US struggles to halt spiraling Israel-Hezbollah conflict

US struggles to halt spiraling Israel-Hezbollah conflict

A harder push by the U.S. for Israel and Hezbollah to reach a truce has so far failed to halt an escalating conflict at the Lebanese border that increasingly appears headed toward a full-blown war.

Hezbollah has tied its daily cross-border rocket and artillery fire into northern Israel to the Israeli military operations in Gaza. But with no end in sight to the war against the Palestinian militant group Hamas, the conflict in Lebanon inches closer to a crisis.

Even a cease-fire between Hamas and Israeli forces is unlikely to de-escalate tensions in Lebanon, as Israel sees Iranian-backed Hezbollah as a persistent threat for its some 80,000 displaced residents in the north.

The U.S. has offered a diplomatic solution that would create a buffer zone at the border, but the plan is unlikely to be accepted by both sides — or it would create, at best, a temporary solution, experts say.

Asher Kaufman, director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, said the U.S. and Israel are “in a bind” because Hezbollah’s mission since its founding in 1982 remains the same: to destroy the state of Israel.

“Whatever the case, it would be a temporary agreement with Hezbollah, because the long-term strategy of Hezbollah and of Iran remain the same,” he said. “Nothing will change in that respect.”

Kaufman explained that for the diplomatic track to work, at least temporarily, Hezbollah will need some incentives, such as an agreed-upon boundary line.

“It’s very hard to think now about the constructive way forward, but the alternative of full war between Israel and Hezbollah would be so devastating,“ he said, adding a large war could drag in the U.S. and other Iran-backed militias. “It would devastate Lebanon. It would devastate Israel.”

Amos Hochstein, the U.S. special envoy who is in the region trying to defuse the tensions between Israel and Hezbollah, met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant this week as the crisis worsened.

In remarks from Beirut, Hochstein said that “families are shattered” and “innocent people are dying,” while Lebanon is “suffering for no good reason.”

“It’s in everyone’s interest to resolve it quickly and diplomatically,” he said. “That is both achievable and it is urgent.”

The U.S. plan reportedly includes enforcing a United Nations resolution, called 1701, that helped end a brief war Israel had waged against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006.

The resolution demands a de-arming in the southern area of Lebanon, from the Litani River to the Blue Line, a U.N. demarcation line dividing Lebanon from Israel and the Golan Heights. In the U.S. plan, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and a U.N. peacekeeping force would be allowed to operate in the area, and there would be a phased withdrawal of Hezbollah fighters.

But that is likely only to be possibly after a cease-fire in Gaza. And it’s unclear if Hezbollah would agree to the deal. Israel has threatened to enforce the lines by force if needed.

Seth Krummrich, a retired special forces U.S. Army colonel who worked for decades in the Middle East, expressed doubt that a Gaza cease-fire would lower Hezbollah tensions for good. He assessed the situation has now escalated into a wider problem that cannot be solved without regime change in Iran and an established, brokered peace.

“It’s like asking a scorpion not to sting,” he said of Hezbollah. “The solution there is coming to an actual peace deal and creating some sort of stability in northern Israel and in Gaza.

“That is not going to happen in our lifetime. Just the amount of damage that was done in Gaza, the number of family members that were lost for those that survived, they will always hate Israel,” said Krummrich, now vice president at Global Guardian, an international security services provider that works in Israel.

There is some precedent for Hochstein, who brokered a 2022 agreement between Israel and Lebanon on a maritime border dispute that paved the way for natural gas exports.

But the conflict raging now is much more complex, and Hochstein cannot directly talk to Hezbollah because it is a U.S.-designated terrorist group. He is limited to discussions with the Lebanese government and the LAF, despite Hezbollah being a major power player in the country.

In recent weeks, Israeli officials have increasingly warned that a wider conflict is inevitable with Hezbollah, which first fired rockets into Israel on Oct. 8, a day after Iran-backed Hamas invaded southern Israel and killed some 1,200 people, while taking another roughly 250 hostages.

As the cross-border shelling has become more intense, Netanyahu warned earlier this month that “one way or another” Israel “will restore security to the north.”

Netanyahu has been less combative than some of his allies, such as Gallant, who has been warning of war with Hezbollah since the end of last year. Netanyahu is especially more willing to pause bigger action in Lebanon as he struggles with the goals of destroying Hamas in Gaza and returning some 120 hostages still in the coastal enclave.

Michael Makovsky, president and CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, said Netanyahu appears resistant to a wider war in Lebanon, but an end to the Gaza war could “free up” an Israeli operation in the north.

“That might make it easier for Netanyahu to do something more strongly in the north,” he said. “But I think they prefer not to deal with it now, even if things are less intense in Gaza, because they [have] got to resupply their weapons.”

The Lebanon conflict spiraled even further out of control this week, when Hezbollah released what it claimed was aerial surveillance footage of Israeli military sites in the port city of Haifa. In response, Israel Katz, the Israeli foreign minister, threatened that “all-out war” was a possibility.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah delivered a speech Wednesday mourning the loss of senior commanders killed in Israeli strikes and also warning Israel against an invasion, saying it would be “unable” to win a conflict in Lebanon.

“When it comes to Lebanon in general, there is great readiness and manpower for the resistance,” he said. “If a war was imposed on Lebanon, the resistance will fight without any constraints, without any rules, without any ceiling.”

The rhetoric on both sides, along with the escalation of border fighting, only renewed existing fears that a full-blown war could be approaching, and that the U.S. will be unable to stop it.

White House national security spokesperson John Kirby stressed Thursday that “conversations are ongoing” between officials in the region who are still holding out hopes for a diplomatic solution.

“We still don’t want to see a second front opened up,” he told reporters. “Obviously, we take the tensions and the rhetoric seriously by both sides. And we’re doing everything we can to try to prevent that outcome.”

If diplomacy fails and Israel moves forward in Lebanon against U.S. wishes, it’s not clear how much leverage Washington will have to stop the conflict.

Netanyahu’s administration has resisted pressure from the U.S. over the Gaza war and repeatedly bucked the Biden administration’s demands. Relations have hit a sore spot — Netanyahu had a highly public spat this week with the White House over what he claimed was a holdup of arms sales to Israel — but President Biden remains very supportive of Israel.

Boaz Atzili, a professor of foreign policy and global security at American University, said there is a good chance that Netanyahu’s government, if it continues to stay in power, will move into Lebanon against U.S. advice because Israel sees it as a defensive strike to return its displaced residents and ensure another Oct. 7 attack can never happen again.

“They think that the right thing to do is to fight,” he said. “They might defy what the U.S. administration is telling them. Also, they might draw the lesson that the consequences of defying this might not be very terrible.”

Still, a war in Lebanon would be much costlier than the one raging in Gaza, as Hezbollah is the star proxy for Iran and has built up its forces in the past roughly two decades since the last war. The armed group also has tens of thousands of rockets, much more than Hamas.

If the U.S. were to halt all arms sales, Israel could struggle to prosecute the war. But Krummrich, the retired special forces colonel, said Israel believes it has a “righteous position” to defend itself after Oct. 7 and could procure weapons through other channels.

“The U.S. could cut off all arms supplies,” he said, “but I still don’t think that that would stop Israel from doing it if they truly believe [in] it.”

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