The high-stakes diplomatic scramble to avert an Israel-Lebanon war

BEIRUT — As Israel announces a drawdown of its forces in northern Gaza, the United States is working to head off a second full-scale war in Lebanon, with Israeli officials warning that time for diplomacy is running out.

Israel told Washington in late December that if a long-term border agreement cannot be reached with Lebanon over the next several weeks, according to a Western diplomat and three Lebanese officials, Israel will escalate its fight with Hezbollah — a scenario the Biden administration and European countries have tried strenuously to avoid.

The officials familiar with the talks understood that Israel was eyeing the end of January as a target for coming to an agreement.

The Israelis have not put forward a “hard deadline” for when they will step up their military campaign against Hezbollah, a senior U.S. official told The Washington Post, but he acknowledged that the window for negotiations is narrowing. Like others in this piece, the official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive and ongoing talks.

In response to queries about Israel’s demands, Lior Haiat, a foreign ministry spokesman, said: “The Israeli position is that we prefer a diplomatic solution, and if a diplomatic solution will not be possible, we will have to act on our own.”

Israel’s talk of expanding war to Lebanon alarms U.S.

Israel has fought two previous wars with Hezbollah — the Iran-aligned militant group and political party that is allied with Hamas — and Israeli forces have traded daily fire with its fighters for months. Northern Israel and southern Lebanon have become military zones, effectively emptied of civilians, and the death toll, mainly among combatants, has quietly mounted on both sides.

White House envoy Amos Hochstein arrived in Beirut last week to pass on Israel’s proposal for a preliminary solution to the conflict. The proposal, as described by Lebanese officials and the Western diplomat, calls for Hezbollah to withdraw its troops a few miles north and for the Lebanese army to increase its presence in the area, creating a de facto buffer zone between the militants and the Israeli border.

No real buffer zone has ever existed in southern Lebanon. The closest attempt came starting in 1985, three years after Israeli forces invaded Lebanon, when Israel partially withdrew from the south and left an allied Christian militia to control the area under its administration.

After Israel’s full withdrawal from the country in 2000, the United Nations peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, spread out along the Blue Line, a temporary border demarcation.

It has been a flash point ever since, erupting most recently in 2006, when Israel and Hezbollah fought a bloody and inconclusive 34-day war. In Washington, European capitals and Beirut, officials fear history repeating itself.

Hezbollah’s leaders do not want a full-blown war with Israel, two U.S. officials said, but they may be opposed to striking a border deal while hundreds of Palestinians are still being killed each day in Gaza.

The talks led by Hochstein at least provide the possibility of a detente, and a road map for the two sides to follow once the fighting subsides in Gaza, the officials said.

Yet Israel has given no indication that a cease-fire is imminent. And its clock on negotiations with Lebanon appears to be ticking down.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to Israel last week, where he urged officials against ramping up hostilities in the north. “It’s clearly not in the interest of anyone — Israel, Lebanon, Hezbollah for that matter — to see this escalate,” Blinken said.

The White House declined to comment for this story.

A border deal would, in theory, allow some 70,000 displaced Israelis to return to their homes in the north — a priority for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is widely blamed in Israel for failing to prevent the Hamas-led attack on Oct. 7 and not doing more to support those whose lives have been upended by the conflict. Tens of thousands have been displaced in Lebanon, too, and authorities in Beirut will need a deal they can sell to a weary public.

At school in southern Lebanon, an aid stop for people fleeing conflict

“I don’t think [the Lebanese government] would accept half solutions,” said one of the officials familiar with the talks. The issue of returning Israelis is “their problem,” the official added. “Where is the win-win for [Lebanon]?”

Publicly, Hezbollah has seemed to reject the Israeli proposal. In a speech Sunday, the group’s leader, Hasan Nasrallah, repeated his position that a cease-fire in Gaza is a precursor to any diplomatic talks or a cessation of fighting on the border.

Washington has been “pressuring Lebanon for Israel’s sake, to stop and disable this front,” Nasrallah said. “Let the aggression on Gaza stop, and after that, we can discuss issues that concern Lebanon.”

Hezbollah is Lebanon’s most powerful political party — alongside allies, it controls the largest number of seats in parliament — and its military prowess is thought to rival that of the official Lebanese army, which has been weakened by years of government corruption and economic mismanagement.

In a speech on Jan. 5, Nasrallah publicly broached, for the first time, the possibility of demarcating its land borders with Israel, which Hochstein had been pushing for before Oct. 7.

Lebanon and Israel only recently demarcated their maritime borders, in 2022, in a deal brokered by Hochstein after 11 years of scattered negotiations. The agreement was hastened by Lebanon’s economic crisis, which pressured the government to allow companies to exploit gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean.

Hochstein and other Western officials have been pushing Lebanon and Israel to implement a 2006 United Nations resolution, known as 1701, which dictates that armed personnel, assets and weapons not belonging to the Lebanese government or UNIFIL withdraw from the area extending from the border to the Litani River, some 25 miles north.

Many Hezbollah fighters hail from the south and the group has long held sway there. Under the terms of the resolution, its soldiers would retreat north of the river and “weapons would be put away again,” according to an official close to Hezbollah, speaking on the condition of anonymity in line with rules set by the group.

If implemented, 1701 would result in territorial gains for Lebanon: the resolution dictates Israel withdraw from occupied areas, such as the northern part of the village of Ghajar. The resolution would also compel Israel to stop using Lebanese airspace to launch attacks in Syria.

Lebanon can carry out negotiations with Israel on border demarcation before a cease-fire in Gaza, according to an official with knowledge of the talks, since that condition was set by Hezbollah, not the government. But an acceptable deal has to come “in a package,” not piecemeal, the official added, and would need to be approved by Hezbollah.

Any agreement would also need to be signed by the Lebanese president, a further complication in a country that has been without a head of state since October 2022 due to political gridlock.

Lebanese officials and Hezbollah believe Israel’s grinding war in Gaza, combined with growing pressure from families of Israeli hostages still held by Hamas, will force the government to make concessions in the north. But they may be misreading the political winds in Jerusalem.

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

Israel recently killed Hamas leader Saleh Arouri in a drone strike in a Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut. On Tuesday, Israel struck southern Lebanon with the largest single barrage since the start of the hostilities.

There is significant support within Israel’s defense establishment for a bigger fight with Hezbollah, which senior officials have said may be critical to containing Iranian ambitions in the region.

“We are fighting an axis, not a single enemy,” Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said in an interview Sunday with the Wall Street Journal.

“I don’t know when the war in the north will happen, but the likelihood that it will happen in the upcoming months is higher than before,” Israel’s army chief, Herzi Halevi, told soldiers during a visit to the north Wednesday. “When we have to, we will go forward with all our strength.”

Such a gambit would be costly for Israel, but also makes strategic sense, according to Chuck Freilich, a former Israeli deputy national security adviser.

Israel’s military is already fully activated and flush with reservists who have honed their fighting skills in Gaza. The presence of an American carrier group in the Red Sea could help deter Iran from directly joining the fight.

“If you believe that war with Hezbollah is inevitable, as many in Israel do, then now is as good a time as any to do it,” Freilich said.

The Biden administration has privately and repeatedly warned Israel against a significant escalation in Lebanon, The Post reported recently, and has assured Lebanese officials it is working to contain the conflict.

When the Pentagon announced the USS Gerald R. Ford — deployed to the eastern Mediterranean to support Israel after Oct. 7 — would return home in early January, authorities in Beirut saw it as a sincere signal of U.S. de-escalation.

“They do not want to drag Lebanon into a war and don’t want the Israelis to move their escalation from Gaza to Lebanon,” said one Lebanese official familiar with the ongoing discussions with Washington.

“They’re putting pressure on the Israelis, but the Israelis are not really being responsive,” he added. The only solution that would be accepted in Lebanon, he continued, would be the full implementation of 1701.

A full-blown war between Israel and Hezbollah would bring about “mutually assured destruction,” said the official, estimating that Hezbollah has around five times more rockets than Hamas.

“All resistance organizations in the region are going to join this war,” he predicted — referring to Iran and its armed proxies in Yemen, who have already launched attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea, and in Iraq and Syria, where militants have targeted U.S. forces.

“These groups are often trained by Hezbollah,” he said. “They will stand up to defend them.”

Hudson reported from Washington. Steve Hendrix in Jerusalem and Lior Soroka in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.

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