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Funeral of Mohsen Hojaji in Tehran, Iran, in September 2017 (Wikimedia Commons)

If Israel and Hezbollah Go to War, the US Should Stay Out

With the Middle East on the edge of regional war, the Israel-Lebanon border is the most potentially volatile powder keg.

Words: Devin Kenney
Pictures: Wikimedia Commons

With the Middle East taking several more lurches in the direction of total regional war this month, the Israel-Lebanon border remains the most immediately alarming powder keg. Israel has been signaling, including through public statements by cabinet members charged with war and peace, that it wishes to put the Lebanese armed group Hezbollah on notice that it is now in an or-else situation. As Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant put it on Jan. 5: “We prefer the path of a political arrangement made by agreement, but we are close to the point at which the hourglass will turn over.”

There are four possible interpretations. Firstly, this could be  bluster. Secondly, this could be a gambit intended to spark a regional war leading to direct US-Iran hostilities. Thirdly, this could be the strategic course Israel’s leadership has collectively chosen. Finally, this could be Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s final gamble for political survival. None presents a scenario in which the US justifiably could or should join Israel in expanding the regional conflagration.

No one should take the chance that this is only bluster as an excuse to be sanguine. Wars have been started by misguided bluffs. The situation is already dangerous. Israel has fired high-explosive munitions on journalists, and many tens of thousands of civilians on both sides are displaced due to shelling and rockets launched across the frontline. Israeli strikes have extended to positions of the (US-funded) Lebanese army, which is quite distinct from Hezbollah and wants to avoid the fighting altogether. Meanwhile, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has taken responsibility for “targeting … of Israeli settlements” (meaning residential communities in Israel’s north), which he justifies as a response to Israel’s “targeting of [Lebanese] civilians.”

“Political Survival”

The idea that Netanyahu sees an expansion of the war as necessary to extend his reign presents the most immediately disturbing scenario. Netanyahu’s “security” credentials, an essential requirement for electoral success in Israel, have been badly damaged by the Oct. 7 attack. “US officials,” some have let the press know, are now “concerned” that Netanyahu may see moving the war into Lebanon as the “key to his political survival,” given “his government’s failure to prevent” the October disaster.

This scenario, though horrifying, does present a simple-enough formula for practical action: The US should make clear that it will have absolutely no part in such a war.

Nearly everyone in US public discourse will also be compelled to agree that getting dragged by Israel into a war with Iran is unacceptable. Pro-war arguments are therefore likely to coalesce around some version of the proposition that Israel has sincerely decided that opening a northern front is the only way forward.

This scenario, though horrifying, does present a simple-enough formula for practical action: The US should make clear that it will have absolutely no part in such a war.

But what a state wants to do is not the same as what must be done to ensure national survival. Israeli officials have said fairly frankly that what they seek is not just an end to the firing on their northern border but a change to the prewar status quo. National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi proclaimed on Dec. 9, “It is no longer possible to accept the Radwan Force [an elite Hezbollah unit] sitting on the border,” and more or less announced an intention to escalate there as less Israeli troops are needed in the south: “I am optimistic about the results of the fighting in Gaza, and afterwards in the north.”

Benny Gantz, who was defense minister prior to Gallant and is still in the cabinet, stated on Dec. 27 that the “situation in the north requires change. … If the world and the government of Lebanon will not act … to remove Hezbollah from the border — the IDF will do it.”

Likewise, referring to the northern border situation that same day, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen declared, “What was before the 7th of October will not return.”

War of Choice

Hezbollah’s rhetoric is so consistently belligerent that, if there is anything significant to glean from it, it is usually sotto voce hints at openness to a softer line. In one of his major speeches on the conflict, on Jan. 5 — the same day that Gallant made his “hourglass” threat — Nasrallah stressed that “the true goal of all [the anti-Israel] fronts is to stop the aggression on Gaza,” and even let slip the word “negotiation,” albeit only to say that “any talk … any negotiation, any dialogue, will not happen … until after a halt to the aggression against Gaza.”

More significantly, “US officials” are in agreement that Hezbollah “wants to avoid a major escalation,” the Washington Post reports, seemingly relaying an administration-wide consensus, and “that restoring calm on the Israeli-Lebanese border will not be possible until Israel ends its war in Gaza.”

So, on an objective plane, the strategic elements haven’t changed, only Israel’s perceptions of them have; and the side to be strategically reduced does not want war, and will cease fire when Gaza gets a ceasefire. This would make an Israel-Hezbollah war close to being the definition of a war of choice. We can anticipate how such a war will be conducted by looking at Gaza, where Israel’s doctrine of warfare has literally been to make the majority of the population homeless — and to render northern Gaza unfit for habitation for years to come, as one of Israel’s partisans boasts.

None of this is anything the US should have anything to do with. Our needless and violent interventions in the Middle East have brought disaster after disaster. Let’s not make another country’s choice of yet another needless and violent intervention our own as well.

Devin Kenney

Devin Kenney is an international law and international relations specialist who has worked with humanitarian and human rights organizations in the Middle East for most of the past decade.

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