The Biden administration must stop Israel before it escalates in Lebanon

“If Hezbollah chooses to start an all-out war, then it will single-handedly turn Beirut and South Lebanon, not far from here, into Gaza and Khan Younis.”

Those were the blustery words of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, back in December. Since then, Israel and Hezbollah have exchanged fire on a consistent basis, with some minor intensifications of fighting along the way, but have both been careful about escalating the confrontation. Now, however, it seems that a more significant escalation may be at hand.

On Tuesday, Israeli Chief of Staff Herzl Halevi made a public statement, saying that “We are approaching the point where a decision will have to be made, and the IDF is prepared and very ready for this decision… we are prepared … to move to an attack in the North.”

Such statements are more easily dismissed as saber-rattling when they come from Israeli politicians than they are when they come from the military leadership. In this case, that’s especially true as the Israeli military—which, ironically, tends to be less aggressive than the politicians—is  urging greater action against Hezbollah, and the political echelon seems to be listening. The day after Halevi made his statement, Netanyahu again threatened an attack on Lebanon. 

Why would Israel escalate against Hezbollah now?

Halevi made his remarks as fires burned in northern Israel, the result of Hezbollah rocket fire which has proven effective against Israeli targets. This incident was the latest in a string of Hezbollah attacks that shook the sensibilities of the Israeli public, including one on an Israeli battalion headquarters in the town of Kiryat Shmona that turned much of the building to rubble

Some 50,000 Israelis were evacuated from the northern border region (which amounts to about half the number of Lebanese who were forced to flee their homes due to Israeli bombardment) when Israel began its genocidal operation in Gaza after Hamas’ brutal attack of October 7. That many citizens having been displaced for such a long period is a political problem for the Israeli government, but it’s also a tactical problem for the Israeli military, even while it may not be at all comparable to what two million people in Gaza have been through during that period.

Hezbollah has taken its actions in support of Hamas, and as a way to create a cost to Israel for its crusade in Gaza. In doing so, Hezbollah has magnified the erosion of Israeli deterrence, which Hamas’ October 7 attack gravely undermined. 

The Lebanese militia has effectively barred a return of Israeli civilians for the foreseeable future, and any escalation in the north will require a much larger evacuation, larger even than the one during the 2006 clash between Israel and Hezbollah, when some 500,000 Israelis were displaced according to human Rights Watch. 

Yet even such an evacuation will not be sufficient, as Hezbollah has been capable for years of attacking any target in Israel. The defenses that Israel displayed during the exchange of rocket fire with Iran in April will not be nearly as effective against Hezbollah projectiles as they will be fired from much shorter range. 

In effect, Hezbollah has been able to establish a sort of buffer zone within Israel, at least preventing Israeli civilians from returning to the northern border towns. This is the sort of deterrence that Israel depends on inflicting upon others. It may not seem like much to outsiders but for Israelis, especially the leadership, it’s a grave tactical setback, one which they believe must be addressed.

It may well be the case that Israel’s leadership does not want to see this resolved through a ceasefire in Gaza. They might prefer to address it militarily, and thereby attempt to re-establish a more dominant position on the northern border. But that course carries grave risks.

The possibility of a regional war

The United States is clearly concerned about this issue, although the attention they have paid to it would most kindly be described as intermittent. At the beginning of Israel’s campaign and Hezbollah’s solidarity operations, the U.S. sent its largest aircraft carriers into the Mediterranean Sea. The point was to deter any support for Hamas from outside forces. It met with limited success, but it was a warning that the U.S. could respond if Israel came under major attack.

After almost three months, it became clear that Hezbollah was aiming to divert at least some of Israel’s military attention to the north, but both they and Israel were being careful not to expand the fighting too much. The carrier was withdrawn, and a collection of smaller ships was left to patrol the Mediterranean, but apart from occasionally dispatching an envoy to meet with the Lebanese government (which, given the current state of Lebanon’s political and economic affairs, can’t do much to either help or hinder Hezbollah), Joe Biden’s attention remained elsewhere.

The threat of a regional war faded from public view and from the diplomatic arena, though it certainly didn’t disappear. The belief—which is certainly a reasonable one—that all parties from Israel to Hezbollah to Ansar Allah to Iran were keen to avoid a regional war was reinforced in April, when Israel attacked an Iranian embassy in Syria, and then exchanged carefully measured tit for tat missile strikes with Iran.

Yet what was always missing from the calculus, especially on the Americans’ part, was the fact that Benjamin Netanyahu’s government would not be able to tolerate the standoff in the north politically. Hezbollah’s recent attacks showed they better understood that issue, and, with the pressure heightened in Israel domestically and internationally, they decided to add to the pressure on Netanyahu by delivering a blow to Israel.

The U.S. has expressed its concern to Israel after its warnings of an expanded attack on Lebanon. One U.S. official said that they don’t believe that an expanded Israeli operation could be contained and that it risked setting off a regional war.

That is very likely an accurate assessment. A deep Israeli attack on Lebanon would certainly lead to widespread attacks from the various armed groups in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, in addition to Hezbollah’s own response. Ansar Allah might launch more missiles, though their strength is more in the disruption of the traffic in the Red Sea, which would certainly escalate. It seems more likely that the militias aligned with Iran would act than that Iran itself, given the turbulence in their political scene in the wake of President Ebrahim Raisi’s sudden death, but it’s possible they would get involved as well.

But the real strength of the response would come from Hezbollah. Their proximity, and their ability to target just about any site in Israel with missiles that will be difficult to bring down is a serious threat. 

This presents a significant risk of heightened American involvement as well. After months of propaganda covering for Israel’s crimes not only in Gaza since October 7 but for all the years of dispossession that brought the region to this point, the images of a besieged Israeli population that would not have a truly secure part of their country to flee to will prompt calls for American assistance. We can rest assured that the hypocrisy and irony of that condition being something Israel itself has caused on the West Bank, Gaza, and in Lebanon for so many years will not be a part of the equation for most Americans and Europeans. 

With the election looming, Biden is going to be pressed to help “our Israeli allies,” and the Republicans will certainly beat the war drums. The conflagration that we have feared for years in the entire Middle East could well be upon us, and the United States being in the middle of it could mean even greater disaster.

The way out

And yet, the way to avoid all of this has never been clearer: stop playing games with the terms of a ceasefire and demand that all hostilities end, Israel fully withdraws from Gaza, and all hostages—Israeli, Palestinian, and international—are freed. 

There doesn’t need to be three stages; just one, where the above terms are carried out forthwith. Hamas has made it abundantly clear that they would accept such a deal. The Israeli people will accept that deal. And Netanyahu will accept it if the United States tells him we will cut off the arms supply and political support for his genocide. 

It really is that simple. Yes, it would still be a political minefield for Biden, but even he seems to have finally realized that the Israeli misadventure to “eradicate” Hamas is a failure. If he is worried about the backlash from the Republicans and from Israel’s zealots within his own party, especially the funders—which, to be fair, will be enormous—imagine what he’ll have to contend with politically if American soldiers are once again being killed and maimed in a Middle Eastern war. 

The Americans seem to have correctly assessed at last that there can be no ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah without an end to the Gaza slaughter. It may well be that was a factor in Biden’s futile announcement last week.

It was pointless because Biden still hasn’t learned that Netanyahu, and Israel more broadly, does not act because they are cajoled, convinced, or pleaded with. They act when there are consequences if they don’t. And so, almost immediately, Netanyahu made it clear that the deal Biden announced was not the “Israeli offer” Israel meant to put forth. 

If Israel does intend to raise the stakes with Hezbollah, then the risk of the regional war the U.S. fears grows enormously. If all Biden cares about is the politics, the political risk of letting that happen is far greater than the political risk of coercing Israel to stand down both in Gaza and at the northern border. If he is concerned about the potential damage to the entire world that a regional Middle East war could do, then he has every reason to finally act. 


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