The situation on the northern border is becoming more alarming each day, with the risk of a major war increasing. Pavel Vigdorchik spoke with military expert David Gendelman about what Israel will face in a war with Hezbollah and the readiness of the Jewish state for the conflict.

The IDF has released footage of a meeting at the Northern Military District headquarters, where operational plans are being approved. Hassan Nasrallah claims that the plan to invade Galilee is still relevant. Does this mean that the die has been cast?

Let's start from the beginning. This issue is on the agenda because the current situation on the northern border cannot continue indefinitely. Eighty thousand people have been evacuated; there are constant rocket attacks, drones, economic destruction… This has been going on for nine months now, and it is clear that the issue needs to be resolved.

How can it be resolved? There are three options: gradual de-escalation, political settlement, or war. But Hezbollah claims it will continue military actions as long as the war in Gaza continues. So, it will not de-escalate on its own—since we do not want to stop military actions in Gaza completely.

The second option is a political settlement, with shuttle diplomacy by Amos Hochstein and others. But this path is also tied to a ceasefire in Gaza—without it, Hezbollah will not even theoretically agree to a political settlement. Moreover, as we know from experience, in any such settlement, Israel will have to make all the concessions demanded of it—this includes disputed sections of the border.

What is demanded of Hezbollah will most likely remain on paper. For instance, there is a requirement to move 8-10 kilometers away from the border. If we are talking about the Radwan units, they can quickly cover this distance. The main composition of Hezbollah units is residents of southern Lebanese villages who will not leave their villages.

As for the military infrastructure of the group in southern Lebanon—no one will deal with its elimination, even if additional Lebanese army or UN peacekeeping forces are stationed there. So, we get all the downsides of a political settlement without the paper-based benefits.

The third option is war. The likelihood of going to war increases because the other two options are unclear, and we cannot drag this out forever. But it is wrong to think in terms of probabilities. The Israeli government must make a decision, considering factors like US pressure and the internal political situation. So, the final order may not follow.

As our military regulations say, an order is divided into preliminary and executive parts. The preliminary order for the army to go to war in Lebanon has already been given, with the operational plans clarified at various levels. Exercises have been conducted at different levels: the General Staff, district, divisions, and brigades. Preparations are complete. They are also complete in the civilian sector: energy, medicine, and strategic material reserves.

Everything that can be done has been done. It is not certain that we can be better prepared in the near future. Only minor details remain. In Rafiah, units from some Northern District brigades are operating, which are desirable to have in place in case of a war in the north.

We are now approaching the point where the final executive order may or may not be given. The problem is that there have been cases where the order was given but canceled at the last moment. We can agree that war is more likely than not, but the government may, for one reason or another, decide not to go to war at the last moment.

Why has the government been thinking for so long and not decided? It is pretty clear: a full-scale war with Hezbollah is a much more serious event than a war with Hamas. Estimates foresee hundreds of fatalities in the Israeli rear from rocket attacks, up to a thousand soldiers killed in the battles, massive destruction, strikes on infrastructure, including power plants, airfields, and more. This is a tough scenario; it is not without reason that the government has not gone down this path so far.

However, the other options—gradual de-escalation and political settlement—do not solve the problem; they only postpone its resolution. This means leaving the enemy "on the fence"—and we saw what that led to on October 7. Meanwhile, Hezbollah is a much stronger enemy than Hamas, and there is no guarantee that they will not create a similar situation for us in the future.

Of course, there is a theory, mainly advocated by General Brick, that going to war now will lead to catastrophe, and we need to spend several years preparing properly, and then...

Will Hezbollah not be preparing during these years?

Why is General Brick so optimistic and believes that over these years, we will prepare better than Hezbollah? Based on our experience, it's clear that Hezbollah certainly won't waste this time and will prepare for an attack.

Secondly, who said there would be a political opportunity to start a war? Currently, we have some partial legitimacy; Hezbollah is indeed shelling Israeli territory. At least in the eyes of the US, such legitimacy exists. And even if Hezbollah doesn't strike first and gives us these years to prepare, it's difficult to imagine a political opportunity where Israel suddenly initiates a full-scale war with Hezbollah.

On what basis does Brick assume that we will prepare so well over these years? A pessimist would say it can't get any worse, while an optimist would say it could get even worse. There's no good option; all options are bad. Starting a war now means consciously opting for a difficult scenario, and in hindsight, it may turn out that all calculations were overly optimistic. However, acting differently might lead to an even larger crisis than what happened on October 7. Choices will need to be made soon.

From what you're saying, it seems you advocate for striking Hezbollah now.

It's clear there are behind-the-scenes aspects; there's always a difference between what the US says publicly and what they discuss behind closed doors. Without US support, this war won't be easy for us—not in terms of them fighting for us. If they continue arms shipments, that's one thing, but if they decide to shut off the tap, that's something else entirely, despite our reserves.

What's the problem with war? You always know how you start it but not how you'll finish it. There are operational plans for several stages, for a limited operation, but it takes two to tango. This also applies to Hezbollah: to start a large-scale war, they need the means and the will. They have the means, but the fact is that so far, over these eight months, they haven't launched a major operation.

But here, we fall into the same trap as Israeli intelligence before October 7.

Right now, we're talking about what has already happened. Over these eight months, Hezbollah hasn't wanted to start a war. However, it's uncertain if this will continue in the future. And if we initiate a limited operation, we can't be sure the war won't escalate into a large-scale conflict, possibly against Hezbollah's wishes. It's clear the dilemmas facing the Israeli government are not enviable, but decisions will need to be made—that's what a government is for.

You've already touched on potential US actions. I get the impression that Biden's "Don't," originally aimed at Hezbollah and Iran, is increasingly directed towards Israel now.

Actually, it was originally directed at Israel. The US called on Israel's adversaries not to intervene because they understood Israel would retaliate, leading to a full-scale war in the Middle East, which the United States absolutely does not want. They simply threatened Israel's enemies with carrier strike groups, while for us, it was just words. Back in October 2023, we considered the possibility of striking Hezbollah, and as it's now known, the Americans were already pressing to prevent it.

So "Don't" is directed in both directions. We're allies; they don't use gunboat diplomacy against us, which has now turned into carrier diplomacy. Americans aren't hiding this. Officially, at all levels, Blinken and Hochstein say the US wants to avoid escalation while warning Lebanon that they might not be able to restrain Israel. And if war breaks out, they'll say they did what they could.

How will they help us? By supplying ammunition and possibly participating in missile defense, as during the Iranian attack. The main thing required of them is not to interfere and continue delivering the weapons. After all, Israeli military doctrine is based on the idea that no one will fight for us.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman warned recently about the risk of the war escalating into a major regional conflict. In your estimation, who will Israel have to fight—Hezbollah, Lebanon, or Iran?

Regarding participants, the regional war is already underway, albeit on a small scale. Hezbollah, pro-Iranian militias in Iraq and Syria, the Houthis, and even Iran itself have already struck Israel once. All participants are already involved; they would become more active in a large-scale war with Hezbollah. How much Iran wants to repeat its April "feat" is unknown, but doing something for the first time is always harder than repeating it.

The issue is that in such a broad scenario of war, Hezbollah would indeed be Israel's primary military problem. When people say, "Why fight satellites, hit the head of the octopus," I reply: Hezbollah is precisely the main threat.

What is Hezbollah as a military force in essence?

The main threat is their rocket capability, which is estimated at 150,000 rockets. This poses a serious threat covering all of Israel's territory, although they don't have many long-range missiles. According to scenarios, in the first week or so of a war, 3,000-5,000 rockets could be launched daily. It's uncertain if Israel's missile defense systems like Iron Dome, David's Sling, and others, some developed during wartime, can handle this.

The focus will be on protecting critical civilian and military infrastructure: power stations, airfields, and military bases, but even these defenses may not suffice. Therefore, in a full-scale war, significant casualties are expected—hundreds killed in rear areas, around a thousand on the front lines.

Regarding the ground aspect, Hezbollah is thought to have around 100,000 fighters, but it's anticipated that no more than 40,000 militants will engage in combat. Additionally, as I reported in 2019, several thousand volunteers from pro-Iranian militias in Syria and Iraq are expected to be deployed. A second front could open in the Golan Heights besides the Lebanese front. Thus, Iranian-backed militias in Syria might not need to be redeployed to Lebanon.

A full-scale scenario foresees several weeks of active military operations and lots of destruction in Israel. Recently, we've heard warnings about how Israel's energy infrastructure, communication infrastructure, and mobile networks reliant on electricity might cope. Therefore, various Israeli ministries and agencies are considering purchasing Starlink.

We've chosen a policy of not directly striking Hezbollah. We've targeted weapon convoys in Syria and Iranian warehouses, which has contributed to its growth, and the children of the Second Lebanon War might have to fight in the Third. It's important to understand Hezbollah isn't an opponent that can devour us; perhaps just take a bite. But even that is unpleasant. Israel isn't accustomed to such sacrifices. The shock on October 7 was partly due to the number of casualties. Here, casualties will be significant. So, I repeat: Israel's government hesitates to launch an operation not out of cowardice or indecisiveness but because it comes with a substantial price. And it might turn out that calculations were overly optimistic. But this problem won't resolve itself.

In the event of a military decision, what political outcome should Israel aim for in the war?

Firstly, we must consider the military outcome. The strategy primarily concerns geography. Unlike Gaza, we can't fully occupy and clear Lebanon. If the goal is to defeat Hezbollah militarily, we need to capture half of Lebanon, including Beirut at least. Currently, we cannot achieve this practically. Our army isn't capable of this. In the event of war, the task is to destroy between half and two-thirds of the enemy's personnel and military capabilities, including their rocket potential.

Their losses are estimated to be twice bigger than ours —where we might lose hundreds, they could lose tens of thousands. There won't be a declaration of war against Lebanon, but plans include striking Lebanese infrastructure, Beirut's airport, etc. The principle of striking them two times harder than they strike us will also apply to infrastructure.

The main post-war question is whether we are capable and willing to restore a security zone in southern Lebanon. Ideally, we should. But even if the Israeli government wanted to, it would be much more challenging diplomatically now.

Another question concerns Hezbollah's future. If we continue the policy of not touching Hezbollah, we give them the opportunity to recover over several years. Therefore, it's desirable to abandon the practice of only bombing convoys. We're far from war; it hasn't started yet. But ideally, we'd achieve results like destroying two-thirds of Hezbollah's forces and restoring a security zone.

It's no secret there are disagreements between the political leadership and the military command regarding war strategy. How will this affect operations and decision-making?

Undoubtedly, it will have an impact. The question is where we want to start. Will it be an attempt to limit something minor? There are plans involving various escalation stages.

Could you elaborate more on these plans?

A long-term plan has existed for many years and is now revitalized due to recent events. At a minimum, it involves occupying a couple of kilometers in the border zone to prevent direct fire from Hezbollah. There are step-by-step plans for missile and air strikes, including unlimited strikes on all of Lebanon's infrastructure and Hezbollah's, including territory in Syria, at least southwest Syria.

However, broader operational plans involve the advance of several divisions, deep airborne assaults, special operations in areas inaccessible by ground, and joint operations between ground forces and the Air Force. These plans for a full-scale war resemble those we saw in Gaza, but the adversary and theater are smaller in Gaza.

At the peak of operations, early December, even in Gaza, five maneuvering divisions plus Gaza's territorial division were active. These are more or less the forces envisaged for a full-scale war in Lebanon. The question is what we choose and what it will result in. Just like in the Second Lebanon War, we started with something limited, but it grew and grew, and we had to move to much larger actions.

If plans were outdated for Gaza—not expecting they'd be needed—they've refined plans for Lebanon in recent months, finalizing plans for all eventualities. The question is what we choose and what we end up with.

One possible Hezbollah action scenario is oversaturating Israeli missile defense with targets. It's similar to what Russia does in Ukraine. It was reported that Israel recently rejected Ukraine's proposal for cooperation in countering airborne threats. Could you comment on this?

In addition to oversaturation, Hezbollah plans to target Iron Dome batteries, radars, and other missile defense systems, including anti-tank guided missiles and ground raids. The offensive aspect hasn't disappeared, and Hezbollah can conduct such raids. Apart from rockets, there are drones against which our capabilities are relatively ineffective. These drones will be used to disable Iron Dome batteries.

Regarding Ukraine, it's important to note that Ukraine doesn't have a panacea that magically solves all our problems if we cooperate with them. It's not about that but rather about potentially enhancing the effectiveness of studying practical experience in countering and implementing it here. For example, military air defense was reintroduced, such as the Machbet installations with Vulcan cannons and Stinger missiles, which were deemed outdated from 2006 to 2012. Looking at what's happening in Syria and Ukraine, it's almost funny they considered it obsolete.

Regarding how much Ukrainian experience was adopted or not, there was insufficient interest from the Israeli side in what was proposed from the Ukrainian side. Some things were done—not dismissing everything—but more could have been done. Until October 7, many thought, "Well, what could they possibly teach us? We're the most advanced; we see what we need against drones ourselves." And, of course, "How will Putin view this?"

Personally, I know many in the army who proposed and are now practically expanding this cooperation, but some believe we're smart enough, doing what we can, and if something works in Ukraine, there are many reasons it won't work here. Short distances, mountainous terrain... Drone hunters cruising on jeeps through endless Ukraine won't work here. But we aren't suggesting an exact copy. As we said, strategy is primarily about geography. It would be beneficial to know what works and what doesn't.

We were fortunate Hamas attacked on October 7, not Hezbollah, which gave us eight more months. But the main lesson from Ukraine's war is that sometimes you have to fight unprepared, under unfavorable conditions, and achievements require readiness to incur losses. Israeli society is extremely intolerant of losses. Judging by October 7, fear of losses could lead to even greater losses. Wars don't happen without losses, which needs to be considered when considering how we will live in the Middle East.