Biden Pressure on Israel Raises Chances of Full-Scale War

February 15, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Tags: IsraelHezbollahHamasIranGaza WarDeterrenceMilitary

Biden Pressure on Israel Raises Chances of Full-Scale War

Instead of pressuring Israel to stand down, President Biden should show determination toward his enemies. Only firmness will prevent escalation. 

While most of the world’s attention regarding Israel’s current war is focused on Gaza, Israel is simultaneously fighting an entirely separate front against Hezbollah in Lebanon. It can be described as a war of attrition, as there has yet to be a ground invasion from either side. Yet, in all other respects, it is a war, and it is more severe than any of the skirmishes with Hezbollah since 2006. Immediately after Hamas’ attack and through to today, Hezbollah began attacking Israel daily with missiles, RPGs, and attack drones. It has amassed ground forces along the border, who are prepared to invade Israeli towns and possibly enact a slaughter that would make October 7 look mild by comparison.

This has forced Israel to evacuate the entire civilian population within a few miles of the border with Lebanon, creating a crisis in which approximately 80,000 residents of Israel’s north are internally displaced. Israel has struck back at Hezbollah targets, seeking to weaken the terror organization’s military capabilities and command structure. However, it has not sought a large-scale maneuver as it still focuses on the Gazan theatre. But it must be understood that this is a potential war front, and the situation is far from stable.

Recent reporting has suggested the Biden administration is heavily invested in negotiating a deal to end the battle between Israel and Hezbollah. In doing so, he is attempting to convince Israel to accept a deal that will slightly lower the immediate threat level but essentially keep in place the continued strategic threat that Hezbollah poses to the entire country and, most acutely, to the northern region. The steps under discussion include having Hezbollah forces pull back eight to ten kilometers. Still, they fall short of implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which requires Lebanon to disarm Hezbollah and outlaw its military presence south of the Litani River, close to 30 km of the border with Israel. Even worse, some reports have indicated that Israel is being asked to negotiate on surrendering control of territories along the “Blue Line,” the border demarcated by the UN in 2000 and reiterated by UNSCR 1701. Among the points claimed by Lebanon is Mount Dov, an area of strategic importance that the UN recognizes as Israeli.  

Biden is motivated by a desire to prevent further escalation of the war between Israel and the Iranian proxy, Hezbollah, out of concern that this could eventually drag the United States into a broader war against Iran. He also fears that a larger war with Hezbollah would undermine any chances for reaching a diplomatic understanding with Iran, which he hopes would stabilize the region and prevent Tehran’s nuclear progress.

However, his current strategy of declaring publicly his commitment not to escalate vis-à-vis Iran while pressuring Israel to stand down will likely have the opposite effect of what he is trying to achieve. In order to prevent further escalation, he must instead send the message that he is willing to escalate and that he will back Israel in its demands to enforce UNSCR 1701 fully.

Biden may be worried about a “full-scale” war with Iran, but in reality, Khamenei should be most concerned over this prospect. Given the vast disparity in military strength between the two countries, Tehran understands that an all-out war with Washington could lead to a collapse of the regime. Iran is only willing to push the boundaries of aggression when it assesses that the United States will not react with greater force, something Biden has all but given a written guarantee.

Iran’s regional strategy turns upon the idea that it can attack its enemies through its Arab proxies while avoiding any direct retaliation against Iran itself. But historically speaking, any time the regime felt threatened directly, it has consistently turned to caution and sought to avoid escalation. A number of examples illustrate this pattern of behavior.

Most recently, after the assassination of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani by the United States in January 2020, Iran responded by launching sixteen missiles at two U.S. bases in Iraq, resulting in some damage but no American casualties. Supreme Leader Khamenei defined the purpose of the attack as “a blow to the dignity of the U.S. as a superpower,” meaning it was a symbolic retaliation.

Not long before this, when the Trump administration withdrew from the nuclear deal, adopted a policy of maximum pressure, and began to return sanctions in 2018, Iran did nothing for a full year. When it attacked, ostensibly in response to Trump’s policies, it was in the form of a carefully calibrated strike on oil tankers, a Saudi oil pipeline, cautious progress in the nuclear realm, and an attack on Saudi oil refineries. These actions were certainly egregious but ultimately designed to prove a point, not to start a war.

The last time Israel fought the Iranian proxy, Hezbollah, in 2006, Israel invaded Lebanon. It brought vast destruction to local infrastructure and Hezbollah installations, but Iran merely supported Hezbollah logistically and with strategic advice. It called for a ceasefire and conveyed messages to Hezbollah not to escalate beyond necessity.

In 2003, against the backdrop of the American invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and President Bush’s threats to continue the march on to Tehran, Iran froze its illegal enrichment of uranium and halted research into the military dimensions of its nuclear program.

This pattern held even under the founder of revolutionary Iran, Khomeini, when in 1988, in response to an Iranian attack on an American destroyer in the Persian Gulf, the United States launched a punitive operation, sinking three Iranian ships and destroying two oil drilling rigs. The United States then offered a ceasefire, which Iran swiftly accepted.

Since the beginning of the war, Iran has been testing U.S. resolve, and because Biden has made it clear that his first priority is to limit the war at all costs, Iran’s actions have become increasingly daring. Even as Washington has been forced to react, for example, to protect maritime traffic against the Houthi threat in the Red Sea and to retaliate against Iran’s killing of three Americans, it has done this while declaring its intention to prevent a larger war, and limiting its response to targeting Iran’s Arab proxies only. This only serves to clarify to Iran that it continues to have a free hand to attack the U.S. positions and clarify to Hezbollah that if it threatens escalation, the United States will likely pressure Israel to back down.

But it is precisely this dynamic that may drag Washington further into the conflict. If it continues, it will also clarify for Iran that it will not pay a price for progress on the nuclear front and would, therefore, be more likely to attempt a breakout in the next year while it can still be certain that the Biden administration will be in power.

Instead, the United States must show resolve and project its willingness to exact a higher price than Iran is expecting for its aggressions. Washington must also make clear that it will allow Israel to act as it sees fit to protect itself against Hezbollah’s aggression, even if this means using force. Any pressure on Israel to make territorial concessions, especially on land for which Lebanon has no legal basis to demand, would only strengthen Hezbollah’s resolve. A pullback of eight to ten kilometers from the border would be a minor and reversible concession from Hezbollah. If it agreed to do this, it would behave just as it did in the past, following the 2006 war. 

Hezbollah will give the appearance of a withdrawal, while in practice, it would simply go undercover, operate wearing civilian clothes, dig more bunkers under civilian cover, and return to its positions at the first opportunity. It would do nothing to fundamentally change the severe threat that is posed to Israel’s north and would remain an intolerable security situation for Israel’s civilian population, who rightly refuse to live as sitting ducks. The only reasonable end-state can be the full implementation of UNSCR 1701, and it is an embarrassment to Washington that even its opening position is not to demand the enforcement of the Security Council decision, which it played a crucial role in formulating eighteen years ago.

This applies no less to the nuclear realm. The only reason Iran has to date not yet developed a nuclear weapon has been the credible threats of force that it has faced. In the 2000s, it felt this threat from the United States following the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Throughout the 2010s, it felt this threat mainly from Israel. Now is the time to strengthen this deterrence by clearly indicating that the United States will not prevent Israel from acting directly against Iran if necessary. If Washington truly wants a stable Middle East that will allow it to focus less on the region, it must stop restraining its allies and start supporting them decisively in their battles against Iran and its proxies.

About the Author 

Dr. Raphael BenLevi is a fellow at the Misgav Institute for Zionist Strategy in Jerusalem, a Major (res.) in the IDF intelligence branch, and the director of the Churchill Program for National Security of Tikvah-Fund Israel. He is the author of the book Cultures of Counterproliferation: The Making of American and Israeli Policy on the Iranian Nuclear Program (Routledge, 2023).