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Top Biden aide says end to Israel's war on Gaza won't bring peace to Lebanon

During a visit to Beirut, Amos Hochstein tried to de-link Hezbollah and Israel tensions from fighting in Gaza
Some billows in southern Lebanon following Israeli bombardment on the Lebanese village of Markaba 4, March 2024 (AFP/Jalaa Marey)

US President Joe Biden’s key envoy to Lebanon warned on Monday that a ceasefire in Gaza may not be enough to end near-daily fighting between Hezbollah and Israel, appearing to push for a wider diplomatic agreement to stop fighting along the border.

"A diplomatic solution is the only way to end the current hostilities" and achieve "a lasting fair security arrangement between Lebanon and Israel", Washington's envoy Amos Hochstein told reporters in Beirut. 

"Escalation of violence is in no one's interest, and there is no such thing as a limited war," Hochstein said after meeting Lebanon's parliament speaker Nabih Berri, who has close links to Hezbollah. "A temporary ceasefire is not enough. A limited war is not containable," he said.

Hochstein’s visit to Lebanon underscores the urgency in Washington to prevent Israel’s war in Gaza from descending into a wider regional conflagration.

Hezbollah and Israel have exchanged near daily fire since 7 October. The fighting has displaced over 86,000 Lebanese and anywhere from 60,000-96,000 Israelis from their homes.

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As the war in Gaza drags on, the fighting has slowly expanded, with analysts saying Israel appears to be using the war in Gaza to re-write the rules of engagement that governed previous flare-ups with Hezbollah.

Israel assassinated Hamas leader Saleh al-Arouri in a southern Beirut suburb and Hezbollah stronghold in January. Last week, its military launched strikes on Hezbollah in the Bekaa Valley, in one of its deepest strikes inside Lebanon against the group to date.

The Biden administration has tried to prevent Israel from launching a wider scale offensive in Lebanon, but Israeli officials have increasingly threatened to open a second front of the war in Lebanon unless the attacks from Hezbollah stop.

The Biden administration is trying to broker a hostage deal between Israel and Hamas that could lead to a six-week truce in fighting, but negotiators have so far failed to meet Biden's own expectations for an agreement by Monday. 

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has said that Hezbollah will stop its attacks on Israel when a ceasefire in Gaza is reached. Earlier on Monday Hezbollah's deputy chief Naim Qassem reiterated that message, saying; "stop the assault on Gaza and war will end in the region.”

But Hochstein appeared to try and de-link the tensions in Lebanon from Gaza, saying that a truce in the besieged enclave where Hamas and Israel are fighting would not bring peace to Lebanon.

"It does not necessarily happen that when you have a ceasefire in Gaza, it just automatically extends (to Lebanon)," he told reporters.

US tries to distance 'Axis of Resistance' from Gaza

Hochstein's comments are a reflection of the Biden administration’s wider messaging trying to de-link the actions of Iran’s proxies in the region, the so-called Axis of Resistance, from Israel’s war on Gaza that has killed over 30,000 Palestinians, the majority women and children.

At a Senate hearing last week, two senior US officials tried to downplay the claim by Yemen’s Houthis that their attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea were initiated in response to Israel’s offensive in Gaza.

The Biden administration’s special envoy for Yemen, Timothy Lenderking said the Houthi’s claim was “entirely an illegitimate linkage”, while Daniel Shapiro, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, said the Red Sea tensions were “entirely unrelated to Israel".

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As the fighting grinds on, it has seeped out beyond the enclave's borders, morphing into a shadowy proxy contest between Tehran and Washington over who calls the shots in the Middle East. 

The Biden administration officials' comments may be a reflection that Washington is wary of the publicity Iran-backed groups are generating by launching attacks they say are in solidarity with the Palestinians, whose plight garners widespread sympathy across the Middle East and the global south.

At last week’s US Senate hearing, Democratic Senator Tim Kaine accused the administration of  “pouring cold water” on the link between Gaza and the actions of Iran-backed groups, saying the US needed to establish a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel to deescalate tensions.

In Lebanon, the Biden administration hopes it can shift Hezbollah-Israel tensions into a diplomatic agreement to demarcate the land border between Lebanon and Israel.

Will Hezbollah strike a deal?

Hezbollah is one of the world’s largest non-state armed actors, but also the most powerful political force inside Lebanon, using its military muscle to exert political power.

Lebanon and Israel are separated by the so-called Blue Line, demarcated by the United Nations in 2000 after Israeli troops pulled out of southern Lebanon. Hochstein said the Blue Line’s status "has to change in order to guarantee everyone's security” in the region.

Nasrallah has signaled he would accept a potential border deal after the war, in a significant departure from his previous stance of not wanting to negotiate land borders with Israel.

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Support for Hezbollah, a Shia Muslim party, is sharply divided across sectarian lines - with the vast majority of support among Lebanon’s Shia populations.

Experts told MEE previously that Hezbollah’s openness to a deal reflects internal sectarian tensions within Lebanon, where a significant portion of the country’s Christian population and Hezbollah’s Muslim opponents are wary of being dragged into a new war with Israel when Lebanon is in the midst of an acute economic crisis.

Hochstein brokered a historic maritime border demarcation deal between Lebanon and Israel in 2022, that was approved by Hezbollah. His main intermediary with the group is Lebanon deputy parliament speaker Elias Bou Saab and politicians belonging to Lebanon’s other main Shia political party, Amal, like Nabih Berri.

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