Wider Middle East War Appears Inevitable
Israel and Iran's proxies are on a collision course.
AP (“With each strike, fears grow that Israel, the US and Iran’s allies are inching closer to all-out war“):
In the last week alone, Israel has killed a senior Hamas militant in an airstrike in Beirut, Hezbollah has fired barrages of rockets into Israel, the U.S. has killed a militia commander in Baghdad and Iran-backed rebels in Yemen have traded fire with the American Navy.
Each strike and counterstrike increases the risk of the already catastrophic war in Gaza spilling across the region. And in the decades-old standoff pitting the U.S. and Israel against Iran and allied militant groups, there are fears that any one party could trigger a wider war if only to avoid appearing weak.
The divisions within each camp add another layer of volatility: Hamas might have hoped its Oct. 7 attack would drag its allies into a wider war with Israel. Israelis increasingly talk about the need to change the equation in Lebanon, even as the U.S. aims to contain the conflict.
As the intertwined chess games grow ever more complicated, the potential for miscalculation rises.
Hamas says the Oct. 7 attack that triggered the war in Gaza was an act of purely Palestinian resistance to Israel’s decades-long domination of the Palestinians. There is no evidence that Iran, Hezbollah or other allied groups played a direct role or even knew about it beforehand.
But when Israel responded by launching one of the 21st century’s most devastating military campaigns in Gaza, a besieged enclave home to 2.3 million Palestinians, the so-called Axis of Resistance — Iran and the militant groups it supports across the region — faced pressure to respond.
The Palestinian cause has deep resonance across the region, and leaving Hamas alone to face Israel’s fury would have risked unraveling a military alliance that Iran has been building up since the 1979 Islamic Revolution put it on a collision course with the West.
“They don’t want war, but at the same they don’t want to let the Israelis keep striking without retaliation,” said Qassim Qassir, a Lebanese expert on Hezbollah.
“Something big has to happen, without going to war, so that the Israelis and Americans are convinced that there is no way forward,” he said.
Of all Iran’s regional proxies, Hezbollah faces the biggest dilemma.
If it tolerates Israeli attacks, like the strike in Beirut that killed Hamas’ deputy political leader, it risks appearing to be a weak or unreliable ally. But if it triggers a full war, Israel has threatened to wreak massive destruction on Lebanon, which is already mired in a severe economic crisis. Even Hezbollah’s supporters may see that as too heavy a price to pay for a Palestinian ally.
Hezbollah has carried out strikes along the border nearly every day since the war in Gaza broke out, with the apparent aim of tying down some Israeli troops. Israel has returned fire, but each side appears to be carefully calibrating its actions to limit the intensity.
And in the end, experts say, it might not be a single strike that does it.
Israel is determined to see tens of thousands of its citizens return to communities near the border with Lebanon that were evacuated under Hezbollah fire nearly three months ago, and after Oct. 7 it may no longer be able to tolerate an armed Hezbollah presence just on the other side of the frontier.
Israeli leaders have repeatedly threatened to use military force if Hezbollah does not respect a 2006 U.N. cease-fire that ordered the militant group to withdraw from the border.
“Neither side wants a war, but the two sides believe it is inevitable,” said Yoel Guzansky, a senior researcher at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. “Everybody in Israel thinks it’s just a matter of time until we need to change the reality” so that people can return to their homes, he said.
The regional tensions are likely to remain high as long as Israel keeps up its offensive in Gaza, which it says is aimed at crushing Hamas. Many wonder if that’s even possible, given the group’s deep roots in Palestinian society, and Israel’s own leaders say it will take many more months.
The U.S., which has provided crucial military and diplomatic support for Israel’s offensive, is widely seen as the only power capable of ending it. Iran’s allies seem to believe Washington will step in if its own costs get too high — hence the attacks on U.S. bases and international shipping.
Reuters (“Blinken seeks to avert wider war, Israel says it is not fighting a single enemy“):
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will hold talks in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia on Monday before heading on to Israel after warning that the Gaza war could spread across the region without concerted peace efforts.
Blinken started a five-day Middle East diplomatic effort in Jordan and Qatar on Sunday, seeking to avert a wider war in the region. He is also due to visit the West Bank and Egypt this week.
“This is a moment of profound tension for the region. This is a conflict that could easily metastasize, causing even more insecurity and suffering,” Blinken told a press conference in Doha before heading to Abu Dhabi.
Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said the intensity of the offensive in Gaza signalled his country’s determination to destroy the militant group Hamas that rules the enclave and deter other potential Iran-backed adversaries, including Hezbollah in Lebanon.
“My basic view: We are fighting an axis, not a single enemy,” Gallant told the Wall Street Journal. “Iran is building up military power around Israel in order to use it.”
Israel and Hezbollah often trade fire across the Lebanese border and the Iran-aligned Houthis in Yemen seem determined to continue attacks on Red Sea shipping until Israel stops bombarding Palestinians in Gaza.
The fighting has displaced most of Gaza’s 2.3 million population, left many homes and civilian infrastructure in ruins, and caused acute shortages of food, water, and medicines.
Blinken said he would tell Israeli officials it is imperative they do more to prevent civilian casualties in Gaza and that Palestinian civilians must be allowed to return home and not be pressed to leave Gaza.
Jordan’s King Abdullah urged Blinken to use Washington’s influence over Israel to press it for an immediate ceasefire and warned of the “catastrophic repercussions” of Israel’s continued military campaign.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to continue fighting.
“The war must not be stopped until we achieve all the goals: the elimination of Hamas, the return of all our hostages and ensuring that Gaza will no longer pose a threat to Israel,” he said at the start of a weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday. “I say this to both our enemies and our friends.”
Despite global concern over the death and destruction in Gaza and widespread calls for a ceasefire, Israeli public opinion remains firmly behind the operation, although support for Netanyahu has fallen sharply.
In a post on the social media platform X, Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri lamented that Arab and Islamic countries had yet to back South Africa’s call for genocide proceedings against Israel at the International Court of Justice.
“We hope that there will be a remedy, otherwise this official silence will constitute a mandate for the occupation to eradicate what remains of Gaza,” he said.
Israel denies targeting civilians and says Hamas militants deliberately embed themselves among civilian populations. Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction, denies that.
As part of his trip, Blinken aims to press hesitant Muslim nations in the Middle East to prepare to play a role in the reconstruction, governance and security of Gaza if and when Israel manages to eliminate Hamas, a State Department official said earlier.
WSJ (“Israel’s Yoav Gallant: ‘We Are Fighting an Axis, Not a Single Enemy’“):
Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, says the scale and severity of the Oct. 7 assault on Israel by Palestinian Islamist militant group Hamas deeply shook Israelis’ sense of security and profoundly altered the way they view the world around them.
“October 7 was the bloodiest day for Jewish people since 1945,” Gallant, a general-turned-politician, told The Wall Street Journal. “The world needs to understand. This is different.”
In wide-ranging comments, Gallant staunchly defended Israel’s conduct of the war, which is entering its fourth month, and offered a stark assessment of the dangers he says his country is facing, signaling a potentially lengthy conflict in Gaza and an enduring shift in Israel’s defense posture.
“My basic view: We are fighting an axis, not a single enemy,” Gallant said. “Iran is building up military power around Israel in order to use it.”
Ahead of a visit to Israel by Secretary of State Antony Blinken of the U.S., which has urged Israel to do more to avoid civilian casualties, Gallant indicated Israeli forces would be shifting from what he called the “intense maneuvering phase of the war” toward “different types of special operations.”
But, he cautioned, the next chapter in the conflict “will last for a longer time” and he stressed that Israel wouldn’t abandon its goals of destroying Hamas, designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and others, as a fighting force, ending its control of Gaza and freeing the remaining hostages.
After calls last week by far-right members of Netanyahu’s coalition for a return of Jewish settlers to Gaza and Israeli occupation of the strip, Gallant’s office outlined a postwar vision of Palestinian self-governance coupled with freedom for the Israeli military to act against security threats.
As Gallant sees it, a multinational task force led by the U.S., with European and Middle Eastern partners, should oversee the “rehabilitation” of Gaza.
Gallant said his other immediate concern is Israel’s northern border, where large numbers of Israeli soldiers have been deployed in case of conflict with Hezbollah. Tens of thousands of Israeli civilians have evacuated from their homes in the north of the country.
The U.S. and others have been engaged in shuttle diplomacy aimed at striking a deal between Israel and Hezbollah. Israel wants all Hezbollah forces to be pulled back from border areas.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said Friday there would be a military response to a suspected Israeli strike that killed Hamas leader Salah al-Arouri in Beirut last week.
“The priority isn’t to get into a war” with Hezbollah, Gallant said. But, he said, “Eighty-thousand people need to be able to go back to their homes safely.” If no agreement is negotiated to make that possible, he said, Israel wouldn’t shrink from military action.
“We are willing to sacrifice,” he said. “They see what is happening in Gaza. They know we can copy-paste to Beirut,” the Lebanese capital.
Gallant said Hamas’s Oct. 7 assault represented a major failure of deterrence. He said intelligence indicates that Hamas leaders didn’t expect Israel would mount a large-scale ground operation in response.
“Should Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran be allowed to decide how we live our lives here in Israel?” Gallant asked. “This is something we don’t accept.”
“They didn’t take it seriously, even when we first went in,” Gallant said. He said Israel’s ultimate aim is to persuade its enemies that any future attack would provoke ruinous consequences.
WaPo (“Israel’s talk of expanding war to Lebanon alarms U.S.“)
President Biden has dispatched his top aides to the Middle East with a critical objective: Prevent a full-blown war from erupting between Israel and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
Israel has made clear it views as untenable the regular exchange of fire between its forces and Hezbollah along the border and may soon launch a major military operation in Lebanon.
“We prefer the path of an agreed-upon diplomatic settlement,” Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Friday, “but we are getting close to the point where the hourglass will turn over.”
U.S. officials are concerned that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may see an expanded fight in Lebanon as key to his political survival amid domestic criticism of his government’s failure to prevent Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack, which killed an estimated 1,200 people and resulted in some 240 hostages being taken to Gaza.
In private conversations, the administration has warned Israel against a significant escalation in Lebanon. If it were to do so, a new secret assessment from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) found that it will be difficult for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to succeed because its military assets and resources would be spread too thin given the conflict in Gaza, according to two people familiar with those findings. A spokesperson for the DIA did not offer comment.
Hezbollah, a longtime U.S. adversary with well-trained fighters and tens of thousands of missiles and rockets, wants to avoid a major escalation, according to U.S. officials, who say the group’s leader, Hasan Nasrallah, is seeking to steer clear of a wider war. In a speech on Friday, Nasrallah vowed a response to Israeli aggression, while hinting that he might be open to negotiations on border demarcation with Israel.
Since Hamas’s October assault, Israeli officials have discussed launching a preemptive attack on Hezbollah, U.S. officials said. That prospect has faced sustained U.S. opposition because of the likelihood it would draw Iran, which supports both groups, and other proxy forces into the conflict — an eventuality that could compel the United States to respond militarily on Israel’s behalf.
Officials fear that a full-scale conflict between Israel and Lebanon would surpass the bloodshed of the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war on account of Hezbollah’s substantially larger arsenal of long-range and precision weaponry. “The number of casualties in Lebanon could be anywhere from 300,000 to 500,000 and entail a massive evacuation of all of northern Israel,” said Bilal Saab, a Lebanon expert at the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank.
Hezbollah may strike deeper into Israel than before, hitting sensitive targets like petrochemical plants and nuclear reactors, and Iran may activate militias across the region. “I don’t think it would be limited to these two antagonists,” he said.
In recent weeks, Israel’s regular shootouts with Hezbollah along the border have grown more aggressive, drawing private rebukes from Washington, said U.S. officials.
According to U.S. intelligence reviewed by The Post, the IDF has hit the positions of the U.S.-funded and trained Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) more than 34 times since Oct. 7, officials familiar with the matter said.
The United States views the LAF as the principal defender of Lebanon’s sovereignty and a key counterweight to the influence of Iran-backed Hezbollah.
On Dec. 5, four rounds of Israeli tank fire resulted in the killing of one LAF soldier and the injury of three others. On Dec. 8, Israeli artillery fire containing white phosphorous hit LAF facilities, injuring an LAF soldier who inhaled the noxious fumes. On Nov. 4, Israeli fire against an LAF position at Sarda left a “large hole in a LAF structure,” according to the U.S. intelligence. Some details of these attacks were reported previously by CNN.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment on the Israeli strikes, but the White House National Security Council confirmed that Washington has conveyed to Israel that attacks on LAF and Lebanese civilians are “completely unacceptable.”
A National Security Council official said the Biden administration has been “very direct and tough” with the Israelis on the issue and has said Lebanese Armed Forces injuries and fatalities are not acceptable.
For most of the last three months, we’ve been asking how Israel’s offensive in Gaza will end. Increasingly, that question seems too narrow.
It remains the case that there’s no obvious end-game in Gaza. The war has killed upwards of 20,000 people and destroyed much of the infrastructure. What “destroying Hamas” looks like remains unclear. Indeed, aside from killing a lot of the leadership, it’s not clear that it’s even possible—especially in the wider sense of making Israelis safe from Palestinian terrorists.
At the same time, while they have their own agendas and motivations, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Houthis are Iranian proxies. Israel seems determined that this war eliminates all of those threats and have essentially been fighting a three-front war and expansion on the Lebanese front seems inevitable.
And, while regional players not unreasonably see Israel as, if not an American proxy, able to prosecute this war only with American backing, it’s quite clear that the Biden administration has very little sway over their decision-making. That the IDF is targeting American-backed forces in the region, not just Iranian proxies, is pretty strong evidence of that.
I have no idea how this ends.