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Hezbollah, Tehran leading from behind – POLITICO

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Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.

TEL AVIV — Since the Hamas attacks on southern Israel on October 7, the group’s leaders have been desperate for Hezbollah — its militant Iran-backed ally in Lebanon — to open a second “resistance” front, and have publicly called for others to enter the conflict.

But on Friday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah disappointed them.

In their appeals for a second front, Hamas leaders had gone out of their way to court Nasrallah, frequently citing his iconic spiderweb allegory. For years the Hezbollah leader has cast Israel as a country destined to dissolve, much like a spider’s web. And according to Hamas, the October 7 attacks underlined what Nasrallah had been talking about — Israel’s fragility.

Yet for all Hamas’ exhortations, Nasrallah, and Iran behind him, appear to have decided it isn’t the right moment to prompt all-out war with Israel.

In his first public comments since the Hamas assault, Nasrallah referred to the spiderweb yet again, saying the attacks had further exposed the “frailty of the Israeli entity.” But the key takeaway from his speech, which was otherwise full of invective and bravado, was the absence of a clear commitment to a broader war.

Skirmishes along the border would continue, he said, arguing it was Hezbollah’s duty to support Hamas, and that in doing so it could help draw significant Israeli military resources away from Gaza. “The Lebanese front has lessened a large part of the forces that were going to escalate the attack on Gaza,” he noted.

Nasrallah also kept the door open to the possibility of escalation. “Developments on the Lebanese front are dependent on two things: The course of events in Gaza and the enemy’s behavior toward Lebanon,” he said. However, he seemed cautious, his tone understated and lacking the passion of previous addresses.

One reason for Nasrallah’s reluctance to enter the military fray with all guns blazing, some suspect, may be an irritation with Hamas.

There was a hint of this in his speech — although cloaked and disguised as praise for what Hamas had achieved. Nasrallah went out of his way to distance Hezbollah and its paymasters in Tehran from any involvement in the October 7 attacks — whether in planning or organizing them. “It was a 100 percent Palestinian operation, planned and executed by Palestinians for the Palestinian cause,” he said, adding that those who initiated it had “kept it hidden from everyone.”

While few analysts believe Hamas would have left Hezbollah completely in the dark, Lebanese intelligence officials in Beirut recently told POLITICO they had the impression Hezbollah was indeed surprised by the scale of the assault and its impact — and suggested Hamas may have been also. And not having calculated that October 7 would bring the full wrath of Israel down on it, Hamas may not have had much of a post-attack game plan. Hence the need for Hezbollah. 

Interestingly, I witnessed Hezbollah’s irritation with Hamas just last month in Beirut, when the head of Hamas’ political bureau in Lebanon told POLITICO in an interview that the two allies were closely coordinating their actions. He was subsequently summoned by Hezbollah for a dressing down, having raised the specter of a second front and saying Hezbollah was “geared for a major war.”

Whatever the case, Nasrallah’s speech has been greeted in Israel with a sigh of relief. Many here feared the Hezbollah leader would announce a full-scale war, but United States and Israeli officials now believe he has blinked.

For all the bravado of Nasrallah’s claim that U.S. aircraft carriers in the region don’t scare him, Washington believes that the two it sent to the eastern Mediterranean have indeed influenced Hezbollah and Tehran’s thinking — along with the stark warnings from Israel that Lebanon would be flattened were war to erupt.

A broader regional conflict has been deterred,” said Pentagon spokesman Brigadier General Patrick Ryder. “Right now, we see this conflict as contained between Israel and Hamas.”

Hezbollah has been careful and calibrated in its border actions since October 7. Its skirmishes with Israel, too, have largely been confined to tit-for-tat strikes on military targets,  remaining within what Lebanese politicians call the “rules of the game” — informal guidelines established after the inconclusive 34-day war of 2006 to reduce miscalculation by both sides.

Even before Nasrallah’s speech, former U.S. diplomat Alberto M. Fernandez suspected that Hezbollah would avoid all-out war. Hezbollah, he said, “has been trying to thread a military needle, making numerous low-intensity attacks along the Israeli border that have provoked an effective Israeli response — without fully unleashing all its power.”

According to Fernandez, Hezbollah ultimately exists as much to deter attacks by Israel on Iran as to help wage war over Palestine. “To go to war now means that Hezbollah would be of little use to Iran later” if a bigger war erupted, he said. “Part of the group’s strength then is akin to the naval doctrine of ‘a fleet in being,’ that by existing and doing little or nothing, it serves as a deterrent against Israel — a powerful potential threat that needs to be considered in war planning. But once fully in use, Hezbollah would no longer be a deterrent.”

All of this leaves Hamas more isolated. Does that mean it might be prepared to negotiate and compromise, especially over the 242 hostages it holds?

Not necessarily. There are few signs the militant group is any more malleable than before. And after the worst attacks in the Jewish state’s history, Israel isn’t in the mood for compromise. Instead, the country remains steadfast in its aims to destroy Hamas, kill its leaders, wreck its military infrastructure, and ensure it never rules Gaza again. No cease-fires, no pauses, no letting Hamas off the hook.

For now, then, Hezbollah and Tehran are content to leave the conflict in Gaza to Hamas, offering only symbolic support with skirmishes along Israel’s northern border and attacks on U.S. garrison and targets by an assortment of Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria.

Whether that changes if Hamas nears total defeat remains to be seen. There’s still a lot that can go wrong.

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