A Peace to Delay War: How Diplomacy Can End Hezbollah’s War of Choice

Having failed so far to convince Hezbollah to take “yes” for an answer and negotiate an end to its unprovoked war on Israel, the Biden administration increasingly says “no” to Israel’s threats to resolve the conflict less diplomatically. American officials now warn publicly they cannot help defend Israel like they did recently against Iranian missiles and drones, and they have taken their foot off the accelerator on weapons resupply to Israel, vainly seeking to avert an imminent crisis.

Inserting such daylight into the bilateral partnership is counterproductive. It encourages Hezbollah to escalate attacks and raises the immediate risks of an unexpected, dangerously unpredictable conflict spiral endangering the entire Middle East. Ultimately, American diplomacy can only hope to achieve a meaningful ceasefire by leveraging Hezbollah’s demonstrated preference to stand down in the current conflict rather than risk a much costlier offensive if Israel takes the gloves off.

Several factors drive Hezbollah’s calculus. It was not built into the world’s best-armed proxy force just so it could trigger its own war with Israel – especially not one of its own volition on Hamas’s behalf. Hezbollah’s fundamental purpose is to deter Israeli action against Iran’s nuclear weapons program, like a fleet-in-being from ages past whose military value inheres it how its existence, not its use, imposes real strategic constraints on its adversaries. This spring, Iran’s then foreign minister traveled to Beirut to remind Hezbollah of this primary mission, cautioning explicitly against risking a larger war in Lebanon and, with it, Tehran’s larger plans. Hezbollah’s value to the Iranian regime is even greater after Tehran’s failed maximum effort to assault Israel directly in April.

Moreover, Hezbollah’s striking power is premised on surprise to overwhelm Israel’s defenses, which it lost by taking the first potshots on October 8. And while portraying his last war with Israel in 2006 as a resounding success, leader Hassan Nasrallah also admits his alarm and regret at the costs of that short but sharp exchange, and now spends his days literally and figuratively cloistered underground.

To a much greater extent than in 2006, his group also has real domestic equities. Having seen what Israel is capable of doing in Gaza, Hezbollah cannot afford to invite a similar fate onto an already unstable, insecure Lebanon. Nasrallah’s unprompted attacks led to blowback against his perceived recklessness, including public criticisms from the leader of the largest parliamentary bloc asking “what was the benefit of military operations that were launched from south Lebanon? Nothing.

Silencing its guns, saving face, and taking the diplomatic win enables Hezbollah to cover all these bases. It could claim to have upheld its central role in Tehran’s “axis of resistance” by impinging and dragging out Israel’s operations in Gaza and normalizing persistent attacks on the Jewish state. It also could claim to have gained much-need economic benefits for Lebanon and progress on its territorial demands along the “Blue Line” separating the two countries.

Indeed, Nasrallah has conveyed his limited appetite for escalation from the start, claiming since last fall that Hezbollah already did its part – and accomplished more than it did even in 2006 – merely by opening a second front on October 8. He also declared Hamas bears “100 percent” responsibility for starting the war and thus will continue bearing the main burden, too.

Israel’s outlook appears starkly different. Hezbollah’s war of choice has created a war of necessity for Israel, for whom the expected punishment from Hezbollah’s vast arsenals is outweighed by the existential dangers of allowing northern Israel to remain a ghost town under permanent threat, jeopardizing the country’s raison d’être to provide a safe Jewish homeland within its borders and emboldening other Iranian proxies that have becoming alarmingly active in recent months. Israeli thinking was already evident in the intense debates among its leadership whether to prioritize Gaza or Lebanon right after October 7-8. The eventual choice to deal first with Hamas was a near-run thing, and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has retained the bulk of its striking power on the Lebanon front even as it wages its largest and most ambitious Gaza campaign ever.

This strategic asymmetry is playing out on both sides of the Blue Line and undermines the standard claim that the two sides are engaged in parallel tit-for-tat exchanges. Since late last year, the IDF has battered Hezbollah’s military leadership and assets throughout Lebanon and Syria, threatening its logistical lifelines to Iran and its most potent offensive capabilities near the Blue Line. When Israel crossed Nasrallah’s redline by eliminating a key Hamas official in Beirut in January, his denunciation of the killing avoided this awkward fact, and Hezbollah’s attacks did not change markedly. Furthermore, Iran’s ambitious “kill shot” at Israel on April 13-14 contrasts markedly with Hezbollah’s choice to withhold its own formidable fires that night, despite having been hit just as hard by IDF airstrikes in preceding months. Hezbollah reportedly disappointed its patrons by launching only a token salvo of rockets that night, and by dragging its feet in expressing approval of Tehran’s escalation. The IDF is operating even more assertively since then, including striking more proactively and without explicitly framing such moves as responses to specific attacks anymore.

To be sure, Hezbollah shows some willingness to return serve, particularly by sending new drones deeper into Israel. But it has refrained from matching the IDF’s intensifying campaign, choosing instead to limit its risk exposure nearest the Blue Line. It has fired several thousand projectiles since October 8, an alarming number in itself, but still less than what it could hurl in a single day with moderate effort. And it has not escalated qualitatively by using any of the longer-range heavy ballistic missiles, anti-ship cruise missiles, or precision guided munitions swarms that make it the biggest threat to Israel short of a nuclear Iran. In this light, the roughly 25:1 casualty ratio between Israel and Hezbollah forces – with more Hezbollah fatalities than in 2006 – speaks volumes about Nasrallah’s self-deterrence.

This is the context and moment in which American diplomats can cool off a major Middle East hotspot ignited by Iran’s axis. A viable ceasefire must confront Hezbollah with a clear choice between prohibitive escalation and an offramp which, in exchange for ending cross-border attacks and pushing its Radwan special forces well away from the Blue Line, commits to eventually address Hezbollah’s border demands and other issues. An incomplete and impermanent fix, and one requiring an altogether new approach to securing southern Lebanon, it would nevertheless buy Israel and the United States crucial time and space, reinvigorate America’s invaluable regional leadership, and notch much-needed victories for U.S. and Israeli deterrence. This still adds up to a defeat for Hezbollah, yet one preferable to the all-out war it does not seem willing to countenance.

Reinforcing Hezbollah’s incentive to deescalate, bolstering U.S.-led diplomacy, and avoiding the pandora’s box of a rapid conflict spiral all necessitate stronger backing for Israel’s readiness to end the threat to its very way of life in the north. American officials must stop needlessly emphasizing their fear of heightened conflict and their concerns that the United States would not be able to support Israel like it did against Iran’s April 13-14 attack. Statements supporting Israel’s legitimate self-defense against Hezbollah’s unprovoked assault and its illegal military presence in southern Lebanon will be salutary here. Biden officials and Congress must be unequivocally clear that Tehran has a stark choice as well: it can pressure its Lebanese proxy to pull back from the border, or risk losing its ultimate insurance policy to U.S.-backed Israeli action.

Leading Hezbollah toward the light also entails more concrete U.S. signals. The diplomatic clock may be ticking faster than that for expedited U.S. arms transfers to Israel, but both countries can build on Defense Minister Gallant’s recent visit to Washington and remove dangerous daylight by highlighting America’s continued intent to ensure Israel has whatever it needs, as quickly as possible, to meet the significant operational and logistical demands of a major conflict with Hezbollah. Such promises will gain credibility if the United States boosts its readiness to support Israel in a wartime emergency, specifically by prepositioning vital munitions in its arms depot there and by exercising existing plans to surge air defenses to Israel.

Finally, the United States must address its own vulnerabilities. Hezbollah has tried to dissuade U.S. support for Israel by encouraging Iranian proxies in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen – many of them trained and equipped by Hezbollah – to ramp up pressure regionwide. Building on its temporary but tangible success in curtailing such attacks in recent months, the Biden administration must convey its readiness to further expand and intensify its strikes on Iranian and proxy assets, explicitly including Hezbollah regionwide, should these proxies resume testing America’s resolve.

All these efforts ultimately may be for naught. Hezbollah may continue dialing up the pressure and refuse to take the offramp, as can happen in risk-taking competitions with such high stakes. But America has absolutely nothing to lose with more urgent and assertive diplomacy, especially since the current course is increasingly untenable for itself, its Israeli partner, and the region. The persistent potential for miscalculation, and the profound consequences of a larger conflict that the Biden administration wishes away, reinforce the need to clearly support its embattled partner, exert leadership, and rightly pin any diplomatic failure on Hezbollah and Iran – an overdue message that will not be lost on U.S. adversaries or allies regionally and globally.

And if diplomacy succeeds, U.S. statesmanship and Israeli determination will have combined to deal a serious, though certainly far from total, defeat to the most potent threat currently confronting the Middle East.

Jonathan Ruhe and Dr. Jacob Olidort are Director of Foreign Policy and former Director of Research, respectively, at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America.