March 1, 2024

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A high-stakes diplomatic scramble to avoid an Israeli-Lebanese war

BEIRUT – As Israel announces the withdrawal of its forces from the northern Gaza Strip, the United States is working to avoid a second full-scale war in Lebanon, where Israeli officials warn that time for diplomacy is running out.

Israel informed Washington in late December that if a long-term border agreement with Lebanon was not reached within the next few weeks, according to a Western diplomat and three Lebanese officials, Israel would escalate its fight with Hezbollah — a scenario proposed by the Biden administration and the Europeans. Countries have tried hard to avoid this.

Officials familiar with the talks understood that Israel was eyeing the end of January as a target for reaching an agreement.

The Israelis did not set a “hard deadline” for escalating their military campaign against Hezbollah, a senior American official told the Washington Post, but he acknowledged that the window for negotiations was narrowing. Like others in this article, the official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive and ongoing conversations.

In response to inquiries about the Israeli demands, Foreign Ministry spokesman Lior Hayat said: “The Israeli position is that we prefer a diplomatic solution, and if a diplomatic solution is not possible, we will have to act ourselves.”

Israel's talk about expanding the war to include Lebanon raises concerns for the United States

Israel has fought two previous wars with Hezbollah – the armed group allied with Iran and the political party allied with Hamas – and Israeli forces have exchanged fire daily with its fighters for months. Northern Israel and southern Lebanon have been transformed into military zones, having been effectively evacuated of civilians, and the death toll, especially among combatants, has quietly risen on both sides.

White House envoy Amos Hochstein arrived in Beirut last week to pass the Israeli proposal to reach a preliminary solution to the conflict. The proposal, as described by Lebanese officials and a Western diplomat, calls for Hezbollah to withdraw its forces 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. .

There was no real buffer zone in southern Lebanon at all. The closest attempt began in 1985, three years after Israeli forces invaded Lebanon, when Israel partially withdrew from the south and left an allied Christian militia in control of the area under its administration.

After Israel's complete withdrawal from the country in 2000, the United Nations peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, deployed along the Blue Line, a temporary border demarcation.

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It has turned into a flashpoint ever since, most recently in 2006, when Israel and Hezbollah fought a bloody and inconclusive 34-day war. In Washington, European capitals and Beirut, officials fear that history will repeat itself.

Hezbollah leaders do not want all-out war with Israel, but they may oppose a border agreement while hundreds of Palestinians are still being killed every day in Gaza, two US officials said.

The officials said the Hochstein-led talks at least offer the possibility of a breakthrough and a road map for the two sides to follow once the fighting in Gaza subsides.

However, Israel has given no indication that a ceasefire is imminent. It seems that the clock for negotiations with Lebanon has begun to tick.

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

The White House declined to comment on this story.

In theory, the border deal would allow some 70,000 displaced Israelis to return to their homes in the north — a priority for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been widely blamed in Israel for failing to prevent the Hamas-led attack on October 7. Not doing more to support those whose lives have been turned upside down by conflict. Tens of thousands have been displaced in Lebanon as well, and the authorities in Beirut will need a deal they can sell to an exhausted public.

At a school in southern Lebanon, aid is halted for people fleeing conflict

“I don “t think so [the Lebanese government] “We will accept half-measures,” said one official familiar with the talks. The official added that the issue of the return of the Israelis is “their problem.” “Where's the win for [Lebanon]?

Publicly, Hezbollah appeared to reject the Israeli proposal. In a speech on Sunday, the movement's leader Hassan Nasrallah reiterated his position that a ceasefire in Gaza is a prelude to any diplomatic talks or a cessation of fighting on the border.

Nasrallah said that Washington is “pressuring Lebanon for the sake of Israel to stop and disrupt this front.” “Let the aggression against Gaza stop, and then we can discuss the issues that concern Lebanon.”

Hezbollah is Lebanon's most powerful political party – along with its allies it controls the largest number of seats in parliament – and its military prowess is believed to rival the strength of the official Lebanese army, which has been weakened by years of government corruption and economic mismanagement.

In a speech on January 5, Nasrallah publicly raised, for the first time, the possibility of demarcating his land border with Israel, something that Hockstein had been pushing for before October 7.

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Lebanon and Israel recently demarcated their maritime borders, in 2022, in an agreement brokered by Hochstein after 11 years of sporadic negotiations. The economic crisis in Lebanon hastened the agreement, putting pressure on the government to allow companies to exploit gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean.

Hochstein and other Western officials are pressing Lebanon and Israel to implement the 2006 UN resolution, known as 1701The order requires the withdrawal of armed elements, assets and weapons not belonging to the Lebanese government or UNIFIL forces from the area extending from the border to the Litani River, approximately 25 miles north.

Many Hezbollah fighters come from the south, and the party has long enjoyed influence there. Under the terms of the resolution, its soldiers will withdraw north of the river and “weapons will be positioned again,” according to an official close to Hezbollah, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with rules set by the group.

If Resolution 1701 is implemented, it will lead to territorial gains for Lebanon: the resolution dictates that Israel withdraw from it occupied territoriesLike the northern part of Ghajar village. The decision would also force Israel to stop using Lebanese airspace to launch attacks in Syria.

Lebanon could hold negotiations with Israel on border demarcation before the Gaza ceasefire, according to an official familiar with the talks, because that condition was set by Hezbollah, not the government. The official added that an acceptable agreement must come “in a package,” not in parts, and must be approved by Hezbollah.

Any agreement would also need the signature of the Lebanese president, representing an additional complication in a country without a head of state since October 2022 due to political deadlock.

Lebanese and Hezbollah officials believe that the brutal Israeli war in Gaza, in addition to mounting pressure from the 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 the Lebanese border, the Israelis fear a new kind of war with Hezbollah

Israel recently killed Hamas leader Saleh Al-Arouri in a drone strike on Hezbollah's stronghold in Beirut. On Tuesday, Israel bombed southern Lebanon with the largest single bombing since the start of hostilities.

There is significant support within the Israeli defense establishment for a bigger fight with Hezbollah, which senior officials have said could be crucial to containing Iranian ambitions in the region.

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“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 war will break out in the north, but the probability of it happening in the coming months is higher than before,” Israeli army chief Herzi Halevy told soldiers during a visit to the north on Wednesday. “When we have to, we will go full force.”

Such a maneuver would be costly for Israel, but it also makes strategic sense, according to Chuck Freilich, Israel's former deputy national security adviser.

The Israeli army has already been fully activated and is filled with reservists who have honed their fighting skills in Gaza. The presence of a US aircraft 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 to do it as any,” Freilich said.

The Washington Post recently reported that the Biden administration has specifically and repeatedly warned Israel of a major escalation in Lebanon, and has assured Lebanese officials that it is working to contain the conflict.

When the Pentagon announced that the USS Gerald R. Ford — which was deployed to the eastern Mediterranean in support of Israel after October 7 — would return home in early January, authorities in Beirut responded. They saw it as a sincere signal to reduce the American escalation.

A Lebanese official familiar with the ongoing discussions with Washington said: “They do not want to drag Lebanon into war, and they do not want the Israelis to transfer their escalation from Gaza to Lebanon.”

He added: “They are putting pressure on the Israelis, but the Israelis are not really responding.” He added that the only solution that can be accepted in Lebanon is the full implementation of Resolution 1701.

The official said an all-out war between Israel and Hezbollah would lead to “mutually assured destruction,” estimating that Hezbollah has about five times the missiles that Hamas does.

He expected that “all resistance organizations in the region will join this war,” 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 are present. Targeted American forces.

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

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