U.S. Presses to Avert Wider War Between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon

A couple watch smoke rise after an Israeli airstrike, in Tyre, Lebanon, May 20, 2024. (Diego Ibarra Sanchez/The New York Times)
A couple watch smoke rise after an Israeli airstrike, in Tyre, Lebanon, May 20, 2024. (Diego Ibarra Sanchez/The New York Times)

WASHINGTON — The United States is in the midst of an intense diplomatic push to prevent full-on war between Israel and Hezbollah forces in Lebanon, as the risks rise that either side could initiate a broader regional fight.

In recent days, U.S. officials have pressed their Israeli counterparts and passed messages to Hezbollah’s leaders with the goal of averting a wider regional conflict that they fear could draw in both Iran and the United States.

Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, met with several Biden administration officials in Washington this week, in large measure to discuss the escalating tensions along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. That visit followed one last week by Israel’s national security adviser, Tzachi Hanegbi, and its minister of strategic affairs, Ron Dermer.

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Also last week, a senior White House official, Amos Hochstein, who has assumed an informal diplomatic role mediating between the two sides, visited Israel and Lebanon. Hochstein warned Hezbollah, which is supported by Iran, that the United States would not be able to restrain Israel should it commit to an all-out war with the militia group.

Archrivals for decades, Israel and Hezbollah have frequently exchanged fire along Israel’s northern border. After the Hamas-led attacks on Oct. 7 triggered a blistering Israeli assault in the Gaza Strip, Hezbollah began firing at Israel, mainly against Israeli military targets in northern Israel, to show solidarity with Hamas, which is also backed by Iran. The fighting has intensified in recent weeks, and Israel’s reduced combat operations in Gaza, where it has greatly weakened Hamas, have freed up more of its forces for a possible offensive in the north.

The nightmare scenario for U.S. officials would be an escalation in which, for a second time, Iran and Israel directly exchange blows. In another such round, the United States might not be able to control the escalatory tit-for-tat as it did in April.

For now, U.S. officials believe that both Israel and Hezbollah would prefer to reach a diplomatic solution.

During his visit to Washington, Gallant told officials in the Biden administration that Israel did not want a full-scale war with Hezbollah but that it was prepared to hit the group hard if provoked much further.

Among the officials who met with Gallant were Hochstein, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and the CIA director, William J. Burns.

“The U.S. priority is de-escalation,” said David Schenker, a former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs in the Trump administration. “Neither side wants a war.”

Hezbollah was formed with help from Iran to fight the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon after Israel invaded the country in 1982. A much more formidable fighting force than Hamas, Hezbollah has amassed thousands of rockets capable of devastating Israeli cities.

U.S. intelligence agencies assess that Hezbollah is intent on showing support for Hamas by striking across the border but has been trying to avoid giving Israel an excuse to launch a cross-border incursion.

U.S. officials believe the Israeli government is divided over the wisdom of opening a bigger front in the north. Some Israeli officials, including Gallant, argued after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks that Israel should have responded by trying to destroy both Hamas and Hezbollah.

Gallant’s position has since shifted, according to U.S. officials. He now says opening a new front would be ill-advised, the officials said.

But U.S. officials and analysts say the risk that the war might spread remains dangerously high.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel is facing growing political pressure to reestablish security in northern Israel, from which some 60,000 residents have been evacuated. Many are hoping to return to the area before the new school year begins in September, but most say they will not feel safe enough to go back as long as Hezbollah’s attacks continue.

Adding to the risk is uncertainty among the United States, Israel, Hezbollah and Iran about one another’s true intentions.

“There is a possibility of pulling this latest escalation and expansion of the conflict back from the brink,” warned Suzanne Maloney, director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. “But there are four actors engaged in a dangerous game of chicken, and the prospect for miscalculation is high.”

“Many in Washington and elsewhere have underestimated the risk tolerance of the current Iranian leadership,” she added.

U.S. officials do not have direct contact with Hezbollah because the United States considers it a terrorist group. Hochstein delivers his messages to its leaders through Shiite Lebanese politicians informally aligned with the group.

“He carried a very strong message, which is that if you think that we can dictate what they do or not, you’re wrong,” said Ed Gabriel, president of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a nonprofit that supports democracy in Lebanon and U.S.-Lebanon ties. “You have to understand that America does not have the leverage to stop Israel.”

Gabriel, a former U.S. ambassador to Morocco, said he had direct knowledge of the communication. A U.S. official confirmed that Hochstein had delivered the message.

In addition to urging both sides to show restraint, Hochstein has been trying to persuade Hezbollah to withdraw its forces farther back from Israel’s border, as required by a United Nations Security Council resolution passed after a 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.

On Sunday, Netanyahu said in a televised interview that Israel was demanding “the physical distancing of Hezbollah” from the border to remove the threat posed by the armed group.

“I hope we are not forced to do so militarily, but if we are — we will be up to the task,” he said.

A larger clash between Israel and Lebanon could be devastating for both sides. Israel inflicted so much damage on Lebanon in 2006 that the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said he would not have conducted the operation that launched the war if he had known the damage that would result. But Israel would emerge bloodied as well. Hezbollah claims it could launch 3,000 rockets and missiles a day, a barrage with the potential to overwhelm Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system.

And even if Iran did not become directly involved, its other proxy forces, including Shiite militias in Iraq and Houthi militants in Yemen, could step up their attacks on Israeli and U.S. interests.

Analysts and officials say that a halt to the fighting in Gaza would be the surest way to defuse the friction between Israel and Hezbollah. But a recent plan to stop the fighting endorsed by Biden and the Security Council is in doubt following added demands by Hamas and equivocal statements by Netanyahu.

Hanegbi, Israel’s national security adviser, said Hochstein was optimistic that Israel’s plan to transition to lower-intensity fighting in Gaza after ending its offensive in Rafah could open a diplomatic window for a truce with Hezbollah.

“He believes that this will provide Hezbollah with a ladder with which it can climb down from its daily solidarity with the battle in Gaza,” Hanegbi said Tuesday during a discussion at Reichman University in Herzliya, Israel. “And that means it will be possible to talk about a settlement in the north.”

One growing concern for U.S. officials is the welfare of American diplomats and citizens in the Lebanese capital, Beirut.

On Thursday, the State Department issued an advisory again warning Americans not to travel to Lebanon and stressing that Lebanon’s government “cannot guarantee the protection of U.S. citizens against sudden outbreaks of violence and armed conflict.”

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