Diplomatic Flurry Fails to Quell Gradual Israel-Hezbollah Escalation

Israel and Hezbollah have continued to escalate their cross-border attacks that began after the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, although the two sides remain short of full-scale warfare.

U.S. and French diplomats are seeking to develop a formula to de-escalate the skirmishing, modeled on some of the past agreements that ended Israel-Hezbollah hostilities.

The U.S. and French proposals are reportedly advancing but contain provisions both Israeli and Hezbollah leaders find objectionable.

Israel is threatening a significant use of force, if diplomacy fails, to compel Hezbollah to pull back, and Hezbollah is warning it will respond in kind.

U.S. diplomats, joined by Western and regional partners, have intensified talks in recent weeks to try to de-escalate the Israel-Lebanon front as Israeli and Lebanese Hezbollah artillery and rocket exchanges edge deeper into each other’s territory. Western officials and regional intermediaries hope to keep this front relatively contained, as it mostly has been since the October 7 Hamas attack, to avoid further inflaming a region racked with conflict stoked by Iran’s regional non-state allies, the so-called “axis of resistance.” Iran-supported militias have targeted U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria more than 160 times since October 17 and killed three U.S. military personnel at a base on the Jordanian side of the Iraq and Syria border on January 28. U.S. forces in the region have been gradually escalating retaliatory and pre-emptive strikes against these groups to deter them. Iran’s allies in Yemen, the Houthi movement, have used Iran-supplied land attack cruise missiles, anti-ship ballistic missiles, and armed drones against commercial shipping in the Red Sea to significant effect, causing many major shipping companies to re-route their cargo to avoid that waterway.

Diplomats sense time is short to prevent an all-out Israel-Hezbollah war, which would have devastating consequences for the populations of both Israel and Lebanon. As Israel-Hezbollah exchanges have expanded, the clashes have become disconnected from the Gaza war, suggesting even an end to the Gaza conflict would not automatically cause Israel and Hezbollah to disengage. Over the past several weeks, Israel has been escalating its attacks on key Hezbollah targets in southern Lebanon, and Israeli leaders are threatening to intensify its strikes if Hezbollah refuses its demands to pull its forces off the unofficial Israel-Lebanon border (“blue line”). After four months of claiming Hezbollah does not want war and asserting that the group’s actions on the border area are to support Hamas in Gaza,” Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah delivered a fiery speech on February 16. He accused Israel of deliberately targeting civilians and warned that “the enemy would pay the price of spilling [Lebanese civilian] blood in blood.” He added: “Hezbollah would increase its “presence, strength, fire, anger,” and expand its operations against Israel. He asserted Hezbollah’s missile arsenal is capable of reaching all parts of Israel, including the southern Red Sea port of Eilat, implying Hezbollah could unleash its array of up to 150,000 missiles and rockets supplied by Iran over the past fifteen years. Hezbollah also is said to have an extensive stockpile of sophisticated Iranian armed drones.

The demands and red lines presented by both Israel and Hezbollah have frustrated U.S., French, and regional diplomats hoping to keep the Israel-Lebanon front from erupting into major conflict. Israel insists Hezbollah must pull its forces off the border in order to provide 80,000 displaced Israeli citizens – who fled the border exchanges and fear a Hezbollah terrorist incursion similar to that Hamas conducted on October 7 – the confidence to return to their homes. Hezbollah, for its part, resists any proposal that would force it to “withdraw” from the border, even if only a short distance north. In the domestic and regional context, a formal withdrawal requirement would be seen as a “defeat” – an outcome that Nasrallah and other Hezbollah leaders strenuously seek to avoid.

Even as the window for diplomacy might be closing, the United States and France, along with several other European allies, have advanced separate but nearly identical peace proposals that, if accepted and implemented by Israel and Hezbollah, would restore calm to the Israel-Lebanon border. A senior U.S. envoy, Amos Hochstein, who helped broker the Israel-Lebanon maritime border agreement in 2022, discussed the U.S. version of the settlement proposal in meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant in Israel on February 11. French diplomats have reportedly presented their version of the peace plan to Israel and Hezbollah. The U.S. and French proposals are both reportedly modeled on those that ended Israel’s 1996 “Grapes of Wrath” operation against Hezbollah attacks from south Lebanon. Under that settlement, both sides agreed to end cross-border attacks on civilian targets, and a “Monitoring Committee” was created consisting of representatives from the U.S., France, Syria, Israel, and Lebanon. The U.S. and French plans reportedly include economic benefits to boost the Lebanese economy – a feature not included in any previous Israel-Hezbollah settlements. The economic provisions seem intended to enlist Lebanon’s Maronite Christians and Sunni Muslims in an effort to press Hezbollah to accept the proposed pact. The two communities, which, by consensus, hold the two top Lebanese government posts (president and prime minister), work with Hezbollah but resent its insistence on maintaining an independent armed force. They have insisted Hezbollah not drag Lebanon into another destructive war with Israel. The Western proposals also envision talks on a permanent Israel-Lebanon land border, which would begin after the Israel-Hezbollah combat has been defused.

Although the U.S. and French proposals appear promising, they contain elements Israel and Hezbollah find objectionable. The understandings do not satisfy Israel’s demand for a strengthening, or at least full implementation, of U.N. Security Council resolution 1701, which ended the second Lebanon war in 2006. That resolution stipulated that no Hezbollah forces are to operate between the Litani River and the Israel-Lebanon border – a provision that Hezbollah has been able to violate. Currently, Israel is seeking a complete Hezbollah withdrawal north of the Litani (19 miles from the current border) as crucial to encouraging displaced Israelis to return to their homes. Instead, the U.S. and French proposals reportedly require Hezbollah to reposition only eight to 10 kilometers (five to six miles) from the border. As a further concession to Hezbollah, the group would not be required to withdraw any additional forces aside from the elite Radwan unit it had already pulled back to avoid Israeli air and artillery strikes. But – Hezbollah would be barred from returning any Radwan forces to areas near the border. The proposals provide for the Lebanese army to send 10,000 to 12,000 troops to the area along the border – consistent with a key provision of Resolution 1701 – which would constrict Hezbollah’s autonomy in south Lebanon. It is unclear what role the U.N. peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon —U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL)— would play in the proposal.

France, a trusted mediator for its role as past mandate power in Lebanon and political distance from Israel, has 800 troops participating in the force. However, UNIFIL has repeatedly failed to prevent Hezbollah encroachment toward the border or broader Israel-Hezbollah combat. For its part, Israel would have to commit to pulling back some of its forces — mostly reservists — it has amassed along the border in the last four months, as well as to stop overflights of Lebanese airspace. As to the timing of implementation, while recognizing that Hezbollah conditions ending its clashes with Israel to a cessation of hostilities in Gaza, U.S. and French diplomats intend that their proposals could be put into effect as soon as the Gaza war winds down. According to one diplomatic source, “We believe that we should not wait for a new cease-fire in Gaza to be agreed upon to start working on de-escalating tensions between Israel and Hezbollah…The idea is to work on that now. This way, when a cease-fire in Gaza is reached, there would already be discussed proposals for the Israel-Lebanon border on the table.” The key question is whether, even if the Western-led proposal is accepted and ultimately implemented, it would be more successful than the formal and informal agreements that ended the several previous rounds of the Israel-Hezbollah conflict.

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