US hosts PM’s aides amid concern full-on war with Hezbollah would overwhelm Iron Dome

Blinken reiterates need to hike Gaza aid, plan for post-war governance amid Netanyahu’s refusal to do so; US said skeptical Israel can pull off ‘blitzkrieg’ attack against Hezbollah

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

File: (Left to right) Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Council chairman Tzachi Hanegbi at the State Department in Washington on March 7, 2023. (Antony Blinken/Twitter)
File: (Left to right) Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Council chairman Tzachi Hanegbi at the State Department in Washington on March 7, 2023. (Antony Blinken/Twitter)

Top US officials hosted their Israeli counterparts for meetings in Washington on Thursday, as concern in Joe Biden’s administration reportedly mounted over the potential opening of a full-blown northern front to the Gaza war that would see Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system overwhelmed by Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal.

National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi and Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer’s meetings with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken were largely overshadowed by the ongoing public spat between their two governments that was sparked by a Tuesday video statement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in which the premier blasted what he said were “inconceivable bottlenecks” that the Biden administration had placed in the transfer of weapons and munitions to Israel.

The White House fiercely denied the charge on Tuesday, saying it has only withheld one shipment, while all others were continuing. Shortly before Hanegbi and Dermer arrived at the White House on Thursday, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby doubled down on the administration’s frustration, calling it “vexing and disappointing to us as much as it was incorrect.”

The White House did not issue a readout of the meeting Netanyahu’s top aides held with Sullivan and one issued by the State Department after their sit-down with Blinken was a regurgitation of long-held US talking points regarding the Israel-Hamas war.

Blinken “reiterated the United States’ ironclad commitment to Israel’s security,” the State Department readout said, adding that the trio discussed the ongoing talks to secure a hostage deal and ceasefire agreement. Those negotiations have been stuck since Hamas responded to Israel’s latest proposal last week with a long list of amendments. The US has said some of the changes are workable, while others are not. Qatari and Egyptian mediators have since been in talks with Hamas aimed at convincing the terror group to come down from its demands.

The top US diplomat “emphasized the need to take additional steps to surge humanitarian aid into Gaza and plan for post-conflict governance, security, and reconstruction,” the US readout said.

A truck carrying humanitarian aid for the Gaza Strip is loaded at the Kerem Shalom Border Crossing between southern Israel and Gaza, on June 17, 2024. (Ahikam Seri/AFP)

Earlier this week, the IDF announced that it would be implementing daily pauses in fighting along a specific route throughout southern Gaza to allow for the safe distribution of aid. But aid groups say the move has had limited influence, as law and order have fallen apart throughout the Strip, making it nearly impossible to deliver aid amid the mob rule.

As for post-war planning, Netanyahu has continued to buck US requests to advance the issue, arguing that the exercise is largely futile since no groups will be willing to take over the management of Gaza so long as Hamas is still in the picture. The US and the Israeli security establishment disagree, arguing that Hamas will maintain its strength, so long as a more moderate alternative isn’t empowered.

Blinken “also underscored the importance of avoiding further escalation in Lebanon and reaching a diplomatic resolution that allows Israeli and Lebanese families to return to their homes,” the US readout said.

Earlier Thursday, CNN reported that Biden officials are seriously concerned Israel’s air defense systems, including the Iron Dome, would be overwhelmed in the case of an all-out war with Hezbollah.

“We assess that at least some” Iron Dome systems “will be overwhelmed,” a senior administration official told CNN.

The Shiite militia is believed to possess some 150,000 rockets that it could use to target Israeli infrastructure.

Three US officials told CNN their Israeli counterparts share these concerns and are planning to move systems around Gaza to the north in preparation for a possible offensive against Hezbollah.

Soldiers inspecting the damage to a building in the northern community of Dovev, after it was hit by rockets fired from Lebanon, during an IDF tour, on May 27, 2024. (Jalaa Marey/ AFP)

Israeli officials have told the US that Iron Dome systems are more likely to be overwhelmed in a scenario where Hezbollah launches a large number of precision-guided weapons, which the Iran-backed terror group has in its arsenal, CNN reported.

“The fact that we have managed to even hold the front for this long has been a miracle,” a senior US official told the network. “We’re entering a very dangerous period. Something could start with little warning.”

Israel believes it still has the resources to launch an offensive against Hezbollah, particularly once it wraps up its offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, officials familiar told CNN.

But the US feels Israel’s refusal to advance a viable alternative to Hamas rule will leave the IDF bogged down in Gaza, draining resources that it would need to successfully wage a military campaign against Hezbollah.

US officials have not explicitly told their Israeli counterparts that they oppose an attack against Hezbollah but they have warned that such an offensive could lead to a much larger regional conflict with direct involvement from Iran, CNN said.

Israeli officials have suggested that they could pull off a blitzkrieg-like attack, but US officials have expressed skepticism that such fighting can be contained.

Hezbollah members raise flags of the Lebanese terror group during the funeral of a commander and an operative killed by an Israeli drone strike, in Chehabiyeh village, south Lebanon, April 17, 2024. (AP/Mohammed Zaatari)

Blinken told an Arab counterpart during his trip to the region last week that Israel appears intent on launching an offensive against Hezbollah nonetheless, a source familiar told CNN.

Israel is seeking to push Hezbollah forces further north into Lebanon, creating a buffer zone that will allow Israeli residents to feel safe enough to return to their homes. Tens of thousands evacuated after Hezbollah began launching repeated attacks on northern border towns following Hamas’s October 7 onslaught.

The US still believes it can broker a diplomatic agreement to restore calm on the northern border if it first succeeds in negotiating a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

Most Popular
read more: