analysisIsrael at War

US Lebanon diplomacy ‘a fool’s errand’ but still ‘has value’

While U.S. diplomacy is not likely to lead anywhere, giving it a chance (and calling attention to the failure of U.N. Resolution 1701) could be critical for the legitimacy of an Israeli operation against Hezbollah, experts tell JNS.

An exchange of fire between the Israel Defense Forces and Hezbollah terrorists on the border between Israel and Lebanon, Dec. 27, 2023. Photo by Ayal Margolin/Flash90.
An exchange of fire between the Israel Defense Forces and Hezbollah terrorists on the border between Israel and Lebanon, Dec. 27, 2023. Photo by Ayal Margolin/Flash90.
Israel Kasnett

It was Oct. 12, 2022, and U.S. special envoy Amos Hochstein had just wrapped up a maritime border and natural gas agreement between Israel and Lebanon. 

Hochstein tweeted that he was proud to have served as “as mediator/facilitator of an historic agreement to provide #Israel security & stability and #Lebanon long deserved opportunity, prosperity and hope.”

But just one year later, Hamas perpetrated the worst antisemitic pogrom since the Holocaust—and Hezbollah joined by attacking Israel.

Now, Hochstein has returned to the Middle East once again, this time to negotiate a land deal and distance Hezbollah from Israel’s northern border.  

According to Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser at the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Hochstein “is trying to use the same playbook as before, but the two situations are completely different.”

The 2022 maritime deal drew a border between the two countries’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs) based on a boundary known as Line 23, and awarded a disputed area of around 840 square kilometers (324 square miles) to Lebanon, while recognizing Israel’s claim to the Karish gas field and to royalties from the section of the Qana field that extends into the Jewish state’s EEZ.

Goldberg told JNS that in the case of the maritime agreement, “Israel had a figurative gun to its head from Hezbollah to resolve a border dispute with Lebanon in order to give the private sector enough confidence to move forward with gas production. Hezbollah didn’t give up anything in this deal—only the expectation that it wouldn’t attack gas platforms because Lebanon would now get a cut of the profits.”

According to Golberg, Hochstein views that negotiation “as a precedent to apply to southern Lebanon, because Hezbollah uses the land border dispute between Lebanon and Israel as a pretext for its presence there, but it’s actually a very different dynamic.”

The U.S. believed the maritime deal would reduce tensions in the north and deter Hezbollah. Instead, the opposite has proven true.

On his own X account, Biden wrote at the time that the deal would serve as “an anchor for regional stability and prosperity.”

Then-Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid called the deal “a tremendous achievement for the State of Israel and for the government of Israel.” The agreement “strengthens Israel’s security and our freedom of action against Hezbollah and the threats to our north,” he said.

Hochstein, Biden and Lapid could not have been more mistaken. And yet, Biden seems to have sent Hochstein back to the region to repeat that mistake. 

“Unlike the maritime dispute, Hezbollah is being asked to disarm itself and abandon its position threatening Israel in southern Lebanon—something Hezbollah has refused to do for more than 17 years,” said Goldberg. This “despite a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding it, and billions of dollars sent to the Lebanese Armed Forces and U.N. peacekeepers to enforce that resolution,” he added.

Goldberg pointed out that Hezbollah is Iran’s primary terrorist proxy, and Tehran has spent 17 years since 2006 building up Hezbollah’s missile threat in southern Lebanon to deter an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear program.

Israel giving up land on its northern border isn’t going to change Tehran’s or Hezbollah’s strategic prioritization of a massive military presence on that border, he said.

“If Israel is looking for something symbolic that results in a press release papering over a massive Hezbollah threat that remains on its border, the Hochstein process has some chance of succeeding at Israel’s expense,” he said.

However, he warned, “If Israel is serious about removing the Hezbollah threat, this is a fool’s errand.”

Blaise Misztal,  vice president of policy at JINSA, agreed with Goldberg. 

He told JNS that the idea that the maritime deal “in any way pacified Hezbollah or created more stable conditions isn’t supported by the facts.” Any attempt to convince Hezbollah to leave the border area “is equally foolhardy and begs the question of who would actually enforce it,” he added.

With regard to Hochstein and Biden, said Misztal, “There is a very significant misreading on their part of the 2022 deal. They look at the maritime deal and they think it was successful in creating some improved conditions and security between Israel and Hezbollah. But Hezbollah looks at the deal differently.”

“Namely,” he continued, “we know that prior to the deal and during the negotiations, Hezbollah launched drones against Israeli gas rigs in the Mediterranean and afterwards took credit for the attacks pressuring Israel to agree to the deal.”

What Hezbollah learned from this, said Misztal, “is that aggression against Israel gets concessions.” He noted that in the aftermath of the deal, Hezbollah aggression continued. “There were significant rocket launches from Lebanon into Israel between Oct. 2022 through Oct. 2023 when Hamas attacked,” he noted.

Furthermore, he said, Israel can’t cut a deal with the Lebanese government, which in and of itself is a caretaker government and has no legitimacy or authority, and it certainly can’t cut a deal with Hezbollah. Nor could any such deal be enforced, he added.

“Does anyone believe that after 17 years of failure, the Lebanese Armed Forces or UNIFIL will be able to do what they haven’t been able to do?,” he said.

“Understandably, the United States wants to find a way to deal with the threat that Hezbollah poses to Israel without widening the conflict, but there is little evidence that suggests that the diplomatic push is going to accomplish anything,” he said.

However, according to Misztal, “There is value in the U.S. attempting a diplomatic solution here and calling attention to it, for a few reasons.”

First, he said, the U.S. efforts call attention to the need to implement U.N. Resolution 1701 and to the fact that it remains unfulfilled. 

Resolution 1701, intended to end the 2006 Second Lebanon War, calls on the LAF’s to maintain an area “free of any armed personnel, assets and weapons other than those of the Government of Lebanon and of UNIFIL [the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon]” between the Blue Line (the U.N.-monitored disengagement line) and the Litani, the southernmost major river in Lebanon.

“Everyone glosses over it and it is forgotten, since it’s taken for granted that UNIFIL is ineffectual,” said Misztal. “But it is important to remind the world that U.N. Resolution 1701 exists and Hezbollah should not be there [in Southern Lebanon].”

Moreover, Israel has an interest in proving it tried every diplomatic route, he continued. If Israel moves to a military solution, it can point to this effort and say “look, we tried.”

“It’s important for there to be an attempt at diplomacy,” said Misztal, adding, “There is value because after Oct. 7, the Hezbollah threat cannot be ignored.”

Sooner or later, Israel “will be forced to confront the Hezbollah threat, and it will be important for the legitimacy for any Israeli operation in the north to be able to say there is 1701 that says Hezbollah should not be there and the world has failed to enforce it,” said Misztal. “We tried diplomacy and a peaceful resolution and Hezbollah ignored it. The only option we have left to defend ourselves and our territories is to take on Hezbollah directly.”

While the U.S. overtures and attempts to negotiate a deal “are probably not going to lead to anything, they might be an important part of the case Israel will have to make to the world for why it has to take on Hezbollah,” he concluded.

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