated its “permanent and constant support” for Hezbollah and warned Israel against the “madness” of further attacks on its assets, especially in Lebanon.
The grey-zone conflict began just over a year ago, in May 2019 when Iran decided to push back against the Trump’s administration’s “maximum pressure” sanctions with what it called “maximum resistance.”
This translated to a series of attacks against U.S.-related targets, most of them in Iraq. The most dangerous moment came early on Jan 3, when an American drone attack in Baghdad killed the senior Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, leader of Tehran’s most important Iraqi proxy paramilitary force. After a lull, attacks on American positions have resumed, even though U.S. forces have withdrawn from several bases.
In Syria, where Hezbollah is a major presence on behalf of Iran and the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, Israel has launched a campaign of bombing raids to prevent weapons transfers and military entrenchment. The fighter killed last week was hardly the first Hezbollah casualty of this campaign, but the militia is making more of his death than those that went before.
This increased urgency is connected to the fortunes of Iran and its proxies elsewhere. Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has moved to reign in pro-Iranian militias, which are blamed for rocket attacks on American targets and the assassination of Husham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi expert on these groups. Perhaps even more ominous from Tehran’s perspective has been a set of highly suspicious explosions and fires at key military and industrial facilities in Iran, most notably the Natanz nuclear site, which are widely blamed on Israel and U.S. For Iran and its regional proxies, the need to hit back and restore some measure of deterrence has rarely been more pressing.
Lebanese are used to spasmodic exchanges of fire between Hezbollah and Israeli Defense Forces along the border—there was one just last fall—but this one comes at an especially inconvenient time. The Diab government is plainly out of its depth amid an intensifying economic crisis, and the border clash came on the same day that Moody’s Investor Service lowered Lebanon’s credit score to the same level as Venezuela. Negotiations for an International Monetary Fund bailout are not going well: Economy Minister Raoul Nehme says Lebanon may have to settle for as little as half the $10 billion it wants. More border clashes might spook even a lender of last resort.
Politically, Lebanon’s confessional factions are as divided as ever. And a recent spike in coronavirus cases have raised new alarms about the pandemic.
Israel, too, is suffering from a pandemic resurgence and Netanyahu is also dealing with major street protests against his government. War with Hezbollah, which is armed with tens of thousands of missiles as well as fighters hardened in Syrian battlefields, would be likely be long, painful and expensive for Israel.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah would also prefer to avoid a major war for now. An economic collapse of Lebanon would be damaging for Hezbollah, which is closely tied into the country’s economy. And he has plenty of other battles to wage. As a key part of Iran’s “maximum resistance” campaign, Hezbollah is training or fighting alongside other militias in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
The question for Nasrallah now is how far he can serve Iran’s interest without terminally damaging Lebanon’s—and his own.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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