Is Hochstein cornering Hezbollah?

The US envoy in Lebanon said a truce and ceasefire in Gaza will not necessarily extend to Lebanon automatically. This warning came as the envoy took steps to rally opposition to Hezbollah.

Is Hochstein cornering Hezbollah?

American envoy Amos Hochstein during a meeting with Parliament. Monday March 4, 2024, Beirut. (Credit: Photo taken from the X account of Kataeb leader Samy Gemayel)

The scene brings back memories of former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s tour of Beirut in July 2006. Conflict between Hezbollah and Israel raged at the time, and Rice’s whirlwind visit was viewed by many as an attempt to forge a political alliance against Hezbollah’s decision to drag Lebanon into war.

On Monday, US envoy to Lebanon Amos Hochstein landed in Beirut for a brief visit, marking his third trip since Oct. 7, and the subsequent outbreak of hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah.

This time around, however, the American envoy tasked with brokering a peace deal between the two sides didn’t just stick to talks with Lebanese authorities. He also held a series of meetings with political leaders and figures opposed to Hezbollah, or at least to the “front” of support for Hamas that the pro-Iranian group has established from Lebanon.

Regarding the Lebanon-Israel border issue, Hochstein’s approach is now clear — it is primarily tied to efforts aimed at achieving a ceasefire in Gaza.

Once hostilities cease in the Palestinian enclave, the conflict on Lebanon’s southern front should theoretically also come to a halt, paving the way for negotiations, which will be divided into three phases.

The first phase entails ending hostilities and facilitating the return of displaced individuals on both sides of the border.

The second phase involves halting visible military activities in the region, bolstering the Lebanese Army, and deploying additional forces to stabilize the situation, thereby preventing any military movements south of the Litani River.

The third phase focuses on negotiations regarding the land border issue and resolving contentious matters.

After meeting with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Hochstein told reporters the US is convinced that a diplomatic solution is the only way to end hostilities.

He stressed that the US is working tirelessly for a ceasefire, adding that “a truce in Gaza will not necessarily automatically extend to Lebanon.”

“A temporary ceasefire is not enough. A limited war is not containable,” Hochstein continued.

He said that it is necessary to reach a lasting and fair security arrangement between Lebanon and Israel and that “escalation of violence is in no one’s interests.”

Lebanon, mired in a deep economic and political crisis, would receive “international support” in the event of an agreement, he assured, reiterating the US’ commitment to working with the Lebanese government to put an end to the violence.

‘A threatening tone’

According to corroborating sources who spoke to L’Orient-Le Jour on condition of anonymity, Hochstein appeared to have concerns about the dangerous situation in Lebanon and the possibility of escalation.

According to these sources, Hochstein said that there are voices in Israel calling for a ceasefire in Gaza not to extend to the Lebanon front as long as Hezbollah refuses to surrender.

These voices advocate for war against the party, according to Hochstein, but the US continues to press for the prevention of such a scenario and favors a diplomatic solution — an option also desired by some Israeli officials.

“He warned that if political guarantees were not offered that Hezbollah would stop its military operations in the future, the truce in Gaza would change nothing for Lebanon,” said a source familiar with the discussions on condition of anonymity, due to the sensitivity of the issue.

The envoy added that the security situation along the Blue Line on the border would have to change, in an allusion to Hezbollah’s armed presence in this area, according to the same source.

“[Hochstein] added that even if the truce in Gaza concerns Lebanon as well, this does not mean that we can return to the pre-war situation,” the source continued.

“The tone was quite threatening against a war that would be very harsh if unleashed, and the message quite clear: a halt to the war in South Lebanon has become linked to a change in the situation concerning the presence of Hezbollah south of the Litani River.”

Hochstein allegedly explained that the Israeli government is under enormous pressure from displaced Israeli citizens from the north of the country, who accuse the government of having abandoned them.

In his view, the Israeli government must reassure its citizens and find solutions to the problems at home.

“Working for the return of the displaced Israelis as part of a political settlement is a priority for [Hochstein], as this would remove an important card from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government,” said the source.

Meanwhile, officials in Beirut indicated that the key for Lebanon to avoid escalation and end military operations is a ceasefire in Gaza or the establishment of a humanitarian truce.

Hochstein then raised the question of what would happen if clashes in Gaza resumed, but in a different manner, without scenes of ground invasion.

The response was that a long-term ceasefire — lasting more than six weeks, ideally between five to six months — is necessary, and would be sufficient to outline a framework agreement in Lebanon.

Lebanese officials also emphasized to Hochstein that it is not enough to only be concerned about displaced Israelis, but also about the residents of the South who have suffered the same fate.

Therefore, it is essential to work on a formula guaranteeing the return of these residents whose homes and livelihoods have been destroyed. This also requires the provision of external assistance for reconstruction, and Hochstein has promised to work toward this goal.

An anti-Hezbollah front?

Hochstein met with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Army Chief Joseph Aoun, caretaker Foreign Affairs Minister Abdallah Bou Habib, Energy Minister Walid Fayad, and Deputy Parliament Speaker Elias Bou Saab, to discuss the implementation of UN Resolution 1701, the likes of which brought an end to the July 2006 war.

However, more significant was Hochstein’s meeting within Parliament with figures from the opposition camp, notably including the leader of the Kataeb party, Samy Gemayel, the Lebanese Forces’ second-in-command Georges Adwan, MP Michel Moawad, and the protest movement MPs. Earlier, Hochstein also met with the Druze leader Walid Joumblatt at the latter’s residence in Clemenceau.

This approach, conveying several messages, confirms the notion that reaching an agreement on the border is unattainable without solidifying it through a political compromise and a restructuring of power.

“Amos Hochstein is now delving into political matters, including the presidential crisis. He aims for his mission to encompass the entirety of the Lebanese issue,” said an opposition figure speaking on condition of anonymity.

“It is clear, however, that no political compromise will be possible without Hezbollah’s agreement, regardless of the outlines of this agreement or the name of the future president,” the opposition figure added.

In this context, Hochstein’s approach could be interpreted as being aimed at urging the opposition to unite their anti-war stance. Hezbollah, according to a source close to the party, believes that this is an attempt to pressure it.

A source within the opposition told L’Orient-Le Jour that during the meeting, Hochstein called on participants to insist on the importance of deploying the Army in South Lebanon and on the need to change the military status quo in the area. In the case that this fails, war against the country would be devastating.

Hochstein also reportedly stressed the need to work seriously towards a long-term diplomatic solution.

At the end of the meeting, the tone was set.

Gemayel called for the disarmament of all militias, following UN resolutions, unearthing resolution 1559 (2004) in the process.

“This is one of the conditions for building a state,” Gemayel said to reporters. “At the end of the war, things can no longer continue in the same way (...) because we will no longer accept to live as second-class citizens within our country.”

For his part, Adwan said, “We insisted on the importance of helping each other to apply Resolution no. 1701 and to support the army so that it can preserve border security.”

Moawad said he felt“what is important is to protect Lebanon.”

“That requires an internal path (and another) with the international community to avoid a war that would be destructive,” he added, calling for the UN resolutions to be implemented in their entirety.

Meanwhile, in a speech on Monday, Hezbollah’s second in command, Naim Kassem, reiterated the party’s position:

“Those who pose as mediators must stop the aggression on Gaza, and not [the party’s] support to [Hamas] in this war.”

“Stop the aggression on Gaza, and the war in the area will stop,” Kassem said.

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

The scene brings back memories of former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s tour of Beirut in July 2006. Conflict between Hezbollah and Israel raged at the time, and Rice’s whirlwind visit was viewed by many as an attempt to forge a political alliance against Hezbollah’s decision to drag Lebanon into war.On Monday, US envoy to Lebanon Amos Hochstein landed in Beirut for a brief visit,...