US officials concerned Israel may be planning incursion into Lebanon

U.S. administration and intelligence officials are concerned that Israel is planning a ground incursion into Lebanon that could be launched in the late spring or early summer if diplomatic efforts fail to push Hezbollah back from the northern border with Israel, CNN has quoted senior administrations officials and officials familiar with the intelligence as saying.

“While a final Israeli decision has yet to be made, the worry is acute enough inside the Biden administration that the prospect of an incursion has made its way into intelligence briefings for senior administration officials, according to one person who received a briefing and was told an operation could happen early summer,” CNN reported on Thursday.

“We are operating in the assumption that an Israeli military operation is in the coming months,” one senior Biden administration official said. “Not necessarily imminently in the next few weeks but perhaps later this spring. An Israeli military operation is a distinct possibility,” the administration added.

However, a Lebanese-Israeli deal that might be reached through U.S. mediation “would likely postpone an Israeli incursion,” U.S. officials believe.

“I think what Israel is doing is they are raising this threat in the hope that there will be a negotiated agreement,” said the senior official, who has heard differing opinions within the Israeli government about the need to go into Lebanon.

“Some Israeli officials suggest that it is more of an effort at creating a threat that they can utilize. Others speak of it more as a military necessity that’s going to happen,” the official said.

A second senior Biden administration official said there are elements inside the Israeli government and military in favor of an incursion. There’s “a growing group that says: ‘Hey, let’s just take a shot. Let’s just do it,’” the senior official said, adding that any incursion could lead to a “major, major escalation that we don’t even know the proportions of.”

Some 80,000 Israelis have been displaced from Israel’s north since October. In a statement to CNN, the Israeli embassy in Washington wrote, “The State of Israel will not return to the pre-war status quo in which Hezbollah poses a direct and immediate military threat to its security along the Israel-Lebanon border.”

“There are fears this (the current confrontations) will grow to an expansive air campaign reaching much further north into populated areas of Lebanon and eventually grow to a ground component as well,” another person familiar with the U.S. intelligence said.

“If (U.S. mediator) Amos (Hochstein) were to successfully negotiate a standoff arrangement, then the probability of a military operation later this year would decline considerably,” the first administration official said. If Hezbollah is pushed back about 10 kilometers, that would take out some of the shorter-range munitions they’ve been using against Israel, the official added.

During a meeting in Israel earlier this month, Hochstein met with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant who said: “We are ready to resolve this crisis via diplomatic understandings, however we are also prepared for any other scenario.”

“Israel has been willing to give diplomacy a chance and hope it will succeed,” an Israeli official said to CNN. “If the issue can not be resolved diplomatically, Israel will have to consider alternate means.”

An agreement that simply pushes Hezbollah back from the border may also not be enough for Israel, the first administration official argued. A ground incursion would give Israel a chance to “mow the grass” and destroy Hezbollah’s physical infrastructure in the south that would at least slow a future return to the border area, the official said.

If the invasion does not happen, the buffer zone would need to be filled with forces from the Lebanese Armed Forces and the United Nations peacekeepers UNIFIL, the official added.

“Whatever kilometer buffer is negotiated will not keep Hezbollah out forever but will provide at least some assurance that they’re not going to return immediately,” they said.

“I think the majority of responsible people on both sides don’t want an escalation and do want a [diplomatic] solution that allows us to de-escalate,” the second senior administration official said. “But those are not the ones that always carry the day.”

Source: Naharnet

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