The Saudi decision to cause a political crisis in Lebanon by forcing Saad Hariri to resign his post as Lebanese prime minister has begun speculation of yet more dramatic events to unfold. Specifically, there are fears of a joint Saudi-Israeli effort to start a war in Lebanon.
The argument rests on the case that Saudi and Israeli positions on regional events are now in greater alignment than ever before. The greatest point of alignment is on Syria, where Iran and its allies have emerged as the victors, at the expense of Israeli and Saudi strategic interests.
More broadly, a more energetic Iranian regional policy following on the heels of Daesh’s defeat in Iraq and Syria, coupled with Iran’s growing influence in the Yemeni conflict, has raised fears in both Riyadh and Tel Aviv of a significant shift in the regional balance of power.
The prospect for a qualified Saudi-Israeli strategic alignment notwithstanding, the fact remains that Riyadh and Tel Aviv have radically different attitudes, interests and policies on Lebanon. Moreover, whilst a major conflict between Israel and Hezbollah is inevitable at some point in the future, contrary to widespread speculation this war is not imminent.
Saudi Arabia and Israel: a secret bond?
Saudi Arabia’s unprecedented move in effectively detaining the prime minister of a foreign country has been mostly interpreted as a sign of weakness in so far as Hariri (Saudi’s strongest ally in Lebanon) was reluctant to do Riyadh’s bidding by confronting Hezbollah.
One veteran analyst goes even further by describing Hariri’s forced resignation as a sign of desperation, effectively betraying Saudi Arabia’s “last card” in Lebanon. This analysis flows from a historical appraisal of Saudi influence building in Lebanon which traditionally focussed on the urban Sunni bourgeoisie based in Beirut, Sidon and Tripoli. Today this bourgeoisie has been largely emasculated in political terms, as demonstrated by the political dominance of Hezbollah and its mostly Christian allies.
Therefore, Saudi desperation must be understood in the context of a failure of a 70-year policy to build sustainable influence in Lebanon. However, this failure is not sufficient grounds to produce an alignment in Saudi and Israeli positions on Lebanon. In other words, Saudi Arabia cannot use Israel to strike Hezbollah.
Despite its failure to decisively influence Lebanese politics, Saudi Arabia continues to maintain deep interests in the country. Beyond the economy and financial investments, Saudi Arabia still has many actual and potential Lebanese political allies who can be mobilised under the right conditions. Even the Future Movement can be used to good effect by the Saudis, especially in light of reports that Riyadh is grooming Saad’s older brother Bahaa to replace him.
By contrast, Israel has little to no political influence in Lebanon and has no stake in the country beyond pacifying it on Israeli terms. In short, Israeli views and policies on Lebanon are formed entirely by security concerns.
Even on the issue of Hezbollah, which both countries regard as an enemy, attitudes diverge. For Saudi Arabia, Hezbollah essentially poses a political and sectarian challenge in so far as the Lebanese organisation is an extension of Iranian regional strategy. However, Israel views Hezbollah as its most proximate military and security threat with a proven ability to destabilise it.
Saudi Arabia’s attitude to the 2006 Lebanon War and its aftermath is often cited to support arguments that the Kingdom would welcome a new Israeli offensive in Lebanon, provided it breaks the back of Hezbollah. But Saudi Arabia’s undoubted desire to see Hezbollah cut down to size must be balanced against the Kingdom’s fears of an over-confident and offensive Israeli regional posture.
The next Lebanon War
In terms of potential Saudi-Israeli alignment on Lebanon, it is important to note that the Israelis appear to be in no hurry to fight for the Saudi cause in Lebanon. In fact, Israel is in no hurry to rush into a new conflict with Hezbollah for fear of strengthening the Lebanese Shia movement, as it did during the 2006 Lebanon War.
There are three factors that militate against a new Israeli offensive in Lebanon. First and foremost, Hezbollah currently enjoys strategic momentum, as demonstrated by its successful intervention (at the behest of Iran) in the Syrian conflict. Second, the operational terrain is heavily congested, as both Russian and US forces maintain significant military assets in Syria. As Hezbollah and Iranian forces are now stationed close to the occupied Golan Heights, there has long been speculation that the next war would not stay confined to southern Lebanon.
Third, Israel prefers to strike Lebanon at a point when Lebanese political elites are least united. Currently there is a relatively low degree of political discord in Lebanon, with the Saudi move against Hariri backfiring by producing a rare display of unity.
The combination of these factors means that Israel cannot be confident of striking a significant blow against Hezbollah, let alone defeating it. Israeli threats to obliterate Hezbollah in the next war notwithstanding, the basic fact is that short of using nuclear weapons, Israel cannot remove Hezbollah as a credible political-military entity in Lebanon.
In the final analysis, the current strategic trajectory – coupled with the deep and visceral enmity between Israel and Iran – points to a major war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon and potentially inside Syria. This conflict is indeed inevitable but it will not break out in the foreseeable future.