The weeks ahead are crucial for Israel and Lebanon and will likely indicate whether a broader confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah can be avoided diplomatically or if it is inevitable.
Israeli officials have repeatedly conveyed this sense of urgency. War cabinet member Minister Benny Gantz noted on Dec. 28 that “the stopwatch for a diplomatic solution is running out”; Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said on Jan. 4 that the window of opportunity is closing and Israel is nearing a decision point; and Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi warned on Jan. 17 that “a war in the north” is becoming more likely. In conversations with international allies, Israeli officials indicate that the month of February may be a decisive one.
Enflamed rhetoric but a desire to avoid war
In the immediate days after Oct. 7, Hezbollah joined the conflict in support of Hamas. For the time being at least, both Israel and Hezbollah indicate they are not interested in a broader escalation, beyond their current, regular cross-border exchanges of missile and artillery fire; but a deterioration of conditions to a more expansive conflict is possible. Hezbollah emphasizes that it will continue to confront Israel as long as fighting continues in Gaza. In parallel, Israel is threatening war with Hezbollah if its goals of restoring security and enabling the return of Israeli residents to their communities along the border are not met.
While declaring its readiness and preparation for such a war, Israel has also been conveying its desire to avoid it. In the words of foreign ministry spokesperson Lior Haiat, “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.” Gantz has called on “the world and the Lebanese government” to deliver such a solution. But, in practice, Israeli eyes are set on Washington, DC.
American mediation efforts, led by Special Envoy Amos Hochstein, already yielded significant success over a year ago. The Israeli-Lebanese maritime border agreement, reached in October 2022 via indirect bilateral talks and without mutual recognition, set a precedent and proved that mediation by the United States can succeed when it focuses on a specific win-win issue and addresses mutual needs. Today, Hochstein is once again shuttling back and forth across the region; anti-escalation sentiments are being voiced in both Jerusalem and Beirut; and the US has identified the prevention of a further flare-up as a clear American interest. Thus, there is room to believe that a diplomatic solution could actually be reached.
Key issues of dispute between Israel and Lebanon
US endeavors to prevent escalation focus on issues that were in dispute between Israel and Lebanon even prior to the outbreak of the current war in Gaza, mostly relating to United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1701, which aimed to resolve the 2006 Lebanon war but was not effectively implemented. There are multiple issues at stake. From an Israeli perspective, some require short-term resolution, while others are more long term in nature; some are more vital for Israel’s national security, while with others Israel has more room to maneuver.
Hezbollah’s withdrawal away from the Israeli-Lebanese border
For Israel, this is the main issue. Hezbollah’s presence south of the Litani River, and its operations against Israel from there, are in violation of UNSCR 1701. The withdrawal of Hezbollah forces away from the border is regarded in Israel as a vital component of any cessation of hostilities and as a prerequisite for the return of Israeli residents to the homes they evacuated following recent Hezbollah attacks. Israel seeks an immediate Hezbollah withdrawal north of the Litani, and reportedly it may be willing to compromise on a less extensive withdrawal (about 7-10 kilometers from the border), should certain conditions be met and certain guarantees be put in place.
Continuation of Israeli flights over Lebanon
For years, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) has entered Lebanese airspace to counter efforts by Hezbollah and Iran to threaten Israel from the northern direction. These actions have also involved targeting Hezbollah-related weapons convoys and, during the current Gaza war, include flights over Beirut for deterrence purposes. The continuation of IAF activity inside Lebanon is seen in Israel as an important security need, vital to preventing an Israeli-Iranian clash and blocking Hezbollah from acquiring game-changing weapons. Israel sees limited room for maneuver on this issue but may be open to rules of engagement that take into account Lebanon’s sovereignty concerns and enhance future efforts by the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) to replace Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.
Lebanese army deployment and a stronger UNIFIL
A more extensive and effective deployment of the LAF in southern Lebanon and the strengthening of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) peacekeeping mission are viewed in Israel as two prerequisites for ensuring that any understandings that might be reached between Israel and Hezbollah will not quickly fade away. At the same time, in view of Israeli skepticism regarding the ability and desire of these two military forces to exercise their powers to the extent Israel wishes them to, Israel is likely to request more extensive room for maneuver and diplomatic flexibility.
Settlement of disputes regarding the land border
Prior to the war in Gaza, Hochstein was already trying to jump-start talks on the Israel-Lebanon land border, based on his successful mediation regarding the maritime border. If the risk of further Israel-Hezbollah escalation can be avoided, then following stabilization, the two sides might be motivated to re-engage on the issue and work toward a longer-term arrangement capable of lessening the threat of future escalation. There are 13 points of dispute regarding the land border. The main ones, in terms of their inherent complexity and long-term consequences, concern Shebaa Farms, Ghajar village, and “Point B1.”
Shebaa Farms is the subject of a tripartite dispute between Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. For Israel, this area is of high strategic importance over which it does not want to cede control. Yet there is a proposal seemingly on the table that envisions an Israeli withdrawal from the territory, to be replaced by an international security presence until Lebanon and Syria reach an agreement on the issue.
As for Ghajar, Lebanon demands Israel withdraw from the village’s northern side, thereby splitting it between the two countries. This call is often echoed by Hezbollah, which habitually highlights it as central to the militant group’s broader struggle against Israel.
Of the 13 disputed border points, the so-called Point B1, strategically located near the coastal kibbutz of Rosh Hanikra and Lebanese town of Naqoura, is seen by Israel and Lebanon as the starting point for any border demarcation process, including on the maritime border, regarding which an agreement was already reached.
Israel’s room for maneuver on these issues is complex. It depends on the results of bargaining on other points as well as on the timeframe for any agreement to come into effect. In any case, in its post-Oct. 7 mindset, Israel is not likely to agree to territorial concessions that may be viewed as jeopardizing its security, rather than reinforcing it.
Resumption of natural gas drilling in Lebanese waters
The war in Gaza, which has already raised the level of risk for the Eastern Mediterranean energy sector, will also have implications for Israel and Lebanon. The potential to profit from natural gas findings in the Mediterranean was a key motivation for the two countries to reach the 2022 maritime border deal. There is a clear linkage, with a solid political-economic logic, between the prospects for continued drilling in Lebanese waters and the cessation of Israel-Hezbollah fighting. As long as fighting continues and absent a stable diplomatic or military solution, international companies will seek to avoid the cost and effort of drilling near a potential war zone. From Israel’s side, however, there is comfortable room for maneuver on the issue, as disagreements over the maritime border have been resolved and future Lebanese gains from possible natural gas findings are seen as a potential stabilizing and de-radicalization factor for Lebanon.
Resolution of the presidential crisis in Lebanon
A resolution of the internal Lebanese dispute regarding the election of a new president, ongoing since late 2022, will be a significant step forward toward increasing domestic stability. It could pave the way for the international community to enhance its involvement in support of Lebanon’s collapsing economy; as such, it could serve Israel’s interest of having a more successful northern neighbor, better capable of enforcing its sovereignty. For Hezbollah the presidential issue is of major importance as well and could, therefore, be a bargaining chip that encourages the group to compromise vis-à-vis Israel. For Israel, it is a less crucial long-term issue, relevant for the post-war period, without immediate repercussions, and one which does not require Israeli actions or concessions. As part of any diplomatic agreement related to Israel and Lebanon, Israel would like to see its Western and regional allies play an increased role in domestic Lebanese politics, enhancing moderation and limiting the influence of Iran and Hezbollah. Multiple international actors, including Saudi Arabia and France, are acting to resolve the presidential crisis and could play a supportive, complementary role to American mediation between Israel and Lebanon.
Disarmament of Hezbollah
The most desired outcome, from an Israeli perspective, of any diplomatic or military development relating to the Israeli-Hezbollah crisis is the militant group’s disarmament. It is a central and critical issue that concerns Israel’s security and, in fact, is seen in Israel as also in the interest of the Lebanese state. But while Israel is pushing for international action to disarm Hezbollah, admittedly this exceeds the motivation and realistic expectations of current US mediation efforts, which prioritize preventing wider escalation. Undermining Hezbollah’s ability to pose a military threat to Israel will remain a critical long-term goal for Israel. In the meantime, Israel would like any short-term arrangement reached via US mediation to create better conditions for eventually reaching this aim.
Prospects for success
When mediating on the Israel-Lebanon file, the US has a full plate. The issues at stake are loaded and complex, especially as the main subject of talks is a non-state actor (Hezbollah), against which Israel, the US, and seemingly also Lebanon have limited leverage. Israel and Hezbollah, despite their stated common interest (for now) to prevent a more extensive escalation, have opposing basic interests that make mediation difficult. Israel wants to quickly drive Hezbollah away from its northern border, preferably north of the Litani River; Hezbollah, on the other hand, seeks achievements concerning its main points of contention with Israel, and it continues to condition any cessation of hostilities with Israel on an end to the war in Gaza.
Israel is quite pessimistic regarding the future trajectory of its conflict with Hezbollah. The widespread view in Jerusalem is that a confrontation between the two sides is inevitable, sooner or later. Nevertheless, Israel sees value in achieving a diplomatic solution to the current crisis, despite the skepticism regarding its longevity. In the meantime, Israel is trying to figure out, with US assistance, at what price can a Hezbollah withdrawal to the north be achieved. It also seems to acknowledge that mutually agreed arrangements concerning the land border (even if partial and not relating to all points of dispute) can serve its national interests; thus, Israel will likely continue to support Hochstein’s shuttle diplomacy in the region.
The nature of diplomacy is that agreements create positive momentum, which in turn can lead to additional agreements. After all, the motivation and legitimacy for the current US mediation effort derives from previous success related to the maritime border. In that sense, gradual political accords, or even ad-hoc win-win understandings, between Israel and Lebanon may produce an improved atmosphere, with positive spillover potential to other domains.
Dr. Nimrod Goren is the Senior Fellow for Israeli Affairs at the Middle East Institute. Amb. (ret.) Michael Harari is a retired Israeli diplomat, who served as Ambassador to Cyprus. Both are members of Diplomeds and the Mitvim Institute.
Photo by AFP via Getty Images
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