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Huffington Post
HuffPost
6 Jan 2024


NextImg:Joe Biden Risks A Major Middle East War If He Makes The Wrong Choices
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On Jan. 2, a surprise Israeli airstrike on the Lebanese capital of Beirut suggested 2024 could open with a terrifying spiral: An expansion of the Israel-Hamas war into Lebanon that could draw in the U.S., Iran and even nuclear weapons.

A few days later, that prospect seems slightly more remote, as the players involved have so far largely avoided ratcheting up tensions further. But it remains far more likely than many national security officials and experts would like ― and they say President Joe Biden is the only person who can truly prevent disaster.

At the heart of the simmering conflict is the animosity between Israel and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah. Israeli leaders view Hezbollah as a threat that is arguably even greater than the Palestinian militant group Hamas ― which sparked the current Middle East crisis with a brutal Oct. 7 attack inside Israel ― because of the Lebanese group’s tens of thousands of fighters and sophisticated weaponry. Hezbollah is allied with Hamas. Both organizations receive support from Iran, and since Israel began its devastating campaign against Hamas inside the Gaza Strip, Hezbollah has repeatedly struck targets on the Israeli side of the country’s northern border with Lebanon. Israel has retaliated with attacks that include strikes on civilians, journalists and Lebanon’s U.S.-backed army. Human rights advocates believe Israel’s moves may constitute war crimes. On either side of the Lebanese-Israeli border, more than 70,000 people have fled their homes.

The Beirut strike, which killed a Hamas leader based in Lebanon and which U.S. and Israeli officials confirmed was performed by Israel, was an escalation. For Lebanon and the influential larger countries connected to its fate, it boosted the chances of war because it underscored Israel’s appetite for a broader conflict and its seeming confidence the U.S., its chief source of arms and diplomatic support, will not rein in its aggression.

Multiple U.S. and European officials interviewed by HuffPost say that despite Hezbollah’s links to Hamas, it has strong reasons to avoid a bigger war and has demonstrated that is not its preferred outcome. Emile Hokayem of the International Institute for Strategic Studies summarized the upshot in a post on X, formerly Twitter, on Jan. 3: “The party most likely to ignite an all-out war is Israel, and only the U.S. can help avert that.”

That is, unless it’s too late. “U.S. presidents have lots of leverage points over the Israelis if they decide to use them. My fear is that Biden has decided not to use them until now,” said Randa Slim, an analyst at the Middle East Institute think tank.

American officials say the Biden administration is not doing all it can to reduce tensions, despite public commitments from senior officials to avoid a regional blow-up.

“I’ve been trying to keep an avalanche from falling on Lebanon and so have a lot of people,” one official told HuffPost, saying many national security personnel fear unchecked U.S. support for Israel will make it overly confident about expanding operations into Lebanon. “The problem is no one can rein in Biden, and if Biden has a policy, he’s the commander-in-chief ― we have to carry it out. That’s what it comes down to, very, very, very unfortunately.”

They described multiple U.S. government war games aimed at predicting the implications of spiraling fighting along the Lebanese-Israeli border. “Every scenario shows this would escalate into something terrible… whether in terms of counterterrorism or war with Iran,” the official said, adding the Defense Department is especially concerned about the prospect.

Another U.S. official said American pressure on Israel’s government has yet to yield results.

Top figures like Secretary of State Antony Blinken “have been good but don’t seem to have made an impact on Israeli leadership,” they said, citing months of American statements decrying a bigger war.

“Netanyahu, Dermer and Gallant” ― respectively, Israel’s prime minister, strategic affairs minister and defense minister ― “are hell-bent on seizing this moment to expand the war into southern Lebanon and deliver some mythical imagined death blow to Hezbollah,” the official continued.

The Biden administration is not considering options like placing conditions on ongoing U.S. weapons supplies for Israel, they noted. In 1982, then-President Ronald Reagan barred multiple arms shipments to Israel over Israeli military actions in Lebanon. Last month, HuffPost revealed that American officials at multiple national security agencies have discussed concerns that Israel is seeking additional American equipment to use not in Gaza but Lebanon.

Meanwhile, U.S. warnings against escalation have not been as urgent as American calls for Israel to do more to shield civilians in Gaza, the official argued, saying: “You don’t have those same levels of public pressure and public rhetoric on avoiding war in and with Lebanon. We need that.”

Amos Hochstein, one of the small group of Biden's closest advisors Middle East advisors, is tasked with preventing a major war in Lebanon.
Amos Hochstein, one of the small group of Biden's closest advisors Middle East advisors, is tasked with preventing a major war in Lebanon.
JOSEPH EID via Getty Images

A spokesperson for the National Security Council disputed the view of Biden’s efforts as insufficient.

“The United States has been clear we do not want to see this conflict spread to Lebanon. Getting Israeli and Lebanese citizens back into their homes, living in peace and security is of the utmost importance to the United States,” the spokesperson told HuffPost in a Friday email. “We continue to explore and exhaust all diplomatic options with our Israeli and Lebanese partners, and we continue to urge the Israelis to do all they can to be targeted and avoid civilians, civilian infrastructure, civilian farmland, the [United Nations], and the Lebanese Armed Forces.”

Amos Hochstein, one of a handful of powerful White House Middle East advisors, is Biden’s point person for Lebanon. Both he and Blinken are currently in the region speaking with key players.

Yet Hochstein’s months-long attempt to forge an agreement between Hezbollah and Israel, involving concessions from both sides, has yet to bear fruit, and the recent Israeli strikes in Beirut and near a United Nations peacekeeping base in southern Lebanon make it harder to strike a deal, the second U.S. official said.

The official described a stronger push from Biden as essential for preventing terrifying flare-ups all across the Middle East, noting attacks on commercial shipping by a Yemeni militia aligned with Hezbollah called the Houthis and repeated hits on U.S. forces in Iraq, which prompted an American airstrike on an Iran-linked militant in Baghdad on Thursday that sparked outrage.

“War would not only be catastrophic for Lebanon and the Lebanese people, it would further inflame the entire region and what is basically a fairly limited back-and-forth between the U.S. and Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and a fairly limited situation still in the Red Sea,” the official said. “A broader war in Lebanon would completely blow up the entire thing.”

Much Negotiating, Few Results

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ― whose shaky grip on power is now tied to Israel’s post-Oct. 7 campaign ― flirted with a war in Lebanon just days after his country suffered the Hamas assault. Netanyahu ordered Israeli jets to prepare a pre-emptive strike on Hezbollah based on questionable Israeli intelligence, suggesting the Lebanese group planned a second step of the Hamas attack.

He called off the mission after an Oct. 11 call with Biden, the Wall Street Journal recently revealed; U.S. officials had discounted the Israeli assessment.

But Netanyahu’s government apparently did not perceive that American message as definitive. His aides have spent recent months threatening to subject Lebanon to a version of their Gaza offensive, which has shattered the Palestinian enclave and killed more than 21,000 people in Lebanon. On Dec. 17, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told Israeli military reservists: “What we are doing in Gaza, we can do in Beirut.”

Israeli strikes inside Lebanon have included attacks using white phosphorus ― a toxic substance that international law bars from use against civilians ― provided by the U.S., the Washington Post recently reported. The Biden administration has pledged to probe those reports.

“We are looking at the reports,” a State Department official told HuffPost on Saturday. “It is incumbent on countries to use white phosphorus consistent with international humanitarian law [IHL]. We continue to underscore the importance of IHL compliance, both publicly and privately, in our conversations with our Israeli partners. We expect any country receiving U.S. security assistance to use it consistent with international humanitarian law and the agreements that govern its use. Israel is no exception.”

Governments worldwide came to view the danger of all-out fighting in Lebanon as an international concern second only to the devastation in Gaza, a European diplomat told HuffPost.

“The idea that Lebanon would be the first to be involved or dragged into this conflict was always looming over our heads,” the diplomat said. Another European official said their government received consistent messages from its Middle East partners: “All the regional Arab counties tell us the same thing: No one wants a regionalized conflict.”

Led by Hochstein, who negotiated a 2022 agreement between Lebanon and Israel, American diplomats trying to manage tensions have focused on a deal in line with a 2006 U.N. Security Council Resolution that directs Hezbollah forces to withdraw from a large swathe of southern Lebanon adjacent to northern Israel.

The negotiations aim to address Israel’s concerns by giving Israeli forces a buffer zone and greater visibility on possible attacks by the Lebanese militia while sharply reducing the risks of unilateral Israeli strikes into Lebanon, per the U.S. official. The second European official said Western and local officials seek “to negotiate to the maximum extent possible.”

Yet Hezbollah has always been extremely unlikely to accept those terms amid Israel’s ongoing Gaza campaign, according to Slim, the analyst. The group’s prestige hinges on its reputation as a thorn in the side of Israel, which has committed atrocities in Lebanon through multiple military campaigns there and is unpopular in much of the Muslim-majority world.

Meanwhile, Israel has continued suggesting the dilemma can only be resolved militarily. On Dec. 27, Benny Gantz ― a retired general seen as a relative moderate in Netanyahu’s cabinet ― declared: “If the world and the government of Lebanon don’t act to stop the fire toward northern communities and to push Hezbollah away from the border, the [Israel Defense Forces] will do that.”

A shock Israeli attack on the Lebanese capital of Beirut on Jan. 2 has severely increased the risk of a Middle East war that dwarfs the already devastating conflict in Gaza.
A shock Israeli attack on the Lebanese capital of Beirut on Jan. 2 has severely increased the risk of a Middle East war that dwarfs the already devastating conflict in Gaza.
ANWAR AMRO via Getty Images

Following Israel’s strike in Beirut five days later, the political cost for Hezbollah of a deal with Israel, and the pressure for it to instead aggressively respond to burnish its credentials as a defender of Lebanese sovereignty, has grown.

The group’s leader Hassan “Nasrallah will feel obliged to respond ― because not to do so would look like weakness,” said John Deverell, a former senior officer in the British Army.

Still, he views Hezbollah and its partners as extremely reluctant to initiate a major fight, adding: “Iran has consistently stopped below the threshold that would be a cause for outright war against them.”

The second European official shared a similar assessment, telling HuffPost: “We’re not sure the Iranians want to sacrifice their crown jewel of Hezbollah.”

Israel, however, has not indicated it is more flexible. When Hochstein arrived in Israel on Thursday, Gallant announced there was only “a short window of time” for a non-military answer to the Lebanon-Israel border question.

Israel has previously tried to suppress opponents in Lebanon through military operations in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2000s; anti-Israel forces in the country have consistently gained ground through that period. After working with Israeli counterparts for years, Deverell believes experts in the country’s military likely understand the immense challenge of a Lebanon campaign.

“The IDF has been there before, most notably and contentiously in 1982. That did not go well for them, either then or since. Conversely, from an enemy’s point of view, to provoke and draw the IDF into such conflicts is desirable,” Deverell said.

To Slim, the analyst, it’s clear why Hezbollah is skeptical of a serious fight: It does not want to be held responsible for further pain in Lebanon, which is already suffering a nightmarish economic downturn. Currently visiting Beirut, she told HuffPost the city is plastered with billboards proclaiming: “#WeDoNotWantWar.”

She also sees how the mood in still-reeling Israel could be emboldening its hawkish leaders despite their dubious past track record in Lebanon.

“The Israeli public mood is about seeking revenge and going after any party that has aided Hamas over the past years, and Hezbollah always figures high on that scale for Israeli officials,” Slim said, noting the Beirut assassination of a Hamas leader was Israel’s highest-profile attack on the group’s leadership since Oct. 7. “There is this need for the Israeli government to regain the trust of their population in their ability to protect them… The mood in Israel today is so different from any time in past military confrontations between Lebanon and Israel.”

It’s Biden who confounds her.

French President Emmanuel Macron, whose country is a major factor in Lebanon as its former colonial ruler, announced after the Beirut strike that it was “essential to avoid any escalatory attitude, particularly in Lebanon.”

Biden has largely avoided similar proclamations. The question Slim sees as central is whether the president thinks Israel will not take him seriously even if he deploys American leverage. “That’s going to fuel even more this perception that the U.S. is weak or the U.S. cannot influence Israel, its ally,” she said.

Amid all the possibilities of missteps, Hezbollah and Israel are the ultimate decision-makers.

“Until they are somehow able to come to an understanding,” Slim said, “we are in a very dangerous interim period.”

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