Does Hezbollah Wield Coercive Power over Israel?

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

By Middle East Policy

Daniel Sobelman argues that the Lebanese militant group’s threat to spark a regional war intimidated Tel Aviv into ceding claims on Mediterranean gas.

As Israel this week faced upheaval in the streets and protests by military reservists sparked by the right-wing government’s passage of a law curbing the judiciary, Hezbollah’s leadership declared, “This is what puts [Israel] on the path of collapse, fragmentation and disappearance, God willing.”

While this was mere rhetoric, a new analysis contends that even before this potential weakening of the Jewish state, the militant group was able to coerce Israel into making diplomatic and economic moves it otherwise would not. Daniel Sobelman, writing in the Summer 2023 issue of Middle East Policy, argues that the group’s symbolic violence and seeming willingness to attack a range of assets compelled Israel to relinquish the rights to some gas exploration as part of a deal with Lebanon last year.

“Hezbollah openly threatened to target Israel’s entire gas production and risk all-out war,” Sobelman writes, “if Israel proceeded with its plan to unilaterally extract gas from the contested Karish gas field” in the eastern Mediterranean. As a result, in fall 2022, Israel delayed its exploration, gave up on its pursuit of another disputed area, and signed a deal with Lebanon establishing a maritime boundary and exclusive economic zones.

Sobelman makes the case that this demonstrates how a nonstate organization can pursue its interests against a much more powerful country. “Relatively weak actors may be able to exploit their stronger opponents’ escalation aversion and force them to choose between escalation, low-level friction, and political acquiescence,” he asserts.

The article examines public statements and Hezbollah’s actions to demonstrate the escalation of the threat.

After a monthlong 2006 war that both sides regretted, Sobelman explains, both sides engaged in “mutual deterrence” to prevent another regrettable conflict. Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary-general, exploited Israel’s concerns to scuttle its pursuit of gas exploration without a deal and to accept terms that were not as favorable as they might otherwise have been.

The coercive-diplomacy campaign began in June 2022 as the British-Greek oil and gas exploration company Energean Power, docked a rig in Israeli waters to begin exploration of the Karish gas field—part of which was still contested. Nasrallah demanded the activity cease, declared that “all options are on the table,” and hinted that his organization could take actions that would risk a regional war.

Crucial to this strategy was not just words but the employment of symbolic violence. Hezbollah targeted drones at the Energean rig, a signal that Sobelman says “thrust the dispute into Israel’s strategic and national attention.”

Such a campaign of coercion also requires the setting of deadlines backed by credible threats, Sobelman asserts. Nasrallah, noting the US interest in expanding gas exploration due to the Ukraine war, pressed for a deal to be forged by September 2022. To raise the stakes, he said that if there were no agreement, his group would attack not just assets in disputed waters but all of Israel’s gas fields.

To avert the potential consequences of exploring gas in the Karish field before the larger deal could be forged, Israel and Energean quietly shifted their timeline into October. This allowed breathing space for a deal, Sobelman argues—and it was signed at the end of the month. “The mission has been accomplished,” Nasrallah declared.

The deal has been praised by many experts, including a panel convened by the Middle East Policy Council last week. However, Sobelman says, Hezbollah’s military threat “helped push diplomacy forward.”

Benjamin Netanyahu, sworn in as prime minister a few months later and leading a new, right-wing coalition, initially declared he would not be bound by the deal. However, Sobelman notes, “Netanyahu’s track record has been one of risk aversion and adherence to Hezbollah’s ‘red lines.’”

Sobelman sees this episode as having boosted Hezbollah’s confidence, long before this year’s domestic protests that have rocked Israel and raised questions about its cohesion, military readiness, and security. It could be a recipe for miscalculation, a potentially deadly combination.

The two sides “would greatly benefit from investing in informal mechanisms of communication, which could potentially grant them tighter escalation control,” Sobelman concludes.

Among the major takeaways readers can find in Sobelman’s Middle East Policy article, “Hezbollah’s Coercion and the Israel-Lebanon Maritime Deal”:

  • A US-brokered deal between Israel and Lebanon in 2022 established permanent maritime boundaries, exclusive economic zones, and rights to gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean.
    • The first US proposal in the early 2010s had offered 55 percent of disputed waters to Lebanon and 45 percent to Israel.
    • In 2022, it offered Lebanon virtually 100 percent of the area under dispute.
  • Hezbollah’s influence on the deal, months before its signing, demonstrates a “textbook example” of a “coercive diplomacy campaign.”
    • Coercion refers to the “process by which actors manipulate others’ anticipation of violence to attain diplomatic objectives and shape strategic outcomes below the threshold of war.”
  • There are two main forms of coercion:
    • Deterrence: purposeful efforts to dissuade one’s adversaries from pursuing unwanted action.
    • Compellence: inducing desirable action.
  • For coercive diplomacy to succeed, threats must be perceived as credible (often by publicly committing to violence after deadlines).
    • The aim is to obtain compliance without violence, but the coercer may engage in the symbolic use of force to demonstrate urgency.
  • Hezbollah’s coercion began in June 2022, when British-Greek company Energean Power docked a rig in Israeli waters to extract gas from the Karish field, part of which was contested.
    • Hezbollah threatened an all-out, “existential” war if the activity did not stop by September.
    • The group engaged in symbolic violence by launching drones aimed at the rig.
    • And Nasrallah threatened to attack not just the disputed maritime area but other Israeli gas fields and rigs.
  • Tel Aviv began to back down, with Israeli sources declaring that gas exploration would not be possible until October, and Washington pushed for a maritime accord.
  • The Ukraine war also prompted the US interest in a deal.
    • Nasrallah reasoned that the United States was interested in bringing more gas supplies online, which would make up for the loss of Russian sources.
    • In addition, it would want to avert a Middle Eastern conflict as it dealt with the war in Eastern Europe.
  • The resulting deal was not as favorable to Israel as earlier US proposals.
  • The Israel-Hezbollah conflict has come to be regulated and stabilized by mutual deterrence, with Tel Aviv fully aware of the militant group’s “red lines.”
    • While Hezbollah wields leverage over its immensely stronger opponent, its coercive power is limited to preventing attacks on Lebanon—though not on weapons systems bound for Lebanon.

You can read Daniel Sobelman’s article, “Hezbollah’s Coercion and the Israel-Lebanon Maritime Deal,” on the Middle East Policy Council website.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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