In his January 3, 2024 speech, Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah hailed “a historic opportunity” to help Lebanon regain control of disputed borderlands “after this phase (of fighting between Israel and Hizbullah) ends and after the aggression on Gaza.”
The same day, Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said his government “prefers a diplomatic path over a military one,” but he warned, “We are close to the point of the hourglass turning over.”
What are the odds that an agreement (a historical one) could be reached between Israel and Lebanon brokered by the United States?
Since the beginning of the October 7, 2023, war between Hamas and Israel, the United States administration has signaled to its Israeli ally that the war between Hamas and Israel should not develop into a regional conflict involving an open war between Israel and Hizbullah.
Encouraged by the maritime border agreement brokered by U.S. envoy Amos Hochstein in late October 2022, the U.S. administration has tried since the beginning of this war to find a diplomatic solution that would prevent the flare-up between Israel and Hizbullah. This mission is becoming more difficult day after day with the escalation of the armed conflict between Israel and Hizbullah.
The mission becomes tougher since the two sides have entrenched themselves in opposing positions which seem almost impossible to bridge:
- Israel wants Hizbullah to withdraw several kilometers from the border and adhere to UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which calls for Hizbullah to withdraw beyond the Litani River (almost 40 kilometers from the Israeli border) to allow the 60,000 Israelis who evacuated the border localities at the beginning of the Israel-Hizbullah fighting to return safely to their homes.
- As a first step, Hizbullah demands a total cease-fire on the Gaza front as a prerequisite to settling the alleged 13 border infringements by Israel since its withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. Hizbullah also insists on the return of seven Lebanese villages abandoned by their inhabitants and invaded by Israel in 1948. Finally, Hizbullah demanded Israel recognize the border drawn by the British and French mandates in 1923, the only internationally recognized border between Israel and Lebanon, according to Hizbullah.
Facing these formidable hurdles, Hochstein has engaged in shuttle diplomacy to defuse the volatile situation, prioritizing convincing the Lebanese government to cooperate, a task difficult to accomplish since there is only a caretaker prime minister and government. No elected president has served in Lebanon since October 2022. According to the Lebanese constitution, the president is the only authority who can ratify any agreement with a foreign entity, not to mention the arch-enemy Israel. Moreover, caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati aligned himself on the same positions expressed by Hizbullah, i.e., alleviating the situation in south Lebanon without taking into consideration what’s happening in Gaza would be “illogical.”
According to the Lebanese press, Hochstein proposed to his Lebanese counterparts a cease-fire on the northern front with Israel, following which Hizbullah would withdraw its forces eight kilometers from the border with Israel, and the Lebanese army would deploy 10,000 soldiers. This would be the prelude to negotiating the land border between Israel and Lebanon.
The Hochstein proposal was entirely rejected by Hizbullah, who claimed that Israel should first cease fire in Gaza. Furthermore, seeing itself as the defender of Lebanon, Hizbullah claims that UNIFIL should be deployed on the Israeli side of the border and not on Lebanese soil.
Moreover, notwithstanding Hizbullah and the Lebanese government’s positions, it is evident that the whole process cannot be jump-started until a cease-fire is reached on the Gaza front. Such a cease-fire would allow Hizbullah to stop its attacks on Israel and begin the process of negotiations on the rectifications of the Lebanese-Israeli border and possibly open the way for the withdrawal of Hizbullah from the border with Israel.
On the Gaza Front
Since the likelihood of a cease-fire on the Gaza front is slim, Hamas chiefs have vowed to continue fighting as long as it takes. At the same time, the Israeli Prime Minister has declared that the war will continue until Israel succeeds in eradicating the military and political presence of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Netanyahu and his defense minister are firm believers that only military pressure would ultimately force Hamas to stop fighting and reach a deal on the 136 hostages held by the terrorist group since October 7.
Therefore, the chance of witnessing any lull on the northern front and the beginning of a diplomatic process is very low. The attrition war waged by Hizbullah will continue unless Israel decides to change the parameters of the armed confrontation with Hizbullah from a low-intensity conflict to a much higher-intensity one that would dramatically change the situation on the northern front.