Is a Wider War About to Break Out in the Middle East?

January 4, 2024 Topic: Israel Region: Middle East Blog Brand: Jacob Heilbrunn Tags: Benjamin NetanyahuIranAyatollah KhameneiIsraelPalestine

Is a Wider War About to Break Out in the Middle East?

With both Netanyahu and Khamenei in a weak position, the Biden administration should maintain its efforts to avoid war in Lebanon. 


Amid warfare, assassinations, and bombings in the Middle East, two developments could ultimately reshape the region for the better. The first is the discrediting of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The second is the weakening of Iran.

Netanyahu has just suffered a major rebuff from Israel’s high court, which rejected his sinister attempt to create an Orban-style regime. Netanyahu had been touting a “judicial reform,” which was nothing of the kind. It was a power grab. Netanyahu’s gambit would have allowed him to annul the rulings of the judiciary rather than the reverse. He was stymied. The importance of the decision is two-fold. It upholds Israel’s fundamental democratic character. And it demonstrates the limits of Netanyahu’s political sway. The would-be strongman has been revealed to be a weak one.


Ever since the October 7 attacks by Hamas, Netanyahu’s poll numbers have crashed. His vaunted “Mr. Security” reputation proved to be a mirage. In fact, he jeopardized it by building up Hamas as a counterforce to the Palestinian Authority. And his de facto alliance with Russia imploded as President Vladimir Putin feted Hamas in Moscow in late October.

Consistent with his slippery character, Netanyahu has never missed an opportunity to shirk culpability for his serial failures. “I am stunned. I am just stunned. Our soldiers are fighting in Gaza. Our soldiers are dying in battle. The families of the hostages are in a huge nightmare, and this is what you have to do? There will be a time for politics,” Netanyahu declared in response to one questioner. His declaration was, of course, itself a political one.

Now, in an attempt to curry favor with the Israeli far right, Netanyahu is musing about transferring Palestinians to other countries while his finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, is openly floating plans to engage in ethnic cleansing in the Gaza strip: “If there are 100,000 or 200,000 Arabs in Gaza and not two million, the whole discourse about the day after will be different.” Such statements have already prompted the Biden administration to issue a diplomatic rebuke. On January 3, the State Department declared, “The Secretary has made very clear on a number of occasions that there must be no forced resettlement of Palestinians from Gaza, that Gaza is Palestinian land and should remain so. And we will continue to make that clear to the Government of Israel, and we expect them to make that clear as well.”

If Netanyahu’s position has eroded, Iran also appears increasingly vulnerable. It is roiled by internal protests. It has an aging leader and has not designated a successor. It’s vulnerable to terrorism: American intelligence assessments are that the bombing at a memorial ceremony for Major General Qassim Suleimani in Kerman, Iran, was perpetrated by the Islamic State.

Then, there was the Israeli assassination of a senior Hamas official, Saleh Al-Arouri, in Beirut. The drone strike was a message to both Hezbollah and Iran, neither of which appears eager for an open confrontation with Israel. Iran has been careful not to become enmeshed directly in a conflict with Israel. By the same token, Israel should not overestimate its military prowess. The temptation for the Israeli national security establishment is to try and obscure, if not efface, the memory of its grievous failures on October 7 by scoring new triumphs. But embarking upon a ground war in Lebanon could well turn into a fresh imbroglio. Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, however, is making threatening noises, saying that there’s only a “short window of time” to reach a diplomatic solution with Lebanon to avoid a new war.

The jockeying over Lebanon only underscores its centrality to the conflicts in the Middle East. No country in the Middle East has suffered more from the machinations of the powers surrounding it than Lebanon. The Biden administration should redouble its efforts to restrain Israel from attacking Lebanon, a move that could prove ruinous not only for Israel but also for Biden’s own presidency. Biden is sending Amos Hochstein, a senior White House official, to Israel as an emissary. He should make it clear that Biden’s patience is not unlimited. With both Netanyahu and Iran on the defensive, the moment has arrived for a diplomatic solution that can lead the Middle East away from greater strife and toward a more peaceful future.

Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of The National Interest and is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. He has written on both foreign and domestic issues for numerous publications, including The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe Wall Street JournalFinancial TimesForeign AffairsReutersWashington Monthly, and The Weekly Standard. He has also written for German publications such as Cicero, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and Der Tagesspiegel. In 2008, his book They Knew They Were Right: the Rise of the Neocons was published by Doubleday. It was named one of the one hundred notable books of the year by The New York Times. He is the author of America Last: The Right’s Century-Long Romance with Foreign Dictators, coming next month.