Why a Lebanon War Is Not Imminent

Several factors, including the need to avoid being diverted from Gaza, suggest that Israel benefits little from widening the conflict northwards.

Predictions have increased that the daily exchanges of fire between Israel and Hezbollah across the Lebanese-Israeli border, which have been ongoing since the October 7 Hamas attack, may escalate to the level of a major confrontation. Some analysts have even estimated the prospect “to be high.” But although this will remain a risk well into 2024, the weight of evidence still suggests otherwise for the coming weeks, even for a few months.

Amos Harel, military correspondent and defense analyst for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, has noted, for example, that there are preparations within various Israeli army commands for the discharge of some reservists in response to “the tremendous burden being imposed on the economy and on the reserve soldiers and their families.” Regular army units will guard the border with Lebanon, where Hezbollah is seen as a threat that must yet be addressed, but whose cross-border fire is perceived “almost as routine.”

What happens on the Israeli-Lebanese border in the coming period depends on a mix of political and military factors connected primarily to the war in Gaza. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may use the threat of escalation as a means of preventing the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden from exerting pressure on Israel to reduce or end its military operations in Gaza. However, U.S. pressure in this regard remains well below the threshold that might prompt Netanyahu to deliberately start a war in Lebanon in order to secure tangible gains for Israel.

Similarly, although Netanyahu might pursue an escalatory trajectory with Hezbollah as a form of “crisis dominance”—the crisis being domestic challenges within Israel to the prime minister’s political survival—outright confrontation will only happen if the rest of his war cabinet and the army command concur. And although the latter may share a desire to knock out Hezbollah as a potent military threat, they are likely to avoid opening a second, northern front if there is any risk that this might impede their ability to “finish the job” in Gaza. Widening the Gaza war into a regional one—even if limited to Lebanon—might spook the United States and European governments into more active diplomacy, which could potentially constrain Israeli freedom of military action in Gaza and limit its options for the post-conflict phase there.

Of course, there is a flip side to this reasoning. If Israel’s war cabinet and military command conclude that they are going to be unable to achieve their stated goal of destroying Hamas as a military threat, or that it will remain the controlling power in the remaining rump of Gaza, then this may prompt them to lessen the threat posed by Hezbollah while there’s still an opportunity to do so.

So, how to assess where events are heading? Three telltale signs stand out.

First, there is the public tone and substance of official U.S. commentary about Gaza, and whether or not these are translated into specific measures that might affect Israeli options and actions. So far, statements about the importance of reducing Palestinian civilian casualties have not been tied to meaningful consequences for Israel should it fail to comply. These consequences need not be punitive, such as the suspension of arms and munitions deliveries. The Biden administration could instead reinforce its rhetoric about reviving the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and undertake preparatory steps toward putting meat on the bones of Palestinian statehood. At a minimum, the administration could beef up the United Nations’ crucial humanitarian role rather than block it, even if this means exerting credible pressure on Israel to enable delivery of aid and assistance into Gaza on scale. In parallel, Washington could build up its visa ban on violent Jewish settlers into a broader, far-reaching effort against the entire settlement enterprise in the occupied territories. An added benefit would be to deter Israeli far-right mobilization to resettle Gaza.

For now, however, the message coming from Washington is of continuing U.S. tolerance for Israeli military operations in Gaza, but also for the horrendous humanitarian conditions they have generated—even though they undermine stated U.S. end-goals by rendering the territory uninhabitable. In the absence of convincing U.S. measures along the lines suggested above, there is no reason to think Israel’s war cabinet will feel a need to escalate hostilities with Hezbollah to the level of a full-fledged war so as to preempt a U.S. policy shift on Gaza.

A second telltale sign of possible Israeli intentions toward Hezbollah is the nature and pace of Israeli combat operations in Gaza. So long as these indicate a continuing commitment to destroying Hamas fully, the likelihood of opening a second front with Lebanon is accordingly reduced. Public statements from Israeli government ministers and military commanders may still uphold maximal aims in Gaza even as military plans start to diverge. But more modest goals in Gaza need not automatically signal more intense confrontation with Hezbollah.

The fact that the Israeli war cabinet—and the political echelon more generally—still has no visible answer to the dilemma of what to do with Gaza after combat ends beyond the short-term of, say, the next six to twelve months, has contradictory implications. On one hand, ambiguity about the postwar phase may make striking Hezbollah seem a sensible option for reducing strategic uncertainty. On the other hand, the Israeli military has so far been able to prolong its ground offensive in the absence of a clear overall political goal. The incremental rolling out of its combat operations into southern Gaza (and even along Gaza’s border with Egypt) has positioned it for one of two possible outcomes: continuation until the elimination of Hamas’ military (and governing) capability or a shift to more limited goals.

Third, a shift in the focus of Israeli attacks in Lebanon could presage imminent escalation to a wider conflict with Hezbollah. Specifically, significant strikes against unmistakably civilian targets would be a deliberate provocation intended to push Hezbollah into reciprocating, therefore giving Israel a pretext to launch a major operation. This would be a rerun, in effect, of Israeli strategy under the late prime minister Menahem Begin and his defense minister Ariel Sharon in the early 1980s. The duo expected to launch a ground invasion of Lebanon when Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) artillery responded to Israeli Air Force destruction of civilian residential buildings and PLO offices in the heart of Beirut in July 1981, and then again following Israeli airstrikes in May 1982. The invasion finally took place a month later after the attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador in London (ironically by a dissident Palestinian faction working for Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi intelligence services), even though the PLO had not broken the ceasefire.

Much yet depends on the unfolding of domestic politics in Israel, but for now Netanyahu appears to be overruled on key decisions by the remaining members of his war cabinet. The Israeli military is reportedly preparing for a shift in the mode and tempo of its operations in Gaza after mid-January 2024, but this does not mean that the war there is winding down. Far from it. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan in mid-December that Israeli combat operations “will last more than several months,” while around the same time other Israeli security officials were estimating the need for “another six to nine months of high-intensity military operations.”

These assessments could partly be bluster, and certainly could change. However, they encourage the conclusion that Israel’s war cabinet can conduct the Gaza war virtually at leisure for some months more, and has little to gain from disturbing this strategically comfortable position through an unrestrained war with Hezbollah.

Check Also

The Imperial Presidency Unleashed

How the Supreme Court Eliminated the Last Remaining Checks on Executive Power This week in …