• Mon. Jun 17th, 2024

Israel’s talk of expanding war to Lebanon alarms U.S.


Jan 7, 2024


ISTANBUL — President Biden has dispatched his top aides to the Middle East with a critical objective: Prevent a full-blown war from erupting between Israel and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

Israel has made clear it views as untenable the regular exchange of fire between its forces and Hezbollah along the border and may soon launch a major military operation in Lebanon.

“We prefer the path of an agreed-upon diplomatic settlement,” Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Friday, “but we are getting close to the point where the hourglass will turn over.”

U.S. officials are concerned that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may see an expanded fight in Lebanon as key to his political survival amid domestic criticism of his government’s failure to prevent Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack, which killed an estimated 1,200 people and resulted in some 240 hostages being taken to Gaza.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Jan. 6 urged Middle Eastern nations to use their influence to prevent “an endless cycle of violence.” (Video: Reuters)

In private conversations, the administration has warned Israel against a significant escalation in Lebanon. If it were to do so, a new secret assessment from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) found that it will be difficult for Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to succeed because its military assets and resources would be spread too thin given the conflict in Gaza, according to two people familiar with those findings. A spokesperson for the DIA did not offer comment.

More than a dozen administration officials and diplomats spoke to The Washington Post for this report, some on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive military situation between Israel and Lebanon.

Hezbollah, a longtime U.S. adversary with well-trained fighters and tens of thousands of missiles and rockets, wants to avoid a major escalation, according to U.S. officials, who say the group’s leader, Hasan Nasrallah, is seeking to steer clear of a wider war. In a speech on Friday, Nasrallah vowed a response to Israeli aggression, while hinting that he might be open to negotiations on border demarcation with Israel.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken is set to arrive in Israel on Monday where he will discuss specific steps to “avoid escalation,” his spokesman, Matt Miller said before boarding a plane to the Middle East.

“It is in no one’s interest — not Israel’s, not the region’s, not the world’s — for this conflict to spread beyond Gaza,” Miller said. But that view is not uniformly held within Israel’s government.

Since Hamas’s October assault, Israeli officials have discussed launching a preemptive attack on Hezbollah, U.S. officials said. That prospect has faced sustained U.S. opposition due to the likelihood it would draw Iran, which supports both groups, and other proxy forces into the conflict — an eventuality that could compel the United States to respond militarily on Israel’s behalf.

Officials fear that a full-scale conflict between Israel and Lebanon would surpass the bloodshed of the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war on account of Hezbollah’s substantially larger arsenal of long-range and precision weaponry. “The number of casualties in Lebanon could be anywhere from 300,000 to 500,000 and entail a massive evacuation of all of northern Israel,” said Bilal Saab, a Lebanon expert at the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank.

Hezbollah may strike deeper into Israel than before, hitting sensitive targets like petrochemical plants and nuclear reactors, and Iran may activate militias across the region. “I don’t think it would be limited to these two antagonists,” he said.

The threat of a wider conflict continued to grow Saturday as Hezbollah launched about 40 rockets into Israel in response to its suspected assassination of senior Hamas leader Saleh Arouri and six others in an airstrike in suburban Beirut, Lebanon’s capital, days earlier.

In recent weeks, Israel’s regular shootouts with Hezbollah along the border have grown more aggressive, drawing private rebukes from Washington, said U.S. officials.

According to U.S. intelligence reviewed by The Post, the IDF has hit the positions of the U.S.-funded and trained Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) more than 34 times since Oct. 7, officials familiar with the matter said.

The United States views the LAF as the principal defender of Lebanon’s sovereignty and a key counterweight to the influence of Iran-backed Hezbollah.

On Dec. 5, four rounds of Israeli tank fire resulted in the killing of one LAF soldier and the injury of three others. On Dec. 8, Israeli artillery fire containing white phosphorous hit LAF facilities, injuring an LAF soldier who inhaled the noxious fumes. On Nov. 4, Israeli fire against an LAF position at Sarda left a “large hole in a LAF structure,” according to the U.S. intelligence. Some details of these attacks were reported previously by CNN.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment on the Israeli strikes, but the White House National Security Council confirmed that Washington has conveyed to Israel that attacks on LAF and Lebanese civilians are “completely unacceptable.”

A National Security Council official said the Biden administration has been “very direct and tough” with the Israelis on the issue and has said Lebanese Armed Forces injuries and fatalities are not acceptable.

The official also said a priority was maintaining the credibility of the Lebanese Armed Forces and that the international community should be doing everything it can to bolster and support them, as they would be a vital component of any “day after” scenario in Lebanon in which Hezbollah is weakened and poses less of a threat to Israel.

The official emphasized, though, that Hezbollah is a “legitimate threat” to Israel and said the Jewish state has a right to defend itself.

An Israeli official told The Post that Israel does not deliberately target LAF positions and blamed Hezbollah for ratcheting up tensions.

“Hezbollah began firing into Israeli territory, unprovoked, on October 8th and has continued to do so on a daily basis, firing thousands of projectiles. Israel was forced to respond in self-defense,” the official said.

“As a result of Hezbollah’s aggression, tens of thousands of Israelis were forced to leave their homes. The state of Israel will not return to the prewar status quo in which Hezbollah poses a direct and immediate military threat to its security along the Israel-Lebanon border,” the official added.

When Israeli officials first floated the idea of attacking Hezbollah during the opening days of the Gaza conflict, U.S. officials immediately raised objections, said a senior administration official.

Israeli officials initially were convinced that the Lebanese militant group was behind the Hamas incursion and had received bad intelligence that a Hezbollah attack was imminent in the days after Oct. 7, according to two senior U.S. officials. There were deep fears in Israel that the government would miss the signs of another violent assault.

Biden was on the phone up to three times a day, the senior administration official said, in part working to dissuade Israel from attacking Hezbollah — a move that would have resulted in “all hell breaking loose,” the official said. The Israelis’ deep fears about the threat influenced Biden’s decision to fly to Tel Aviv less than two weeks after the Hamas attack, according one of the senior officials.

The risk that Israel might launch an ambitious attack on Hezbollah has never gone away, said White House and State Department officials, but there has been broader concern about an escalation in recent weeks, particularly as Israel announced the temporary withdrawal of several thousand troops from Gaza on Jan. 1 — a decision that could open up resources for a military operation in the north.

“They have a freer hand to escalate,” said a U.S. official.

Another U.S. official said that the forces Israel withdrew from Gaza could be deployed to the north after sufficient time to rest and prepare for another wave of combat. But Israel’s air force is also overworked, having conducted constant strikes since the war began in October, said the official, explaining the Defense Intelligence Agency’s assessment that an escalation in Lebanon would spread Israeli forces thin.

Pilots are tired, and airplanes have to be maintained and refitted, the official said. They would face more dangerous missions in Lebanon than in Gaza, where Hamas has little in the way of antiaircraft defenses to shoot down attacking planes.

On Thursday, Biden sent special envoy Amos Hochstein to Israel to work on an agreement to reduce tensions at the Lebanese-Israeli border. The near-term goal is to develop a process to start negotiating a land demarcation agreement that could delineate where and how the two sides deploy forces along the border in an effort to stabilize the situation.

U.S. and French officials are in discussions with the Lebanese government over a proposal that would have the Lebanese government take control of part of the Lebanon-Israel border, rather than Hezbollah, to help assuage Israeli concerns, according to two people familiar with the conversations.

The White House declined to detail the plan.

“We continue to explore and exhaust all diplomatic options with our Israeli and Lebanese partners,” said the National Security Council official. “Getting Israeli and Lebanese citizens back into their homes, living in peace and security is of the utmost importance to the United States.”

U.S. officials concede that Hezbollah is unlikely to agree to a border deal while scores of Palestinians in Gaza are being killed or injured as a result of Israel’s military campaign there.

Within the administration, there are differing perceptions about Netanyahu’s interest in a negotiated resolution to the Hezbollah conflict. One senior U.S. official said the Israeli leader’s pledge to create a “fundamental change” to address the border fighting with Hezbollah is mere bluster aimed at extracting concessions from the Lebanese group. Others said that if the Gaza war ends tomorrow, Netanyahu’s political career will end with it, incentivizing him to broaden the conflict.

“The political logic for Netanyahu is to rebound after the historic failure of Oct. 7 and have some kind of success to show to the Israeli public,” said Saab, the Lebanon expert. “I’m not sure going after Hezbollah is the right way to do it because that campaign will be far more challenging than the one in Gaza.”

When asked if political incentives are driving Netanyahu’s military ambitions, a senior Israeli government official said only that “the prime minister will continue to take the necessary steps to secure Israel and its future.”

Before flying to Jordan, Blinken said reducing tensions at the border “is something that we’re very actively working on.”

“It’s clearly a strongly shared interest” among countries in the region, he said.

Abutaleb and Harris reported from Washington.


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