With Gaza in ruins, Netanyahu looks north for his survival

Hezbollah shows no sign of wanting a war. Israel shows no sign of leaving it alone. For an Israeli prime minister under pressure over Gaza, an escalation to Israel’s north could be handy.

With Gaza in ruins, Netanyahu looks north for his survival

Had it happened at any other time, the injury of UN military observers in southern Lebanon would have been big news, causing major ructions.

After the past six months, however, it was almost a side note, just another episode in the ongoing story of regional repercussions and ramifications since 7 October 2023.

For analysts, this incident near the Israel-Lebanon border reinforces the belief that Israel is trying to widen the scope of its war on Hamas, from its south to its north.

There are plenty of signs that it is already doing so. Many now suspect that the Israelis want a much bigger confrontation with Hezbollah.

Certainly, with mounting internal protests against his rule, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may look to Lebanon and Syria for a political escape route.

Had he achieved his objectives in Gaza, he would not need a Plan B, yet Hamas still stands, most hostages have not been returned, and Israelis from border areas near Gaza, Lebanon, and the Golan Heights are still in hotels.

Hezbollah’s reluctance

It has become evident over the past six months that Hezbollah is not seeking to instigate war against Israel. Many thought it would, to support Hamas, its ally within the Iran-sponsored ‘Axis of Resistance’.

There have been some significant skirmishes since 7 October, but Hezbollah has borne the brunt of these volleys, with around 270 fighters and around 50 civilians killed, including children, medical personnel, and journalists.

The reasons for Hezbollah’s reluctance include Lebanon's desperately ailing economy, internal pressures within the party, and the perspective of Iran, Hezbollah's sponsor.

Tehran has important strategic considerations regarding the role and deployment of its assets in its broader geopolitical game with the US and the region.

Many now suspect that the Israelis want a much bigger confrontation with Hezbollah. It could be Benjamin Netanyahu's political escape route.

Hezbollah is a jewel in its proxy crown, so the lack of an attack suggests that Iran wants to reserve its Shiite militia for more crucial battles tied to its core interests.

Netanyahu and his defense minister Yoav Galant are of a different opinion, having voiced their eagerness to engage in a northern conflict several times recently.

So far, pressure from Washington as it engages in regional diplomacy and mediation, coupled with Hezbollah's adherence to the rules of engagement, have helped postpone the eruption of war.

But Israel wants to repatriate 70,000 citizens displaced from the northern border regions due to Hezbollah's attacks, with Netanyahu having committed to "restoring deterrence" and achieving "victory in the battle for survival".

Increasing the pressure

The recent change in tone was spelled out by Galant. "We have shifted from merely striking Hezbollah to actively pursuing them," he said.

"We will pursue them everywhere, including Beirut, Baalbek, Tire, Sidon, and Nabatiyeh, and even extend to more distant locations such as Damascus and beyond. We will operate wherever necessary."

For evidence that it is already doing so, see Israel's recent escalation of strikes beyond its northern borders. Just days ago, it targeted "Iranian sites" in north-eastern Syria, with a significant number of casualties.

Additionally, Israel conducted air-raids at the end of March on Syrian, Iranian, and Hezbollah sites in Aleppo, northern Syria, killing more than 30 Syrian soldiers, the highest Syrian military death-toll from conflict since the 1973 war.

Since it began airstrikes in Syria years ago, Israel has generally refrained from directly targeting the Syrian army and its positions, except in rare instances.

Similarly, it avoids the Russian army (an incident in 2018 proving the exception).

However, the recent bombing in Aleppo suggests an Israeli decision to turn up the pressure on Damascus to sever its ties with Hezbollah and Iran or face the consequences.

Assassinations of Iranian leaders in the Syrian capital have raised suspicions among the allies.

In response, Tehran called its commanders back to Iran, in the belief that Tel Aviv was trying to sow discord between the two states.

The Aleppo bombing suggests an Israeli decision to turn up the pressure on Damascus to sever its ties with Hezbollah and Iran or else. 

Alongside its pursuit of Iranians in Syria, Israel is now pursuing Hezbollah deep into both Lebanon and Syria. All the while, Russia's military presence remains untouched.

Although Iran and Russia are allies, Russian President Vladimir Putin is wary that Iran could exploit his focus on Ukraine to seek dominance in Syria.

Putin prefers that Iran continue to depend on Russia's support in Syria, just like he relies on Iran's support in Ukraine.

Netanyahu's survival plan

As the Battle of Rafah looks set to follow Eid al-Fitr, and with the countdown to the US presidential elections already underway, Israel's northerly glare will not cease.

Netanyahu's failures in Gaza are numerous, and not limited to the return of the hostages.

Israel is yet to kill the most senior Hamas leaders or completely dismantle its military infrastructure, despite all the death, destruction, and displacement.

Concerned about his political future, Netanyahu may be banking on escalation in Lebanon and Syria, where he knows he can score points.

Such a regional escalation may even ignite unrest in the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and parts of Syria.

The more he can show that Israel is threatened, the more he can call for Israeli unity.

Ultimately, Netanyahu's evasion of accountability by shifting Israel's military focus northwards could allow him to remain in power and out of prison, given that the fraud trials against him remain temporarily halted.

In short, Israel's northern enemies provide a welcome diversion from Gaza that also serves to buy Netanyahu time until the US elections, when he will be hoping for the return of Donald Trump, who gave Israel a free pass.

Another four-year free pass would be just what the doctor ordered.

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