Despite its warnings, Israel is unlikely to expand the Gaza war to Lebanon

Threats may be more a part of Israel's negotiating strategy than an intent to widen the conflict

A man inspects the rubble of a house destroyed in reported Israeli bombardment on December 13 in the southern Lebanese village of Kfar Kila on December 16. AFP
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Amid reports that the US has asked Israel to scale down the intensity of its attacks in Gaza, some of the attention has shifted to the Israeli northern front with Lebanon. Since October 7, Hezbollah and Israel have been engaged in a series of border skirmishes that have been relatively contained but which nonetheless have caused significant loss of life, with over 150 people killed, including combatants and civilians on both sides.

The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is wrestling with a significant problem in northern Israel. His government evacuated most of the population there to avoid a repeat by Hezbollah of the October 7 Hamas assault, and tens of thousands of Israelis are waiting to return to the north. However, they refuse to do so without safety guarantees.

Israel wants a demilitarisation of the border region on the Lebanese side, from which Hezbollah and its allies would withdraw to the Litani River. This, Hezbollah will not do, even though Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, calls for an area “free of any armed personnel” between the border and the Litani, except for the Lebanese army and UN forces in Lebanon.

Israeli officials have threatened to launch an attack against Lebanon and impose a solution to their liking. US officials have told the Huffington Post they are worried Israel is seeking US weaponry to expand the war to the north. While it would be foolish to assert this will not happen, there is a major obstacle preventing Israel from taking such a path.

The Biden administration rejects this option, believing that a new Lebanon war is more likely to expand into a regional conflagration than the Israel-Gaza war. In mid-November, there were reports the US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin had contacted his Israeli counterpart, Yoav Gallant, and, in “a direct and frank conversation” expressed “concerns” about Israel’s escalation on the Lebanese front, according to the informed journalist Barak Ravid.

Hezbollah does not want a final arrangement on the border that would deny it an excuse to keep up the military pressure on Israel

The coming year is an election year for US President Joe Biden. The last thing he needs is for his country to be caught up in another Middle East conflict. American voters are increasingly isolationist and strongly oppose US involvement in overseas wars. Mr Biden may feel, understandably, that a new regional war would sink his re-election chances.

To avert an explosion in Lebanon, the US sent an envoy, Amos Hochstein, to the region a few weeks ago. Mr Hochstein, a deputy assistant to Mr Biden, mediated the delineation of the maritime border between Israel and Lebanon last year. He has reportedly circulated a four-point plan to the Lebanese to calm the situation, one focused on delimiting the land border between Lebanon and Israel.

On its own, Mr Hochstein’s mission appears to indicate two things: Washington is keen to find a diplomatic way out of the Lebanese imbroglio, short of war; and, therefore, that rising Israeli threats may perhaps be more a dimension of Israel’s negotiating strategy than a clear intent to widen the Gaza war to Lebanon.

An implicit facet of Mr Hochstein’s proposal, if formalised, is that the negotiations for which he is calling are likely to extend beyond the time-frame of the Gaza conflict. In other words the envoy is buying time, and in that way, he may be aiming to lock the sides into talks that lower the prospects of a Lebanon war. He is said to believe that once the land border is agreed, Hezbollah’s justification for attacking Israel would be removed.

That is perhaps why such negotiations are likely to be difficult, if not impossible. Hezbollah does not want a final arrangement on the border that would deny it an excuse to keep up the military pressure on Israel, on behalf of its sponsor, Iran.

However, the party may also be in the mood for some sort of negotiation. The reason is simple: if no formal agreement ends the hostilities with Israel, the Israelis may take advantage of this to pursue their attacks in Lebanon and maintain a permanent state of tension on the border in order to impose a solution of their choosing.

Hezbollah made it clear again last week that it did not seek an expanded war in Lebanon. Hashem Safieddine, the head of the party’s executive council and the cousin of Hezbollah’s secretary general Hassan Nasrallah, is the one who underlined this. In other words, the assertion came from as close to the top as it could get.

Like Mr Hochstein, Hezbollah may also see negotiations as a way to avoid a conflict. Ultimately, it might choose to participate, but side step any final settlement on the border to keep its options open.

The party may have another reason for favouring negotiations. If Hezbollah can turn any of its concessions on the Israeli front into domestic gains in Lebanon, it might try to use the negotiations to secure regional and international endorsement for its favoured Lebanese presidential candidate, Suleiman Franjieh.

The weeks ahead will clarify the likelihood of war in Lebanon. But last week in Israel, the US National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, expressed Washington’s thinking unambiguously. He said a “negotiated outcome” was the best way to reassure Israel’s northern residents. The Hezbollah threat “can be dealt with through diplomacy and does not require the launching of a new war,” Mr Sullivan underlined.

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Published: December 20, 2023, 4:00 AM