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US signals to Hezbollah it will back Israeli offensive, as frustration with Gaza ceasefire grows

Amos Hochstein's 'blunt' message to Lebanese mediators may be a move to get Hezbollah to sway Hamas on Gaza ceasefire, analysts say
Israeli army soldiers patrol around a position along Israel's southern border with the Gaza Strip on 13 June 2024 (JACK GUEZ/AFP)

The US has indicated it is open to backing an Israeli offensive against Hezbollah in Lebanon, amid mounting frustration that the group continues to link a truce with Israel to an elusive broader ceasefire in Gaza.

In his meetings in Beirut on Tuesday, US envoy Amos Hochstein delivered "blunt" warnings to Lebanese officials that Israel is preparing to launch a limited offensive on Hezbollah and will have the US's support if a diplomatic solution isn't found, a senior Arab official told Middle East Eye.

Hochstein met with Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri on Tuesday, both of whom the US has used as intermediaries with Hezbollah, the Iran-backed group the US designates a terrorist organisation.

Hochstein told Lebanese officials that Israel anticipates roughly five more weeks of intense fighting in Gaza, after which it will pause its main offensive across the enclave. However, it will continue to target senior Hamas officials and conduct attacks to recover hostages.

Hochstein said that the mentioned lull in Gaza fighting gives Hezbollah and Israel an opportunity to end their conflict and start negotiations, with or without a ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas, the Arab official who spoke to MEE on condition of anonymity said.

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"Hochstein is basically laying out what's going to happen," David Schenker, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a previous assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, told MEE.

"Israel is almost done with everything it can do in Gaza, then they are in a dilemma with Lebanon.

"Hezbollah says it will stop attacks only if there is a Gaza ceasefire, but it appears Sinwar is content holding on to hostages and letting this war drag out in a low-level counter-insurgency," he said, referring to Hamas's Gaza chief, Yayha Sinwar.

Hezbollah Hochstein
Mourners carry the coffins of two Hezbollah fighters killed in an Israeli strike in southern Lebanon, during their funeral on 21 May 2024 in a south Beirut suburb (AFP)

Hochstein warned that once fighting in Gaza pauses, Israeli officials intend to turn their full focus to the northern border with the aim of pushing Hezbollah back from the area so the roughly 60,000-96,000 displaced Israelis can return to their homes before the start of school in the fall.

Israel and Hezbollah have exchanged near-daily fire since 8 October, but the conflict ratcheted up last week after Israel killed Taleb Sami Abdullah, one of the most senior members of Hezbollah. The group responded by launching hundreds of drones and rockets at Israel.

'The US has exhausted the potential Egypt and Qatar have to move Hamas towards a deal'

- Randa Slim, Middle East Institute

The Israeli military said on Tuesday night that it had approved plans for an offensive in Lebanon. Earlier in the day, Israel launched strikes on Hezbollah drone launch squads, the Israeli military said.

In a speech on Thursday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah doubled down on military action saying Hezbollah has "a complete bank of targets", against Israel that include in the Mediterranean.

"The enemy should expect us on land, sea and air, and we will fight without restraints, rules or limits," he said. 

The US has tried for months to prevent the border conflict from escalating. According to a Wall Street Journal report released in December, US President Joe Biden personally intervened to prevent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from launching a major attack on Lebanon after Hamas's 7 October attack on southern Israel.

But Hochstein warned Lebanese officials, in anticipation that the message would be delivered to Hezbollah, that the US would back its ally fully if fighting doesn't stop in the next five weeks.

"The US will stand by Israel and not condemn them publicly if it launches an offensive against Hezbollah," Hochstein warned the Lebanese officials, according to the Arab official.

The US's tough talk reflects deep frustration with what it says is Hamas's intransigence to a ceasefire proposal Biden announced on 31 May.

Hochstein Berri
US special envoy Amos Hochstein (L) meets with Lebanon's Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri in Beirut on 18 June, 2024 (AFP)

"This proposal has been accepted by Israel, endorsed by Qatar and Egypt, the mediators, the G7 and the United Nations Security Council," Hochstein said on Tuesday in Beirut. "The deal stops the war in Gaza… if that's what Hamas wants, they should just say yes and accept it."

But each side to the conflict has provided a different take on what the proposal means. While the US insists it guarantees a permanent cessation of hostilities in Gaza, Israel says the agreement will allow it to ensure the destruction of Hamas's military and governing capabilities.

Hamas initially said it wanted reassurances that Israel would agree to maintain the ceasefire once an initial hostage exchange takes place. After a deadly attack launched by Israel to recover captives left at least 270 Palestinians dead, Hamas called for China, Turkey and Russia to guarantee the deal. It also called for an immediate lifting of Israel's 17-year blockade of the Gaza Strip and a new timeline for Israeli troops to pull out of Rafah, the southern Gaza border town.

'Israel is almost done with everything it can do in Gaza, then they are in a dilemma with Lebanon'

- David Schenker,  Washington Institute for Near East Policy

Those demands were not included in the June UN Security Council resolution that backed, and was approved by a vote of 14-0, the Biden administration's ceasefire plan.

The Arab official told MEE that the US believes other Arab leaders are coming around to seeing Sinwar as a “suicidal maniac”, and is therefore growing more confident backing Israel's potential offensive. "They are telling Hezbollah do not chain yourself to Sinwar."

Randa Slim, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, told MEE that in the last two weeks, it appeared the Biden administration “redline” on Israel launching an offensive against Hezbollah was turning “a shade pink”.

“The US is saying we tried to rein in Israel, and we have done it for eight months. But now it's no longer doable,” she said.

"[Hassan] Nasrallah has made the cessation of hostiles on the Lebanon front dependent on a Gaza ceasefire. Hezbollah is boxed into this strategy. It won't pivot."

But Hochstein's tough messaging to Hezbollah may serve a dual purpose, Slim said.

“The US has exhausted the potential Egypt and Qatar have to move Hamas towards a deal, so they are signalling to Hezbollah to work with us to convince Hamas to agree to the ceasefire, because Hezbollah has other means at its disposal.”

Lebanon fires
Lebanese rescuers and firefighters douse a fire in an area targeted by an Israeli strike near the Lebanese town of Marjayoun on 13 June, 2024,RABIH DAHER / AFP

Hezbollah is a Shia Lebanese group and Hamas’s roots are in Sunni Islamist politics, but both are members of Iran’s so-called Axis of Resistance. Some senior Hamas officials are based in Lebanon and before 7 October, Hamas and Hezbollah deepened their military cooperation.

In January, Israel killed Hamas official Saleh el-Arouri in a Hezbollah-controlled suburb of Beirut. Arouri was credited with bolstering the two group’s military ties.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday suggested that Israel, Hezbollah and Iran had a common interest to prevent a full-scale war erupting: “I don’t think any of the potential belligerents actually want to see a war or conflict spread.”

“Hezbollah has tied the actions that it’s committing against Israel to Gaza,” he added. “So if we get that ceasefire, I think that will make it more likely that we can find a diplomatic resolution to the crisis in the north.”

'Tehran, not Bir Hassan'

The US believes if it can stop the fighting along the Blue Line it has a window of opportunity to craft a wider diplomatic solution to a series of disputes along the Blue Line separating Lebanon and Israel.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah's announcement that he is open to a deal has given the US hope, particularity Hochstein, a close confidante of Biden who negotiated a successful 2022 maritime deal between Lebanon and Israel that has held up despite fighting.

The agreement, according to current and former US and Arab officials, would see Hezbollah’s elite Radwan force, which has an estimated 2,500 fighters, move north of the Litani River, about 30km from the Israeli border, as mandated by UN resolution 1701.

The agreement would restore Lebanon’s control over the northern part of Ghajar city, which Israel constructed a wall around in July, but Shebaa Farms which is occupied by Israel but claimed by Lebanon, and internationally considered part of Syria, would not be included in the deal.

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Last week, Lebanese Armed Forces Commander (LAF) Joseph Aoun was in Washington DC where he met with senior Pentagon officials to discuss additional financial support. Under the US plan, the LAF would move into the border area along with a beefed up UN peacekeeping force (Unifil) whose mission is up for renewal on 31 August.

In a sign of the Biden administration’s seriousness about the plan, Aoun also met with Senator Chris Coons in Washington, one of Biden’s closest Senate allies, a congressional staffer told MEE.

The Biden administration would need to convince Congress to provide more funds to the impoverished LAF. According to the congressional source, Coons discussed US funding for around 6,000-10,000 additional LAF soldiers estimated at between $100m-200m.

The elephant in the room is Tehran, Hezbollah's main patron and backer.

For a deal to be struck, former US officials say Tehran must view it in its interest.

"The strategic foe is in Tehran, not Bir Hassan," David Hale, Global Fellow with the Wilson Center in Washington and former US ambassador to Lebanon, told MEE, referring to Hezbollah's southern Beirut stronghold. 

"Iran may want a deal but one that reverts to the pre-7 October status quo," he said. "Which isn't much of a deal, unless you are an Iranian or the proxy." 

The White House and Israeli embassy in Washington did not respond to MEE’s request for comment.

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