Senior Israeli military officials tell Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the risk of war on the northern border is the highest in years. The IDF intelligence division warns that Hezbollah "is close to making a mistake that could plunge the region into a big war."
This grave assessment is not new. For several months, the Iran-backed terrorist group Hezbollah in Lebanon has been steadily provoking Israel. The group is daring the IDF to respond.
The last time these two crossed swords was 2006, after a deadly Hezbollah cross-border raid. The war that followed dragged on for more than month. Hezbollah fired nearly 4,000 rockets at Israel. Israel responded with air strikes targeting Hezbollah infrastructure, including some embedded in civilian areas.
Since then, Hezbollah has been preparing for another round. It has replenished and upgraded its arsenal, amassing some 150,000 rockets. With Iran's help, Hezbollah has also stockpiled hundreds of precision-guided weapons that may be capable of evading Israel's defenses and striking strategic targets. Israel, which remains the strongest military in the Middle East, has fortified its capabilities, too. However, the prevailing assessment inside Israel's security establishment is that it is best to postpone a painful war, and to prepare more fully for the inevitable next round.
The wisdom of this approach is untested. It's also not without cost. Seasoned Israeli voices warn that every day Israel waits is another day Hezbollah grows stronger — and Israel's deterrence weakens.
Washington has unfortunately aggravated Israel's dilemma. The Pentagon consistently urges Israel not to engage. The State Department treats Lebanon like a protectorate and labors to preserve its stability. This policy has only emboldened and empowered Hezbollah, the real power in Lebanon.
Washington has even positioned itself as an intermediary between Israel and Hezbollah. In so doing, the Biden administration has reprised the role it played last year when it pushed Israel into a maritime border agreement with Lebanon. The aim was to allow Lebanon to share in the Mediterranean's recent gas windfall. Amidst these talks, Hezbollah launched drones at Israel's offshore infrastructure. The administration promptly leveraged this to press Israel to concede to all of Lebanon's (that is, Hezbollah's) maritime demands.
With America urging both restraint and concessions from Israel, Hezbollah has seized the initiative. Since 2021, Hezbollah has reopened hostilities along the border, albeit in a limited fashion. It started by claiming the right to respond to Israeli security measures in Jerusalem and military operations in the Palestinian arena. During the 2021 skirmish between Israel and Hamas, Hezbollah orchestrated the firing of rudimentary rockets at Israel. The rockets did no damage; some didn't even enter Israeli air space. Still, Hezbollah's message was clear.
The Israeli response was equally clear. The Israel Defense Forces merely fired back at an empty patch of territory. This signaled a desire to avoid conflict with Hezbollah. The IDF was content to blame the incident on Palestinian factions. Adopting this convenient fiction only reinforced Hezbollah's sense of impunity.
In spring of this year, Hezbollah again tethered itself to the Palestinian cause and dispatched an operative across the border to execute a bombing that killed one citizen deep in Israel, just north of the West Bank. Despite the severity of this attack, Israel declined to respond in Lebanon. Instead, Israel's Defense Minister vowed to respond in "the right place and time."
Subsequently, amidst security operations to quell unrest in Jerusalem and then a skirmish between Israel and Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah orchestrated more rocket fire, in the largest numbers since 2006. The Israelis once again fired at open fields.
More recently, Hezbollah launched a campaign at the border in a small patch of territory known in Israel as Mount Dov and in Lebanon as the Shebaa Farms and Kfar Shouba Hills. Though the United Nations rejects the claim that this is Lebanese territory, that is of no concern to Hezbollah. The group boldly erected a tent several meters inside Israeli territory and manned it with operatives. Remarkably, the Israelis did not remove the outpost.
By not responding to such provocations, one could argue Israel is the responsible party. But there is no prize for being sensible. In fact, Hezbollah took this behavior for weakness and doubled down.
Israel is still trying to resolve the matter diplomatically. However, such efforts are handled through Americanmediation. And unfortunately for Israel, the US posture in Lebanon is not favorable to Israel's interests — or America's for that matter.
The elephant in the room is that the Biden administration still wants a deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran – Hezbollah's patron. As part of this policy, which began with the Obama administration, Washington compensates Iran by propping up its regional assets, like with the maritime deal, or underwritingthe Lebanese Armed Forces, which collaborates regularly with Hezbollah, including in the group's latest border provocation.
In a speech last month, Hezbollah's leader explicitly stated that America's posture was a direct factor in his calculation to erect the outpost inside Israeli territory. In other words, American policy is damaging Israel's security, and Hezbollah is openly gloating about it.
It is now Israel's move. The region is watching.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice president for research. Follow them on Twitter @AcrossTheBay and @JSchanzer. FDD is a nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.