Hochstein in Beirut: Clearer outlines of an agreement emerge

While talks about the fate of the Shebaa farms are delayed for later, negotiations are moving forward on other issues.

Hochstein in Beirut: Clearer outlines of an agreement emerge

American envoy Amos Hochstein in Beirut, July 31, 2022. (Credit: Anwar Amro/AFP)

Talks about what’s happening in southern Lebanon are moving quickly, especially since both Beirut and Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, are showing openness.

The details of the agreement and how it will work might not be announced until after the Gaza war ends. However, US Envoy Amos Hochstein, is already in the final stages of working out the smaller details during his visit to Lebanon that started Thursday.

It’s not just about figuring out the land borders anymore — getting Israel to leave the 13 disputed areas and settling the issue of Shebaa farms, along with point B1 on the coastline.

What Washington is aiming for is long-lasting border calm. They intend to bring this forth via a complete political plan — one that includes appointing a new president, forming a government, and kickstarting economic improvement in the country.

The idea is that a stronger economy can help keep things stable in southern Lebanon and add to the security of the whole region.

‘Khraj al-Mari,’ a new Lebanese village

Hochstein met with Parliament Deputy Speaker Elias Bou Saab in Rome on Monday. Afterwards, he met with French officials in Paris and updated them on the progress of negotiations with Israel and the plans for his visit to Beirut.

Simultaneously, Bou Saab reached out to Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri to share the details of his conversation with Hochstein.

“Berri has consistently put forward suggestions to prevent the threat of war, and we are optimistic that tomorrow’s visit by Hochstein will be a move toward stability,” Bou Saad said following their private meeting.

According to a Western diplomatic source, Hochstein is emphasizing the importance of restarting drilling activities in blocks 8, 9, and 10. “He is in Beirut to discuss various details, with the primary goal of bringing stability to southern Lebanon and bringing an end to the conflicts between Hezbollah and Israel,” the source told L’Orient-Le Jour on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

This plan hinges on completing land demarcation and restoring Lebanese control over the northern part of Ghajar, which was annexed by Israel in July.

The Lebanese section of Ghajar will be renamed “Khraj al-Mari,” Arabic for “the outskirts of al-Mari,” a village a bit further north.

Discussions regarding how to address Ghajar residents who wish to remain in Israel are ongoing.

The agreement also involves addressing the Shebaa farms and Kfarchouba hills, which are occupied by Israel, claimed by Lebanon, and internationally considered part of the Syrian Golan Heights.

However, a Lebanese source involved in the negotiations with the US envoy said that the Shebaa farms issue is not currently the primary focus of the talks.

“The demarcation of the 13 points remains the main concern, while the issue of Shebaa and the Kfarchouba hills has been postponed to a later stage,” the source told L’Orient-Le Jour on condition of anonymity.

Sources have told L’Orient-Le Jour that a disagreement within the American administration regarding Hochstein’s role is behind this delay.

Some oppose his involvement in political matters and the border demarcation issue, contending that his mission should concentrate solely on the hydrocarbons issue.

However, the sources said that Hochstein's efforts are geared toward diplomatic changes that are aimed at safeguarding the oil and gas fields. In October 2022, the American diplomat facilitated a maritime demarcation agreement between Lebanon and Israel, enabling both countries to tap into gas resources in their respective exclusive economic zones.

Due to objections in Washington, Hochstein has instructed his negotiators to refrain from bringing up the sensitive Shebaa issue for the time being.

“It’s worth noting that during his recent visit to southern Lebanon, where he met with the United Nations Interim Force command, Hochstein asked numerous questions and requested several maps,” the diplomatic source said. “He aimed to formulate a strategy for addressing the challenges in this disputed area.”

The source added that, in discussions with Lebanese officials and diplomats, Hochstein emphasized the significance of placing this region under the supervision of the UN until its definitive demarcation among Lebanon, Syria, and Israel.

“In his perspective, addressing this issue would eliminate any pretext for Hezbollah to cite the liberation of occupied Lebanese territories as a reason for conducting military operations against Israel,” said the source.

However, it’s important to note that this doesn’t imply that Hezbollah will relinquish its weapons. The party considers its weapons to be essential deterrents and defense tools that Lebanon requires for keeping Tel Aviv in check, safeguarding its territory, and protecting its resources.

A greater role for the army?

In summary, the negotiations are underway with a strong commitment from the Americans to finalize land demarcation and eliminate potential for escalation.

However, this is closely linked to the halt of Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip. Israel has announced the transition to the third phase of the war, which focuses on targeted attacks instead of intense combat.

Concurrent efforts are being made to establish a humanitarian truce and reinitiate discussions for the release of hostages.

“The truce is expected to last four weeks, during which negotiations will run simultaneously with Lebanon and Hezbollah to reach an agreement,” said the diplomatic source.

The source highlighted that “the Americans are aiming to keep the Shiite party away from the conflict in case fighting resumes in Gaza,” but that “Hezbollah staunchly rejects this.”

The primary goal of the ongoing negotiations is to ensure security assurances that would facilitate the return of displaced residents to towns in northern Israel.

Lebanon has received multiple messages of support from Western diplomatic offices who have emphasized their dedication to the matter.

Among the assurances suggested by the international powers is the issue of Hezbollah withdrawing, as per UNSC Resolution 1701, a significant portion of its military capabilities, including its precision weapons, missiles, and drones.

However, this doesn’t mean that the party will fully withdraw from the area between the border and the Litani River. Some diplomatic offices are discussing the possibility of the party's leaders and military observers staying in their localities in the south, albeit without the most sophisticated weapons.

All these proposals are conceivable for Lebanon, as indicated by the aforementioned Lebanese source. But they should be part of a comprehensive package: the land demarcation, Israel’s withdrawal from the 13 disputed points, a return to the delineation of international borders established in 1923, the withdrawal from position B1, which should be replaced under Lebanese sovereignty, and a resolution of the issues related to the Shebaa farms and the Kfarshouba hills.

In this context, there is discussion about broadening UNIFIL’s role and authority in southern Lebanon. However, the peace-keepers themselves are hesitant about this idea. UNIFIL is concerned that expanding its role could expose contingents to greater danger, and believes that they are already operating at maximum capacity.

Another proposal is to enhance the role of the Lebanese Army and deploy more troops in the South. This, however, is dependent on securing the necessary financial resources for such a mission. The need to establish stable economic conditions, that would invigorate the Army and sustain stability, remains. The concept is to delegate tasks to the Army that UNIFIL may not be equipped to handle.

For instance, if peacekeepers detect any suspicious activities, such as the movement of weapons, they would inform the troops, who would then take appropriate action. Alongside enhancing the army’s role, all of this necessitates the implementation of a comprehensive political and economic framework.

In simpler terms: bringing the Lebanese state out of intensive care.

This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.

Talks about what’s happening in southern Lebanon are moving quickly, especially since both Beirut and Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, are showing openness.The details of the agreement and how it will work might not be announced until after the Gaza war ends. However, US Envoy Amos Hochstein, is already in the final stages of working out the smaller details during his visit to Lebanon...