US worried Netanyahu could wage war on Hezbollah for political gain – report

With Blinken due in Israel this week to try to stave off expansion of conflict, Washington Post quotes anonymous officials who think PM might escalate in north to save his career

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a government meeting at the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv on December 31, 2023. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a government meeting at the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv on December 31, 2023. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

White House officials are concerned that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could initiate a full-blown war against the Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon in order to save his own political career, according to a Sunday report.

“If the Gaza war ends tomorrow, Netanyahu’s political career will end with it, incentivizing him to broaden the conflict,” anonymous US officials told The Washington Post.

Netanyahu has dipped sharply in opinion polls since the war with Hamas began, with the public evidently attributing to him a significant portion of the blame for the failures that enabled the terror group’s October 7 massacres.

“The prime minister will continue to take the necessary steps to secure Israel and its future,” a senior Israeli government official responded to the US outlet when asked if Netanyahu’s political calculations are driving his military decisions.

Multiple senior Israeli leaders have repeatedly said Hezbollah must be driven away from the Israel-Lebanon border, in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1701 from 2006, vowing that if this isn’t achieved via diplomacy it will be done militarily.

The powerful Iran-backed Shiite militia has been waging a limited but escalating conflict with the IDF over the Israel-Lebanon border since October 7. It fired dozens of rockets at an Israeli Air Force base on Mount Meron in northern Israel on Saturday in what it said was “an initial response” to the alleged Israeli killing of Hamas terror chief Saleh al-Arouri in an airstrike in Lebanon last week.

This picture taken on December 31, 2023, from southern Lebanon shows smoke billowing across the border in northern Israel in the vicinity of a military facility in Metula, after the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah launched a barrage of rockets. (Hasan Fneich/AFP)

The Post cited over a dozen unnamed Biden administration officials and diplomats in its report.

The outlet reported that the Defense Intelligence Agency assesses that the IDF would struggle to fight Hezbollah while it battles Hamas in Gaza, as its forces would be spread too thin.

Preventing a major escalation in the north is a top priority for the Biden administration, which believes the conflict would spread to Iran and ultimately bring the US in as well.

It deployed special envoy Amos Hochstein to Lebanon and Israel last week, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken is due in Israel this week in order to push a diplomatic arrangement to head off a war between Hezbollah and Israel.

Before flying to Jordan on Sunday, Blinken said there is “real concern” around the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah.

“We want to do everything possible to make sure that we don’t see escalation there,” said the top US diplomat.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken boards a plane to travel as he departs Crete for Amman, the next stop on his week-long trip aimed at calming tensions across the Middle East, in Crete, Greece, Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool Photo via AP)

On Sunday, war cabinet minister Benny Gantz appeared to defend Netanyahu in the wake of the Washington Post report.

In a statement released on X in Hebrew and English, Gantz said, “The only consideration here is Israel’s security, and nothing else. That is our duty to our country and our citizens.”

He stressed that “the reality where the citizens of Northern Israel cannot return to their homes – requires an urgent solution. The world must remember that it was the terrorist organisation Hezbollah that initiated the escalation. Israel is interested in a diplomatic solution, but if one cannot be found – Israel and the IDF will remove the threat. All of the War Cabinet’s members share this view.”

Tensions are rising between Netanyahu and Gantz, who is the leading candidate to replace the prime minister in a potential election.

The two publicly sparred during a security cabinet meeting that had been meant to focus on a vision for postwar Gaza, over the conduct of ministers who slammed IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi for the military probe he announced into October 7 failures.

On Sunday, three ministers from Gantz’s National Unity party skipped the weekly cabinet meeting headed by Netanyahu.

Michael Bachner contributed to this report. 

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