The Memo: Biden faces new Mideast crisis as tensions in Lebanon begin to boil

Hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon are threatening to erupt into a full-scale war, compounding President Biden’s problems just as optimism about a cease-fire in Gaza fades.

There have been clashes between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militants since the day after Hamas attacked southern Israel last October. But the intensity of the conflict on Israel’s northern border looks to be reaching a boiling point this week.

After Israel killed a senior Hezbollah commander, Hezbollah responded with a fusillade of rockets, and there were reports of at least one new Israeli airstrike in southern Lebanon late Thursday.

An all-out war would cause more bloodletting in a region that has been convulsed by the conflict in Gaza, where around 37,000 Palestinians have been killed in the eight months since the Oct. 7 attacks that killed more than 1,100 Israelis.

A full Israel-Hezbollah conflict would also represent a huge strategic setback for the Biden administration. The president and his team have contended that their reluctance to criticize the Israeli government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has helped stave off a wider war.

The nightmare scenario for the White House is a massive regional conflict that ends up putting Israel and Iran in direct combat.

Iran is the major sponsor of both Hamas and Hezbollah. In April, Israel attacked an Iranian facility in Damascus, and Iran responded by firing around 300 drones and missiles at Israel. But those projectiles were mostly repelled and no broader conflagration ignited.

Biden’s attempt to hold the Netanyahu government close has come at a heavy domestic and international cost, however.

Israel’s assault on Gaza has caused deep ruptures in the Democratic Party and among left-of-center voters generally.

At home, polls consistently show far more Democratic voters now sympathize with the Palestinians than with the Israelis, and Biden’s approval numbers on the war are especially dire with young people.

In addition to the pro-Palestinian protests that have roiled college campuses, the Democratic National Convention could become chaotic when it takes place in August, especially if there is no cease-fire in Gaza before then.

Netanyahu is set to address Congress on July 24, but progressives, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have already said they will boycott the event. Sanders has called Netanyahu a “war criminal.”

Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court are seeking arrest warrants for Netanyahu and Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant — as well as for three Hamas leaders — for alleged war crimes.

At the same time, Republicans seize on any suggestion of a weakening of U.S. support for Israel as tantamount to being soft on terrorism.

The White House is watching with obvious consternation as tensions now ramp up on Israel’s northern border. A senior administration official acknowledged on Thursday that there had been a “major escalation” around the Israel-Lebanon border over the past two weeks.

The official said the White House was “very concerned” about those developments and added, “We have had consistent and urgent conversations at different times between Israel and Lebanon over the last eight months.”

The official noted that the administration’s imperative was to “keep this from developing into a full out war that would have implications … elsewhere in the region.”

Around 150,000 people have been displaced on both sides of the border with Lebanon, as Israelis have moved farther away from the range of Hezbollah rockets while Lebanese people have fled Israeli attacks.

The northern conflict has claimed the lives of around 400 people in Lebanon, including Hezbollah fighters; and about 25 Israelis, including members of the armed forces.

The cycle of tension ramped up this week after an Israeli airstrike killed a senior Hezbollah commander, Taleb Abdullah. According to the Times of Israel, the Israeli military declared Abdullah the most high-ranking Hezbollah figure killed in the current conflict.

Hezbollah responded by strafing Israel with rocket fire. Al Jazeera reported that Hezbollah fired more than 200 missiles and rockets into Israel on Wednesday alone.

Hezbollah is a larger and better-armed organization than Hamas, with some estimates suggesting it has a stockpile of up to 200,000 missiles and rockets. The suspected Hamas mastermind of the Oct. 7 attacks, Yahya Sinwar, was reportedly disappointed that those attacks did not draw Hezbollah or Iran into a more frontal confrontation with Israel.

The situation is now developing rapidly, with Israeli news organization Haaretz reporting early Thursday evening U.S. time that Israeli fighter planes had allegedly attacked a building near the Lebanese city of Tyre.

Israeli government rhetoric toward the situation in Lebanon has grown more bellicose.

Last week, Netanyahu pledged an “extremely powerful” response to the Hezbollah rocket attacks, saying during a visit to a city in northern Israel that “anyone who thinks that they can harm us and that we will sit on our hands is sorely mistaken.”

Israel’s ultra-right national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, has argued emphatically for “war” and has said that “all Hezbollah strongholds should be destroyed.”

Benny Gantz, a more centrist figure who quit Netanyahu’s government Sunday, told an Israeli TV network on Thursday that, if the attacks from Hezbollah don’t stop, “Lebanon should burn.”

All of this is happening when the already-tenuous hopes of a Gaza cease-fire appear to be fading away.

Biden, who is attending the Group of Seven conference in Italy, was asked on Thursday if he expected a truce soon.

“No,” he replied.

It looks like the president has a second crisis to contend with now.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

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