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Only aggressive US diplomacy can avert an Israeli-Hezbollah War

White House Special Envoy Amos Hochstein is due again in Beirut as part of ongoing diplomatic efforts to try to diffuse months of exchanges of fire between Israel and Hezbollah at the same time as the Gaza war rages. 

This trip will come on the heels of a dramatic escalation between Iran and Israel, set off by an Israeli airstrike on Iran’s consulate in Damascus, followed by a largely thwarted Iranian attack of some 300 missiles and drones and overnight explosions in parts of Iran for which Israel has not fully acknowledged responsibility. 

Given how interwoven the region’s dynamics are and how unlikely it is that what happens between Iran and Israel stays confined to them, the risks of an all-out war remain high. This underscores the critical need for more coercive U.S. diplomacy to avert an escalation between Israel and Hezbollah that would erupt into full-scale regional war. 

The flare-up has indeed stoked tensions and reignited the shadow war between the two foes — with Iran’s allies vowing to keep up the fight until a cease-fire in Gaza is reached. Since Israel’s strike on Iran, a particularly virulent set of attacks and counterattacks have flared at the Lebanese-Israeli border. 

Hezbollah has intensified actions against Israeli military targets, launching a “barrage of 35 rockets” into northern Israel and targeting an army headquarters. It also shot down an Elbit Hermes 450 drone in retaliation for Israeli strikes on Srifa, Rab Tlatin and Odaisseh.  

Hochstein is intensifying his efforts to stop this tit-for-tat from escalating. While these skirmishes have been drawn out and there is no indication that any of the parties are relenting, it is increasingly apparent that nothing will stop Israel from launching an offensive against Hezbollah, with Lebanon as its ultimate casualty. 

Since Israel struck at Iran, Israeli officials have been preparing the northern front with the expectation that Hezbollah will be “activated.” For, if they previously thought that there would be time to deal with Hezbollah, time is now of the essence, and the thinking is as follows: If they do not go into Lebanon soon, they will have to do so in the future, risking a more serious conflict with a stronger and better-armed rival. Israel has thus escalated strikes into Lebanon and threatened to take matters into its own hands if Hezbollah does not back off. 

Regardless of the course of U.S.-led negotiations, all indications are that the government of Israel is gearing up for a larger operation in Lebanon. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant, and others have reiterated that they will not stop, citing the country’s continued insecurity and the displacement of roughly 150,000 people from the border area. 

Israeli politician and retired Army General Benny Gantz reiterated that the “moment of truth” was approaching vis-à-vis Hezbollah. The Israeli military had already announced it would withdraw troops from Gaza to, apparently, transition to “offensive actions” against Hezbollah, and it has increased its military readiness in the north. Most of the residents who left their homes in the north are unwilling to return unless the threat of a Hezbollah attack is removed, creating added pressure on the Israeli political establishment. 

A majority of Israelis today further support an offensive against Hezbollah in Lebanon that permanently ensures the safety and security of this northern border. This war, which Israel has long been contemplating, could explode any minute. 

But while any such assault may devastate Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon and degrade the militant group’s weapons, it is unlikely to dislodge and get rid of it, ensuring its stronger and more entrenched return, with its quick military resupply by Iran through land bridges through Syria and Iraq. 

This may, in effect, strengthen Hezbollah, which will not only spin the attack’s aftermath as a victory but also likely impose, with the subsequent moral high ground it would have gained, a more repressive hegemony post-war, going after its opponents more aggressively. 

What this will undoubtedly achieve, however, is the destruction of Lebanon, with thousands dying, the country’s infrastructure demolished, its economy in tatters and more people displaced — and in ways that may eliminate any possibility of its recovery as a liberal, pluralistic and sovereign nation.   

At this critical juncture, the U.S. needs to do all it can to de-escalate, but it should not limit negotiations to demands on Hezbollah. It needs also to make demands on Israel, convincingly, and make more forcible efforts to incentivize it to, stick to diplomacy rather than start a war. This will enable a longer-term solution to the problem that is Hezbollah and tackle head on its de-facto control of Lebanon. 

Edward Gabriel is the president of the American Task Force on Lebanon and a former U.S. ambassador to Morocco. 

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