Even as he threatens Israel, Nasrallah gestures at future border talks

BEIRUT — After a week that included a suspected Israeli assassination in Beirut and a U.S. airstrike in central Baghdad — sparking fears of a wider regional war — many had been apprehensive about Hasan Nasrallah’s speech on Friday.

But the leader of Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese militant group and political party, had a somewhat surprising message for Israel and the United States, hinting that Lebanon might be open to negotiations on border demarcation with Israel — but only after a cease-fire in Gaza.

The border area between the historic foes has seen near-daily exchanges of shelling since Oct. 7, when Hamas militants stormed into Israel, killing 1,200 people and kidnapping some 240 others. The attack elicited a swift and brutal response from Israel, whose intensive bombardment of the Gaza Strip killed more than 20,000 Palestinians in less than three months, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

Hezbollah was one of several Iran-aligned militant groups in the region to throw its support behind Hamas, launching strikes into border towns in northern Israel. More than 120 Hezbollah fighters and a dozen Israeli soldiers have been killed in the skirmishes; tens of thousands of civilians have been displaced on both sides.

On Lebanese border, Israelis fear a new kind of war with Hezbollah

The violence raised alarms in Washington, where officials worried that a miscalculation could open a dangerous new front — one that would embroil Israel in a different kind of war, against a more skilled and professional fighting force than Hamas.

To address the mounting tensions, President Biden’s senior energy adviser, Amos Hochstein, was dispatched to Lebanon in November and to Israel this week. In the months preceding Oct. 7, Hochstein had been exploring the possibility of resolving the countries’ decades-long border dispute.

Reaching a deal was not as far-fetched as it sounded for the U.S. envoy, who in 2022 mediated an agreement between Israel and Lebanon to demarcate their maritime border, putting an end to 11 years of glacial negotiations.

Hochstein sought to revive the border talks during his visit to Lebanon, according to a report last week in the Hezbollah-aligned newspaper al-Akhbar. Officials in Lebanon confirmed to The Washington Post that Hochstein had broached the topic.

Nasrallah, always a cryptic and circuitous speaker, did not mention border demarcation by name Friday, but analysts said his meaning was clear.

“We are now faced with a historic opportunity to completely liberate every inch of our Lebanese land,” he said in his live television address, adding that Lebanon now had the “real opportunity” to put in place an equation that thwarts any Israeli breach of Lebanon’s airspace and seas. In a complaint filed to the U.N. Security Council on Friday, Lebanon accused Israel of using its airspace to launch attacks on Syria.

“But of course,” Nasrallah continued, “any talks on this level, any negotiation, any discussion, will not take place or reach a result until after the cessation of hostilities in Gaza.”

Mohanad Hage Ali of the Carnegie Middle East Center said the leader was signaling, at a moment of high tension, that Hezbollah is ready to pull back from the brink and, eventually, negotiate a border deal with Israel.

The process may take years, Hage Ali said — and would require real concessions from Hezbollah in exchange for Israeli withdrawals from contested areas — but Nasrallah was “trying to show some sort of good faith in terms of his readiness to engage in a long-term process.”

Nasrallah was quick to clarify that Hezbollah, which dubs itself “The Resistance” to Israel, was in no way making peace with its historic enemy. He pointed to the more than 90 days of fighting in Lebanon’s south and praised the soldiers who have been killed in the conflict.

U.S. strike in Baghdad raises specter of wider regional war

He also repeated a promise from his speech Wednesday, vowing to retaliate for the suspected Israeli strike Tuesday on a building in Dahieh, a neighborhood on the edge of Beirut, killing senior Hamas leader Saleh Arouri along with six other Palestinian militants.

While Nasrallah tends to be vague about how and when Hezbollah will strike back at Israel — “at the right place and the right time” is a favorite phrase — he said Friday that the response to Arouri’s killing was already in motion.

“We cannot stay silent on a threat that’s dangerous, because that would mean that all of Lebanon would be exposed,” he told his supporters.

Yet beneath the bluster, analysts detected a shift in messaging.

Amal Saad, a lecturer at Cardiff University who follows Hezbollah closely, said the group is signaling to Israel that it “is willing to go all the way” toward a final border settlement if a cease-fire is put in place in Gaza.

“It’s a message to Israel and maybe the U.S., because it’s the one brokering these talks and can pressure Israel for a cease-fire,” Saad said. Dangling the possibility of border demarcation was also a hopeful message aimed at a beleaguered Lebanese public, Saad said, fearful of war and mired in a years-long economic crisis.

Nasrallah referred to those dire straits in his speech Wednesday, saying the group had avoided war so far because it had been “taking into consideration the Lebanese situation and national interests.”

For all the hints of de-escalation, Nasrallah warned again that if Israel waged war on Lebanon, the group would fight “until the end, with no restraint.”

The message to Washington, Saad said, is that the longer the war drags on, the more the United States has to lose in the Middle East — “not just anything relating to Israel, but also its wider regional role, which has also suffered a blow.”

“That blow is irreversible.”

Mohamed El Chamaa contributed to this report.

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content