US Pushes to Avoid Wider War Between Israel, Hezbollah in Lebanon

The United States is in the midst of an intense diplomatic push to prevent an all-out war between Israel and Hezbollah forces in Lebanon, as risks grow that either side could launch a broader regional battle.

In recent days, U.S. officials have pressured their Israeli counterparts and conveyed messages to Hezbollah leaders aimed at averting a broader regional conflict that they fear could involve both Iran and the United States.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant met with several Biden administration officials in Washington this week, largely to discuss rising tensions along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. That visit was followed last week by one by Israel’s national security adviser, Tzachi Hanegbi, and his strategic affairs minister, Ron Dermer.

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. Mr. Hochstein warned Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran, that the United States would not be able to rein in Israel if it engaged in all-out war with the militia group.

Archrivals for decades, Israel and Hezbollah have frequently clashed along Israel's northern border. After Hamas-led attacks on October 7 triggered a violent Israeli assault on Gaza, Hezbollah began shooting at Israel, mostly at Israeli military targets in northern Israel to show solidarity with Hamas, which is also backed by Iran.

Fighting has intensified in recent weeks, and Israel's reduction in combat operations in Gaza, where it has significantly weakened Hamas, has freed up more forces for a possible offensive in the north.

The nightmare scenario for U.S. officials would be an escalation in which, for the second time, Iran and Israel clash directly. In another similar round, the US may not be able to control the “eye for an eye” escalation as happened 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 Biden administration officials that Israel does not want a full-scale war with Hezbollah but that it is prepared to strike hard at the group if further provoked.

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

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

U.S. intelligence agencies believe Hezbollah is intent on demonstrating its support for Hamas by striking across the border, but has sought to avoid giving Israel an excuse to launch a cross-border incursion.

U.S. officials believe the Israeli government is divided over whether to open a larger front in the north. Some Israeli officials, including Gallant, argued after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks that Israel should respond by seeking to destroy both Hamas and Hezbollah.

According to American officials, Gallant's position has since changed. He now says opening a new front would be reckless, officials said.

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

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

Adding to the risk is uncertainty between the United States, Israel, Hezbollah and Iran regarding each other's intentions.

“There is an opportunity to bring 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 players engaged in a game dangerous chicken and the possibility of calculation errors is high.”

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

U.S. officials have no direct contact with Hezbollah because the United States considers it a terrorist group. Hochstein relays his messages to the group's leaders through Lebanese Shiite politicians informally aligned with the group.

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

Mr. Gabriel, a former U.S. ambassador to Morocco, said he had firsthand knowledge of the communication. An American official confirmed that Mr. Hochstein had delivered the message.

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

Netanyahu said in a television interview on Sunday that Israel was demanding the “physical removal of Hezbollah” from the border to eliminate the threat posed by the armed group.

“I hope we won't be forced to do it militarily, but if we are, we will be up to the task,” he said.

A wider 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, has said he would not have conducted the operation that started the war if he had known the damage it would cause. But Israel would also be bloodied. Hezbollah says 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 were not directly involved, its other proxy forces, including Shiite militias in Iraq and Houthi militants in Yemen, could step up their attacks against Israel and U.S. interests.

Analysts and officials say an end to fighting in Gaza would be the surest way to defuse tensions between Israel and Hezbollah. But a recent plan to halt the fighting, approved by Biden and the Security Council, is in doubt following further demands from Hamas and equivocal statements from Netanyahu.

Hanegbi, Israel's national security adviser, said Hochstein was optimistic that Israel's plan to shift to lower-intensity fighting in Gaza after the end of the Rafah offensive could open a diplomatic window for a truce with Hezbollah.

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

A growing concern for U.S. officials is the well-being of American diplomats and citizens in the Lebanese capital, Beirut.

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

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