Opinion: Unable to ‘win’ in Gaza, Israel sets its sights elsewhere

Editor’s Note: Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. His most recent book is What’s Wrong With the One-State Agenda? Why Ending the Occupation and Peace With Israel is Still the Palestinian National Goal.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more CNN Opinion.

An eerie relative calm has descended on the Middle East — Gaza obviously excluded — since a highly alarming exchange of missile, rocket and drone attacks by Israel and Iran in recent weeks. Fears of an imminent regional war have subsided, with both sides suggesting that, for now at any rate, they believe they have restored deterrence strategically and bolstered national morale enough to offset criticism from hawks and hardliners.

Hussein Ibish. - Courtesy of Hussein Ibish
Hussein Ibish. - Courtesy of Hussein Ibish

For the meanwhile, it appears that neither Israel nor Iran wants a direct war with each other, and both appear ready to consider the recent exchange of attacks, although not their underlying causes, resolved. It certainly helps that no one appears to have been killed in either country, and that was undoubtedly intentional, since both sides have the clear ability to inflict far more destruction and deaths in each other’s territories if that was what they wanted.

But that doesn’t mean the confrontation is over by any means. To the contrary, just as the October 7 Hamas-led attacks on southern Israel from Gaza sparked the tensions that ultimately led to the first-ever direct Iranian attacks against Israel and Israel’s retaliation against Iran, the struggle between the two powers appears set to move to the next stage and, more ominously still, the next level.

All eyes on Lebanon

The clock may be ticking for Lebanon, with a possible Israeli offensive looming in the coming weeks that would cause massive destruction in both countries and devastation to the Biden administration’s policy of conflict containment in the Middle East.

Israel was already threatening, and appeared to be preparing for, a major offensive against Hezbollah in Lebanon later this spring or in the early summer, according to American administration and intelligence officials. Now, the recent exchange of direct military attacks with Iran might have sealed Lebanon’s fate, unless team Biden can restrain Israel.

It’s important here to recall how the recent Israeli–Iranian exchange of fire originated. On April 1, Israel struck an Iranian diplomatic facility in Damascus, killing a number of senior Iranian officials including Brig. Gen. Mohammad Reza Zahedi; his deputy, Gen. Haji Rahimi; and, perhaps most significantly, Brig. Gen. Hossein Amirollah, chief of staff in Syria and Lebanon for Iran’s expeditionary Quds Force.

The destroyed Iranian consulate in Damascus, Syria, on January 20, 2024. - Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images
The destroyed Iranian consulate in Damascus, Syria, on January 20, 2024. - Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images

The Israelis insisted that these senior commanders were directing efforts by Iran’s extensive network of militia groups and armed gangs in the Arab world, led by Hezbollah, in helping Hamas fend off Israel in Gaza and the group Hezbollah to prepare for the long-threatened Israeli offensive in Lebanon.

That the accusation is almost certainly correct only underscores why Tehran felt deeply wounded by the attack on its consulate in Damascus, which it considered to be on part of its own territory, given international conventions and norms regarding extraterritorial jurisdiction in diplomatic facilities in other countries.

Laying the groundwork

Washington’s overriding prime directive regarding the post-October 7 crises has been conflict containment, preventing major fighting from spreading beyond Gaza, particularly into Lebanon.

The fear is that such an expansion could easily drag in the United States and/or Iran, leading to the first regional war in modern Middle Eastern history and potential direct conflict between Washington and Tehran. There are, of course, numerous hardliners in Israel, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who have long sought US strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities and who might be tempted to escalate simply in hopes of finally realizing that perennially frustrated aspiration. 

But that wouldn’t be the main reason for an Israeli offensive in Lebanon, which wouldn’t guarantee any such eventuality. Instead, October 7 led many Israeli hardliners into a new and much more uncompromising attitude towards national security, especially regarding Iranian-sponsored groups directly on Israel’s borders.

As early as a few days after October 7, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant was pressing for a major preemptive strike against Hezbollah because the Lebanese militia constitutes Israel’s most potent immediate threat. The Biden administration made American opposition crystal clear, at least postponing any such operation.

As Israel’s forces moved south through Gaza, obliterating Hamas brigades with relative ease, its thinking relatively quickly turned north again. Hezbollah’s major threat against Israel is its massive arsenal of over 150,000 missiles and rockets, many with precision guidance, that are capable of striking anywhere in Israel and possibly overwhelming Iron Dome and other Israeli antimissile defense systems.

Acting on its post-October 7 sensitivity to border-area threats — including Hezbollah rocket attacks that have persisted since then​ — Israel evacuated about 80,000 citizens from its northern communities (a similar number of Lebanese relocated themselves from southern towns and villages), and the government began insisting that they could not return to their homes in safety and security unless Hezbollah’s elite Radwan force commandos were permanently relocated approximately 18 miles north of the border area.

Kafr Kila is a southern Lebanon town that is — for the most part — deserted and one that has born the brunt of Israeli airstrikes in a series of back and forth exchanges between Israel and Hezbollah. - Charbel Mallo/CNN
Kafr Kila is a southern Lebanon town that is — for the most part — deserted and one that has born the brunt of Israeli airstrikes in a series of back and forth exchanges between Israel and Hezbollah. - Charbel Mallo/CNN

However, the Radwan force, in my assessment, does not appear to be prepared for or capable of launching a meaningful, large-scale ground invasion of northern Israel, regardless of what Hezbollah says about the force. While it’s understandable for Israel to be concerned about the potential for a dangerous incursion by Radwan, the main purpose of the force is to justify Hezbollah’s maintenance of its private army — and therefore its own foreign policy — by claiming it is defending southern Lebanon and the border area from Israel. Therefore, we should be skeptical about Israel’s motivations.

Even though Hezbollah has made it clear in both word and deed since October 7 that, with Iran’s backing, it does not want a broader war with Israel under current circumstances, despite ongoing tit-for-tat attacks, the Lebanese group would not simply capitulate to a major concession of withdrawing its elite fighters from the southern regions in which the group was formed and that are its heartland.

Israel’s war hawks’ real target in Lebanon is Hezbollah’s missile, rocket and drone arsenal, which it would hope to damage and degrade while inflicting a humiliating blow against its most potent immediate foe.

Israeli leaders would also undoubtedly hope that another potential war in Lebanon would finally provide Israelis with a major victory, the “win” that has never been available in Gaza under any scenario. Hezbollah is much more of a conventional force than Hamas. Damage to its military and other capabilities would be readily quantifiable and, if the cost were tolerable, likely warmly applauded in Israel — and the country would not face the problem of any prolonged reoccupation of additional Arab territory.

In the process, Iran’s regional trump card would be severely degraded, Israeli leaders would hope. However, each time Israel has engaged Hezbollah anew, it has found the group’s capabilities far exceed its expectations, and Israelis may come to regret another avoidable adventure in Lebanon.

Biden’s worst nightmare

For the Biden administration, however, this scenario is a nightmare. One of the main purposes of the bear-hug of support from Washington to Israel in Gaza was to position the US to restrain friends as well as contain foes in the battle to prevent a catastrophic regional conflict.

After the recent exchange of bombardments with Iran, it may be down to the administration and even President Joe Biden personally to restrain the Israelis from moving forward with the threatened major offensive in Lebanon.

If this happens, a primary US goal regarding the Gaza war — conflict containment — would be shattered not by Washington’s adversaries, but ironically by its closest regional partner.

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