Since the start of the Oct. 7 war, and Hezbollah’s involvement in it from South Lebanon, the role of the international envoys to the country has changed.
This is especially true for French envoy Jean-Yves Le Drian, American Amos Hochstein and Qatari Fahd Jassem al-Thani.
It appears that while efforts were made to extend the ceasefire in Gaza [until Friday], France, the US and Qatar are also working for an overall agreement in Lebanon.
The aim is to negotiate a “package deal” to end the power vacuum and find solutions to the disputed areas on Lebanon’s border with Israel, mainly through the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701.
The UN resolution, which put an end to the July 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, provides for the latter’s withdrawal north of the Litani River, the deployment of the Lebanese army and a multinational force in the border area.
It also appears that there are efforts to maintain the October 2022 maritime agreement, with the aim of finalizing the land demarcation and reaching a resolution for the dispute over Shebaa farms and Kfarchouba hills.
Le Drian, who arrived in Beirut on Tuesday for his fourth visit, seems no longer content with limiting his mission in Lebanon to finding a presidential compromise.
During his meeting with Lebanese officials, Le Drian is said to have raised the question of the need to apply Resolution no. 1701, warning against the risks of an extended conflict. He also stressed the need to find a definitive solution for the southern border with Israel.
Similarly, during his recent visit to Beirut in early November, Hochstein primarily focused on border issues, but is now broaching the topics of the presidential election and Resolution 1701.
Western diplomatic circles appear to be lacking a clear vision of how to proceed.
Israel, which wishes to restore security on its northern border, suggested forcibly implementing Resolution 1701, with targeted strikes against Hezbollah in a bid to force the armed party to negotiations and an agreement similar to the one reached in 2006.
This is an approach that is squarely rejected by the French, the Americans, as well as other major powers.
There is also talk of placing the implementation of Resolution 1701 under Chapter VII, but this proposal is not well-developed yet and lacks consensus. Chapter VII allows the UN Security Council to take coercive measures and resort to military action “to maintain or restore international peace and security.”
The most serious option on the table involves the completion of the land demarcation, necessitating Israel’s withdrawal from 13 contested points along the border.
Two critical points, however, remain unresolved: The northern section of the cross-border village Ghajar — annexed by Israel —,Shebaa Farms and Kfarchouba Hills. These areas are currently under Israeli occupation and claimed by Lebanon, although the international community recognizes them as Syrian territory.
“These two areas could be entrusted to a multinational force as an interim measure pending a final solution,” a western diplomat said on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
Le Drian and Nizar Alaoula
These resolutions and decisions cannot be implemented without ending the power vacuum through a comprehensive compromise — a mission that cannot be dissociated from international efforts to renew Palestinian leadership and form a new government in Israel.
“There is a new diplomatic impetus to moving forward on the presidential issue in Lebanon,” the Western diplomat said. “Efforts in this direction have intensified due to the urgency of electing a head of state, but also of forming a government and making key appointments within public institutions.”
“This is all the more important as this new ruling class will be responsible for taking decisions on border issues,” the diplomat added.
These efforts are in line with Le Drian’s mission, who arrived in Beirut after a stopover in Doha and Riyadh.
During his meetings in these two Arab countries, the French diplomat reportedly discussed ways of revitalizing efforts between his country, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the US and Egypt, in a bid to agree on a way out of the crisis in Lebanon. This coalition of five nations has been actively engaged is seeking solutions to the Lebanese predicament before Oct. 7.
In Riyadh, Le Drian met with Nizar Alaoula, advisor to the Saudi royal court in charge of Lebanese affairs.
Ludovic Pouille, the French ambassador to Saudi Arabia, described via X (formerly Twitter) the meeting between the two men as “fruitful.”
Meanwhile, L’Orient-Le Jour learned that Qatari emissary and security chief Abu Fahd Jassem al-Thani was also in Beirut last week to impress upon the Lebanese the importance of de-escalation on the southern front and electing a president as soon as possible.
A new presidential candidate: Elias Baissari?
“Everyone agrees that the region is moving toward negotiations and that Lebanon must be ready for them,” the western diplomat said. “This is why it is very important to make a breakthrough in the presidential deadlock.”
During his tour with various political actors on Wednesday, Le Drian stressed the need to reach a consensus to elect a president and overcome differences.
He reiterated his call for a compromise candidate, rather than limiting the choice to Hezbollah-endorsed candidate, Marada leader Suleiman Frangieh, or former minister Jihad Azour, backed by the opposition.
In this context, the name of General Elias Baissari, the acting director of General Security, has surfaced as a viable candidate. This consideration stems from the perception that he maintains amicable relations with various parties and refrains from provoking any particular political camp.
This proposal signals a significant shift, departing from the previous assumption that army commander Joseph Aoun was the default compromise candidate.
However, Aoun’s path to Baabda is fraught with challenges, particularly as he lacks unanimous support. Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) leader Gebran Bassil vehemently opposes his candidacy.
Some parties believe that the extension of Aoun’s term in office, which officially expires on Jan.10 — and therefore the extension of his unofficial presidential candidacy — is likely to prolong the stalemate even further.
“Jean-Yves Le Drian asked the Saudis if they would be open to the election of Elias Baissar as president,” the western diplomat said. “The Saudis were surprised by this change of course and did not express clear support for the proposal.”
The diplomat indicated that Saudi Arabia underscored its stance, emphasizing that any prospective president must align with the criteria outlined by the quintet and must be the result of a consensus among the Lebanese.
Hezbollah is maintaining its commitment to Frangieh’s candidacy, as indicated by sources within the party.
Conversely, on the other end of the spectrum, factions aligned with the opposition are linking their endorsement of a third-way candidacy to the condition that Hezbollah withdraws its candidate.
Within this faction, certain parties, such as the Lebanese Forces, are in opposition to the option of Baissari, perceiving him as too closely aligned with the March 8 camp. Instead, they are throwing their support behind the army commander.
In summary, a significant diplomatic initiative is underway to achieve a resolution in Lebanon, yet conclusive results remain uncertain, since every political outcome hinges on the developments in the region.
The prospect of an agreement regarding the situation in southern Lebanon depends on negotiations between the US on one side, and Iran and Hezbollah on the other. However, the latter is likely to demand a substantial concession in exchange for any agreement.
This article was originally published by L'Orient-Le Jour. Translated by Sahar Ghoussoub.