Hochstein back in Beirut to avoid the worst?

Hezbollah insists on economic guarantees concerning oil and gas, as a condition for de-escalation.

Hochstein back in Beirut to avoid the worst?

French envoy for Lebanon Jean-Yves Le Drian and his American counterpart Amos Hochstein, during a meeting in Washington, April 13, 2024. (Credit: The US diplomat's X account)

After Hezbollah refused to halt its support for Hamas in Gaza, American envoy for Lebanon Amos Hochstein suspended his efforts in Beirut until a ceasefire was negotiated in the Palestinian coastal enclave. Instead, he focused on maintaining communication with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and his deputy Elias Bou Saab.

This decision was made without accounting for the escalation of tension between Israel and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, following the attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus and the subsequent chain of retaliations.

These developments may have prompted Hochstein to reconsider resuming his engagements with Beirut officials as part of efforts towards de-escalation through diplomatic channels.

Information from reliable diplomatic and political sources suggested that the US diplomat may embark on another trip to the region, including Lebanon, to quell the escalation and restore adherence to established rules of engagement.

This potential move evokes memories of the US envoy’s visit to Lebanon last March, during which he advocated for clashes to be confined to a distance of no more than five kilometers from the border. However, these appeals went unheeded, as recent attacks have struck deeper targets on the Lebanese side.

Hochstein’s objective is to mitigate tensions rather than exacerbate them as the Israelis have recently been increasingly breaching the rules of engagement by intensifying their deep strikes in Lebanon.

In retaliation, Hezbollah has been downing a growing number of drones with surface-to-air missiles, showcasing its capacity to escalate confrontations to a more aggressive level.

“We still have many surprises in store for the Israelis if they persist in expanding their area of operations,” said a source with close ties to Hezbollah.

French American efforts

Not surprisingly, the American stance was met with opposition from Paris.

France has intensified its messages to Lebanese counterparts regarding the urgent need for resolution, emphasizing that diplomacy may lose its effectiveness if the confrontation is prolonged.

This urgency is compounded by the likelihood of Israel opting for a significant escalation of military operations, potentially leading to an all-out war. Despite this, the official Lebanese position remains consistent, aligning with that of Hezbollah and Berri.

Against this backdrop, the recent visit of French envoy for Lebanon Jean-Yves Le Drian to Washington, and his meeting with Hochstein, takes on significance. Both capitals are engaged in collaborative efforts to prevent escalation.

After this visit, the French revised their initiative, which they had presented to the Lebanese authorities a few months earlier, notably removing the provision calling for a “withdrawal of Hezbollah from south of the Litani.”

The updated French initiative now aligns with that of the Americans, focusing on the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which includes provisions for this withdrawal in three stages.

Thus, a new phase begins in the race against time for diplomacy to contain escalation amid mounting Israeli threats.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet — with Minister Benny Gantz stating on Sunday that a decision is imminent — aims to facilitate the return of residents from border towns evacuated since the war’s onset before the start of the school year in September.

However, achieving this goal may involve the use of force, contrary to Washington’s preferences.

To mitigate the intensity of the confrontation, the US could propose incentives for economic development and explore avenues for assisting in reconstruction and investment in Lebanon, particularly in the oil and gas sector.

‘Freeing up oil wealth’

Hezbollah would likely welcome such developments. Over the weekend, Nawaf Moussawi, Hezbollah’s head of resources and borders, suggested in an interview with Al Jadeed television channel that “in the next phase, the aim will be to liberate Lebanon’s oil resources from the American blockade.”

The Lebanese authorities with Hezbollah in the background made concessions to facilitate the signing of a maritime demarcation agreement with Israel in October 2022. They hoped to tap into potential hydrocarbon reserves in the Lebanese exclusive economic zone. However, these efforts have yet to yield success.

“TotalEnergies carried out its drilling in blocs 4 and 9, but we doubt the accuracy of the company’s claims and would prefer to see the report provided to us,” Moussawi added.

In late October, the consortium led by France’s TotalEnergies ceased its efforts to exploit bloc 4, situated off the coast of Batroun in northern Lebanon, after failing to identify a commercially viable deposit.

The exploration process for bloc 9 of the EEZ, which was already underway, experienced significant delays spanning several years.

The timing of these announcements coincided with the outset of the conflict and prompted some stakeholders to decry a “political reprisal” aimed at Hezbollah for its support of Hamas.

In his recent address, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah emphasized the significance of the oil and gas issue, asserting Lebanon’s right to extract resources from the neighboring Karish field in parallel with Israel’s operations.

Despite the ongoing conflict since October, Hezbollah has refrained from targeting the Karish field or its oil platform. However, it has previously dispatched drones to the field to influence Israel’s stance during the 2022 maritime negotiations.

Hezbollah recognizes that any aggression against the Karish field would escalate tensions and potentially lead to a broader conflict, a scenario it aims to avoid. However, to make the Israelis understand that Hezbollah and its allies are capable of causing them serious strategic damage if the confrontations get out of hand, Iraqi factions launched drones toward Karish.

“The Israelis, currently facing economic turmoil, persist in operating these platforms, a key pressure point restraining Tel Aviv from expanding the war against Lebanon,” suggested a Western diplomatic source on condition of anonymity.

Hezbollah, on the other hand, remains firm on not agreeing to de-escalation without international pledges for rebuilding the war-affected regions, particularly in the south, and revitalizing oil and gas exploration.

This is precisely what Hochstein is banking on.

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

After Hezbollah refused to halt its support for Hamas in Gaza, American envoy for Lebanon Amos Hochstein suspended his efforts in Beirut until a ceasefire was negotiated in the Palestinian coastal enclave. Instead, he focused on maintaining communication with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and his deputy Elias Bou Saab.This decision was made without accounting for the escalation of tension...