President Biden and his top aides have been urging Israeli leaders against carrying out any major strike against Hezbollah, the powerful militia in Lebanon, that could draw it into the Israel-Hamas war, American and Israeli officials say.
The U.S. officials are concerned that some of the more hawkish members of Israel’s war cabinet have wanted to take on Hezbollah even as Israel begins a long conflict against Hamas after the Oct. 7 attacks. The Americans are conveying to the Israelis the difficulties of battling both Hamas in the south and a much more powerful Hezbollah force in the north.
U.S. officials believe Israel would struggle in a two-front war and that such a conflict could draw in both the United States and Iran, the militia’s main supporter.
The effort by top American officials to head off an Israeli offensive on Hezbollah, reported in detail here for the first time, reveals anxieties by the Biden administration over the war planning of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his aides, even as the two governments strive to present a strong united front in public.
American officials want to rein in Hezbollah too. In numerous meetings across the Middle East, American diplomats have been urging their Arab counterparts to help pass messages to the militia, including via their contacts in Iran, to try to prevent any Israel-Hezbollah war from erupting, whether through actions by the militia group or by the Israelis.
U.S. officials feared that Mr. Netanyahu might approve a pre-emptive strike on Hezbollah in the immediate aftermath of the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas, which killed more than 1,400 people. Although those fears have receded for now because Mr. Netanyahu cooled to the idea, anxieties still persist over two possibilities: an Israeli overreaction to Hezbollah rocket attacks, and harsh Israeli tactics in an expected ground offensive against Hamas in Gaza that would compel Hezbollah to enter the war.
American officials have advised Israeli counterparts in meetings this week to take care that their actions in the north against Hezbollah and in the south in Gaza do not give Hezbollah an easy pretext to enter the war. Those sensitive talks took place during Mr. Biden’s visit to Tel Aviv on Wednesday and during Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken’s long negotiations in Israel earlier this week.
In both visits, the American officials met with Mr. Netanyahu and his war cabinet, almost unheard of in Israel’s history. They avoided using blunt language to warn the Israelis away from provocative military actions because they understood the vulnerability felt by Israeli officials after the Oct. 7 attacks. But both Mr. Biden and Mr. Blinken made their concerns clear, said U.S. and Israeli officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly about diplomatic discussions during wartime.
One of the biggest champions of a pre-emptive attack on Hezbollah has been Yoav Gallant, the defense minister, who has argued Israel’s main military effort should be focused on Hezbollah since it poses a greater threat than Hamas, the officials said.
Mr. Gallant told Mr. Blinken in a small meeting on Monday that he had advocated the previous week to launch a pre-emptive strike on Hezbollah, but was overruled by other officials, said a person familiar with the discussion.
Mr. Biden met on Wednesday with the Israeli war cabinet, where Mr. Gallant was present, and underscored the dangers of a two-front war by asking tough questions about the many consequences for Israel of a full-scale conflict with Hezbollah, officials said. Mr. Biden also raised the specters of the disastrous decisions by American officials to invade Iraq and to wage a long, open-ended war in Afghanistan.
The White House National Security Council and the State Department declined to comment for this story. The Israeli military and Mr. Gallant also declined to comment.
A representative of Mr. Netanyahu’s office issued a statement that said, “Israel is united in the war against Hamas. Prime Minister Netanyahu has said that if Hezbollah joins the war, they will make a grave mistake and will pay a devastating price unlike any before.”
From Oct. 12 to Oct. 18, over the week of Mr. Blinken’s marathon Middle East crisis trip and Mr. Biden’s visit to Tel Aviv, the Biden administration evolved in how it conveyed its concerns to Israel — eventually deciding to couch them in lessons learned from America’s costly overreaction to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
At a news conference in Tel Aviv on Oct. 12, Mr. Blinken avoided directly answering a question from an American reporter on whether he had any lessons to impart to Israel from the response to Sept. 11. But by Oct. 18, he and Mr. Biden were talking about the U.S. mistakes in private to the Israelis, and Mr. Biden was openly pointing to them in a speech in Tel Aviv.
For now, Mr. Netanyahu has refrained from backing a major attack on Hezbollah, despite the encouragement of Mr. Gallant and senior military generals, U.S. and Israeli officials said. And the Israeli military has so far not reacted with overwhelming force to the ongoing low-level rocket fire from Hezbollah. But the fast-moving events of the war could change that.
American and Israeli officials say they have not found evidence yet that Hezbollah or Iran played a role in the planning of the Hamas attacks. Several senior Hezbollah and Iranian officials appeared to have been surprised by the attacks, U.S. and Israeli officials have said. U.S. and allied officials have also said they had assessed for years that Hezbollah leaders have sought to avoid all-out war with Israel.
The C.I.A. has long assessed that Israel would face significant challenges in a war against both Hezbollah and Hamas, say officials familiar with the intelligence. Recent work includes analysis that the deep divisions in Israel over Mr. Netanyahu’s proposed changes to the judiciary had left the Israeli army weaker, the officials said.
White House officials first became worried over the prospect of a widening war when, soon after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, they heard of a debate among Israeli officials over pre-emptively striking Hezbollah and focusing the country’s main combat effort on that group. The White House officials told the Israelis it was a bad idea.
In the internal Israeli debate, Mr. Netanyahu had expressed some support for the strike, Israeli officials said. Some Israeli military officials came up with a plan that focused on attacking Hezbollah, by using the pretense of an invasion of Gaza as cover for a bigger assault in the north, they said. Mr. Netanyahu held off on enacting the plan, to the disappointment of Mr. Gallant, a former naval special forces commander, and other supporters of the plan, the officials said.
By the time Mr. Blinken arrived in Tel Aviv for his first wartime visit, on Oct. 12, the American officials had become less anxious about such a strike, but were still concerned over potential Israeli overreaction to the ongoing Hezbollah rocket attacks.
Hezbollah has been firing rockets into northern Israel since Israel’s war with Hamas began, prompting Israeli airstrikes and artillery fire in south Lebanon, but the group has so far refrained from carrying out a major attack. Since Israel and Hezbollah last fought a war, in 2006, the group has grown stronger and better armed, with an estimated 100,000 rockets and missiles in its arsenal, Israeli officials say. Hezbollah also has many fighters who have honed their skills battling the Islamic State in Syria.
The Biden administration is also carrying out a parallel diplomatic and military deterrence campaign to try to prevent Hezbollah from going to war against Israel. If that happened, Iran could decide to enter the fray, making the conflict a regional one, even though U.S. officials assess that Iran for now does not want to get into such a war.
Mr. Blinken and his colleagues have been passing messages to Iran and Hezbollah through Qatar, China and other nations to tell those adversaries of Israel to stay out of the Hamas war. The Pentagon has sent two aircraft carriers to the eastern Mediterranean and has increased troops in the area as a deterrence measure.
The debate among Israeli officials about whether to attack Hezbollah has echoes of the Bush administration drive to invade Iraq after the Sept. 11 attacks, even as it was still waging war in Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda, the terrorist group that carried out those attacks, was based.
Mr. Biden had three notable lines in his speech in Tel Aviv that referred to “mistakes” by the United States after the Sept. 11 attacks.
“I caution this: While you feel that rage, don’t be consumed by it,” Mr. Biden said. “After 9/11, we were enraged in the United States. And while we sought justice and got justice, we also made mistakes.”
Right before Mr. Biden’s visit to Tel Aviv on Wednesday, Victoria Nuland, the third-ranking State Department official, and other senior diplomats told a small group of U.S. lawmakers that the Biden administration was worried about the possibility of Israel widening the war by doing a major strike on Hezbollah and other armed groups, said an official with knowledge of the briefing. The diplomats said they were concerned that some Israeli officials, including Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gallant, were blind with rage from the atrocities committed by Hamas fighters during the attack on Oct. 7, the official said.
The diplomats told the lawmakers this was one reason that Mr. Blinken’s meeting with Mr. Netanyahu and the Israeli war cabinet, which began Monday night, dragged on for seven and a half hours into Tuesday morning.
After the Oct. 7 attacks, Mr. Gallant announced a “complete siege of Gaza,” cutting off water, electricity and food, going far beyond the naval blockade it has imposed for 16 years. “We are fighting human animals,” he said. Israel’s bombardment following the Hamas attacks has resulted in the deaths of thousands of Palestinians and the displacement of more than one million people. Israel ordered all of Gaza’s northern residents to head south ahead of an expected ground invasion. But Israel has since bombed the southern areas of Khan Younis and Rafah.
After Mr. Gallant and Mr. Blinken had their Monday meeting, the two were supposed to pose silently on a stage for photographs for journalists. But Mr. Gallant surprised American diplomats with public remarks in which he praised the presence of U.S. warships in the Mediterranean — which could end up involved in a full-blown Israel-Hezbollah conflict — and said, “This will be a long war; the price will be high.”