Has war become inevitable?

The US-Iran negotiations are speeding up to prevent escalation which is displeasing Israel.

Has war become inevitable?

An Israeli observation post on the border with Lebanon, late March 2024. (Credit: Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

The Israel-Hezbollah battle has entered a new phase. The situation escalated unprecedentedly in the past few days as Israel resumed its targeted operations against Hezbollah’s officials — including the strikes in Bazourieh and Kounin over the weekend — after weeks of respite.

The difference this time is that Israel is responding in its own way to “the unity of the fronts” of the Iran-aligned axis. Their daily attacks on Hezbollah are now going beyond south Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley and Baalbeck.

Hezbollah is increasingly targeted on the other side of the Lebanon-Syria border, notably in Quseir, around Damascus and in the town of Sayeda Zeinab mausoleum, which is a stronghold of the Iran-aligned groups in Syria. Even on the Syria-Iraq border, sites held by Hezbollah and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps were hit in Deir Ezzor and Boukamal. Weapons and missile warehouses were also destroyed in Aleppo, some 400 kilometers away from the north of Beirut’s southern suburbs.

Meanwhile, serious diplomatic negotiations [focusing on Lebanon] are moving slowly, and warnings to Beirut from Western chancelleries continue.

The US-Iran direct negotiations have resumed, Western diplomatic sources said. “In the wake of the talks held between the two parties in Oman and Geneva, the New York liaison office has been activated, enabling communication and coordination without mediators,” said a Western diplomat.

These negotiations seek agreements on all regional issues and to avoid escalation. “The Lebanese and Yemeni dossiers are being discussed at length,” added the source.

As far as Lebanon is concerned, reports indicate that the US is dealing realistically with Hezbollah while placing pressure on Iran to prevent an escalation of the war. Joe Biden’s administration believes that the solution in Lebanon lies in Hezbollah’s gradual reintegration into the Lebanese state — a process that will take time.

On the other hand, Israel rejected the “long-term” approach and expressed dissatisfaction with the channels opened between Washington and Tehran. This is why it is stepping up action against Hezbollah, in a bid to impose a reality on the ground and push the group to make concessions. The Lebanese dossier could thus be raised during the possible visit of the Israeli delegation to the US this week.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant set the tone on Saturday. “We will increase the rate of attacks and expand our operations,” he said, “and that’s what I conveyed this week in Washington to Secretary of Defense Austin, to Special Envoy Amos Hochstein and others, and that’s what I instructed the IDF at Northern Command,” he added.

While these remarks point to a new phase in the military escalation against Hezbollah, diplomatic sources believe that they do not imply that Israel has decided to expand the war or engage in open conflict.

“Rather, they would intensify their operations, including assassinations,” said the diplomat. “All the more so as Gallant stated that Hezbollah’s officials are being hunted down in all areas, from Beirut to Baalbeck and all the way to Damascus,” the diplomat added.

The perfect excuse

Lebanon is faced with a scenario that could combine two operating modes. The first is that of Gaza — causing as much destruction as possible to the infrastructure and displacing as many people as possible — but only on the border strip. The second would be what [Israel] has adopted in Syria, which is based on strikes and targeted operations against officials, sites, warehouses and arms convoys.

In practice, Gallant is now on a risky path, especially with the Israeli government’s embarrassment at the anger of the northern localities’ inhabitants.

In this context, Lebanon has received negative messages through international and Arab diplomatic channels. Sometimes these warnings are official, as was the case last week during the visit of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. Italy has shown interest in the situation in the south because Italian forces are the second largest contingent in the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). Meloni warned her Lebanese interlocutors against the possibility of escalation and stressed the need to seek a diplomatic solution.

The US and France continue to express fears that the clashes in south Lebanon will widen and are advising Hezbollah to reconsider its “support front” and cease its attacks on Israeli sites. There is a general feeling in Israel that the expansion of strikes is necessary to deter Hezbollah and prevent it from continuing its operations.

“The Israelis are putting pressure on the international powers to justify an expansion of the war, and Hezbollah is providing them with the perfect excuse,” said the diplomat mentioned above.

Lebanon instead of Rafah?

These developments cannot be separated from the US pressure to prevent Israel from launching a ground operation at Rafah, urging it to choose targeted assassinations and intermittent military and security operations instead.

In this context, rumors have circulated about a new equation involving the expansion of the war with Lebanon to compensate for the Rafah battle. Benjamin Netanyahu is keen to prolong the war and keep it going to avoid his cabinet’s collapse, given that many signs indicate that the lifespan of the Israeli government is becoming shorter and that Israel is heading for early elections.

This is the background to the systematic destruction operations that Israel is conducting in most of the villages in the border strip. This appears to be an attempt to prepare for a ground invasion, five kilometers deep into the country.

Similarly, many perceive the attacks on Hezbollah’s targets in Baalbeck — including missile and drone infrastructure, or even arms shipments and warehouses in Syria — as early signs of a large-scale operation in Lebanon upon weakening Hezbollah.

The same applies to the deliberate Israeli jamming operations, including in Beirut International Airport, linked to an attempt to weaken Hezbollah’s missile guidance capability and to disrupt its drones’ operation.

An attack attributed to Israel against a UNIFIL vehicle near the town of Rmeish provoked numerous reactions two days ago. Lebanese military sources and other sources close to Hezbollah believe that this strike is an attempt to pressure the peacekeepers and a message to push them to leave the area if Tel Aviv opts for an expansion of the war.

But Israel’s continued threats are met with US and Western pressure to prevent the region from exploding, especially as Hezbollah reiterates that an extension of the war will open up all fronts.

Israel thus seeks to anticipate the outcome of the US-Iran negotiations — which may not be in its interests — and opts for violent escalation causing a significant death toll.

Either this strategy will enable Israel to draw Hezbollah into a wider war or — if it fails to do that — to achieve its desired outcome without going to war.

This article was originally published in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translated by Joelle El Khoury.

The Israel-Hezbollah battle has entered a new phase. The situation escalated unprecedentedly in the past few days as Israel resumed its targeted operations against Hezbollah’s officials — including the strikes in Bazourieh and Kounin over the weekend — after weeks of respite.The difference this time is that Israel is responding in its own way to “the unity of the fronts” of the...