Biden, in a Stunning Reversal, Wheels on Israel, Seeking To Restrain Its Counterattacks in Lebanon and Syria

Secretary Austin is ordered by the president to deliver to the Jewish state a warning against responding to the enemy in a war that is already close to full tilt.

AP/Lolita Baldor
The U.S. defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, right, is greeted by Israel’s minister of defense, Yoav Gallant, October 13, 2023, at Tel Aviv. AP/Lolita Baldor

Shortly after Hamas launched war on October 7, President Biden dispatched naval assets to the Mediterranean, hoping to deter Hezbollah and its Tehran patrons from aiding Hamas and launching an all-out regional war. Now, Washington seems intent on deterring Israel instead. 

In a phone conversation over the weekend, the secretary of defense, Lloyd Austin, warned his Israeli counterpart, Yoav Gallant, against escalating tensions on the Israeli-Lebanese border. Mr. Austin “emphasized the need to contain the conflict to Gaza and avoid regional escalation,” according to a Pentagon readout of the conversation.

Asked by the White House to reach out, Mr. Austin called on Mr. Gallant to explain “Israeli air strikes in Lebanon,” and “asked that Israel avoid steps that could lead to an all out war between Israel and Hezbollah,” according to an unidentified Israeli official cited by Axios.

“There is already war in the north,” the founder of Alma research, an Israeli think tank, Sarit Zehavi, tells the Sun.  “Skirmishes have not stopped here since 11 o’clock this morning,” she adds in a phone call from her home at the Tefen community, situated five miles from the Lebanese border. “I stopped counting how many alarms have sounded today, sending us to a shelter.”

Some 60,000 Israelis living in that area have been relocated to relative security elsewhere in the country. “Those who live in the north will not return to their homes as long as Radwan Force remains deployed on the border,” the mayor of Metula, Israel’s northernmost town, David Azulai, said today. 

He referred to Hezbollah’s elite unit that has been trained to cross the border, kill civilians, and fight the Israel Defense Force. Since October 7, Hezbollah has escalated daily attacks on Israel with anti-tank rockets, missiles, and drones, as several attempts to infiltrate the border were stopped by the IDF. 

An employee of the Israeli electric company, Shalom Aboudi, died Monday from injuries he and several crew members suffered Sunday. Following the incident, an IDF drone struck a munition truck near the Lebanese town of Zaharani, which is 27 miles from the border. It was the deepest Israeli hit inside Lebanon since October 7. 

“Hezbollah is playing with fire, and fire will be answered with much fiercer fire,” Prime Minister Netanyahu said Monday while visiting the Gaza border. “We will restore security to the north. We will restore security to the south. We will restore security in all of Israel, but first here. Hamas will be destroyed.”

Dealing with Hezbollah, considered much more powerful than Hamas, may need to wait. “You can’t fight Hezbollah with half your power,” a former IDF deputy commander of the northern command, General Eliahu Ben Reuven, told public broadcaster Kan. 

Hezbollah and its Iranian patrons have so far calibrated their escalation to avoid an all-out Israeli attack, as two U.S. Navy aircraft carrier groups, the Ford and the Eisenhower, are stationed in the eastern Mediterranean to prevent a widening of the war.

Iranian affiliates have recently conducted more than 50 attacks against U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria. On Sunday an American aircraft struck an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps installation in eastern Syria, killing several terrorists. It was the third such strike in more than a month, and the first lethal one. 

“We are not interested in escalating a war against Iran,” the National Security Council’s spokesman, Admiral John Kirby, told Fox News Monday. Washington has been reluctant to say what would trigger a more significant action against Iran affiliates.  

As it fights Hamas, Israel is calibrating its response to Hezbollah’s attacks, and is yet to draw a clear red line for its chief, Hassan Nasrallah. “If you hear that we have attacked Beirut, you will understand that Nasrallah has crossed that line,” Mr. Gallant told reporters Saturday. 

Last week Mr. Biden’s Mideast adviser, Amos Hochstein, traveled to Beirut to warn the Lebanese speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri, against further escalation. The speaker is close to Mr. Nasrallah. Yet, he has little say in the Iranian-Hezbollah strategy. 

While Mr. Nasrallah keeps the extent of his future involvement in the war vague, Israelis are adamant that they will sooner or later need to deal with the Hezbollah threat to its northern communities. For now they would rather avoid a two-front war.

Yet, like the proverbial frog in a pot of ever-heated water that could boil at any time, attacks on northern Israel grow daily. To slow them down, “Hezbollah needs to feel threatened,” Ms. Zehavi, a former IDF lieutenant colonel, says. “You can tell Nasrallah isn’t threatened now, as he only escalates the attacks.”

America’s attempt to prevent a wider war is yet to prove effective. As a former national security adviser to Prime Minister Bennett, Shimrit Meir, writes on X, “if the enemy takes risks and escalates the battle in a way that could easily get out of control, assuming that your reactions will be measured and careful, he is not deterred, you are deterred.”


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