Hezbollah began its provocations at Israel's northern border with Lebanon only months after Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power following his election in November 2022. Conventional wisdom held that Hezbollah was emboldened to act, believing Israel displayed weakness entering a US-brokered agreement in October 2022 by offering a small territorial concession to Lebanon that resolved a maritime dispute between the two countries over contested gas fields.
This explanation for Hezbollah's audacity does not account for other important reasons driving its current behavior. In October 2019, there were "massive demonstrations against Hezbollah and . . . Iran in Lebanon" due to the almost complete "disintegration" of the Lebanese "state and economy and society." In the May 2022 elections, Hezbollah lost its majority in the Lebanese parliament. Even though Hezbollah's leaders are the "overlords" in Lebanon, their strategic goal is to advance a candidate of their own choosing to be elected president — a significant role in Lebanon's political structure that carries "huge political clout."
Given both the election results and multiple failed attempts to elect a new president, an important reason for Hezbollah's actions against Israel is that it is "worried" the Lebanese opposition party will advance an "anti-Hezbollah" presidential candidate who will win a majority vote. Should that happen, such a president would follow UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which stipulates that only the Lebanese national military can carry arms. An armed Hezbollah operates under the exception that it is protecting Lebanon from Israel, "a terrible enemy." Although Hezbollah has the military might to disregard any order to disarm, the Lebanese would then see it as an Iranian occupation force. That perception would weaken Hezbollah's standing among the Lebanese even further and enhance the "moral power" behind the new anti-Hezbollah president and his government.
Within Lebanon, another important consequence of the maritime agreement explains Hezbollah's current belligerence. Given the group's precarious standing with the Lebanese, Hezbollah's agreement to the maritime deal demonstrated that, since Israel was willing to concede a small portion of the Mediterranean "to Lebanese economic sovereignty," the Jewish state was not interested in war. Thus, if Israel is not the threat Hezbollah claims, the Lebanese people would be justified in questioning Hezbollah's need to be armed. Hezbollah's panic over losing support among the Lebanese populace spurs them to prove themselves as protectors of Lebanese national interests, not Iranian or Shia ones. Ergo, Hezbollah's recent threats against Israel, and its sending unarmed drones over the Karish maritime field prior to the maritime agreement, constitute chest-beating to show the Lebanese people that Hezbollah is vigilantly guarding its territory.
A final reason for Hezbollah's saber-rattling is because of Israel's internal crisis over judicial reform and the resulting sharp societal divisions. Hezbollah is scrutinizing how limited Israel's military response is to its provocations. The civil strife tempts Hezbollah to continue its provocations, but "not to cross a threshold" that would show its hand and precipitate a war.
As the Iranian regime's proxy controlling Lebanon, Hezbollah and its efforts to "humiliate" Jerusalem meet with Tehran's approval in particular because of Israel's actions against Iran in Syria. Still, the Iranian regime understands that cornering Israel into starting a war against Hezbollah is not in their interest, as they cannot afford to lose Hezbollah. "If they lose Hezbollah in Lebanon, they may lose power in Tehran." The survival of its proxy is of vital importance to the regime, as it was Ayatollah Khomeini, who established the group in 1982. Following Iran's defeat in its war against Iraq, Khomeini salvaged his legacy via his success with Hezbollah as "a Shia foothold in the middle of the [Sunni] Arab world," and by the group's role saving the Assad regime in Syria before Iran and Russia entered the fray.
The prospect of a calamitous war with Hezbollah, with four thousand rockets raining down on Israel daily, has not drawn media attention due to the distraction of Israel's political turmoil and the media spotlight on the Ukraine conflict. There is no "shooting war" between Israel and Lebanon, but the dangerous political game of chicken Hezbollah is playing can easily spiral out of control if it miscalculates and overplays its hand. Israeli analysts are discussing the need to restore deterrence against Hezbollah to avoid war. Should the Israeli government stop judicial reform, resolve its internal disputes, strengthen the military cohesion impacted by the political split, and deal with Israel's economy and security, "[Hezbollah leader] Nasrallah will get the message" and step back from the brink.
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.