Scoop: U.S., allies hope to soon announce steps to end Israel-Hezbollah fighting
The U.S. and four of its European allies hope to announce in the next few weeks a series of commitments made by Israel and Hezbollah to diffuse tensions and restore calm to the Israel-Lebanon border, according to two Israeli officials and a source briefed on the issue.
Why it matters: Preventing a war between Israel and Hezbollah has been a key objective for the Biden administration in its efforts to prevent the fighting in Gaza from expanding into a much wider regional conflict.
Driving the news: U.S. concerns about an all-out war between Israel and Hezbollah grew last month after skirmishes along the border escalated following the Israeli assassination of a senior Hamas official in a strike in Beirut.
- While tensions have decreased slightly in recent days, the U.S. still wants to get understandings between the parties to ensure the fighting stops.
Details: Amos Hochstein, one of President Biden's closest and most trusted advisers, met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant in Israel on Sunday and discussed his proposal for new understandings on the border.
- The proposal is based on the model of the 1996 "Grapes of Wrath" understandings between Israel and Hezbollah that were declared by the U.S. and other world powers to end the Israeli military operation in Lebanon at the time.
- The sources said the new understandings would not be officially signed by the parties but the U.S. and four European allies — the U.K., France, Germany and Italy — would issue a statement detailing the commitments each side has agreed to make.
- The five Western powers will also announce economic benefits to boost the Lebanese economy to sweeten the deal for Hezbollah, the sources said.
Zoom in: The understandings are expected to focus on the partial implementation of UN Security Council resolution 1701, which ended the second Lebanon war in 2006.
- They would include a commitment by both parties to stop the skirmishes on the border that have been taking place since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel.
The understandings are not expected to require Hezbollah to move all its forces north of the Litani River as resolution 1701 demands, but only eight to 10 kilometers (five to six miles) from the Israeli border, the sources said.
- Due to the Israeli airstrikes, Hezbollah has already moved most of its elite Radwan force seven to 10 kilometers (four to six miles) from the blue line in nearly all the areas along the Israeli-Lebanese border.
- According to the sources, the understandings would be based on the principle of "freezing in place:" Hezbollah will not have to withdraw its forces but only commit to not sending them back to areas along the border where they were positioned before Oct. 7.
- Instead, the Lebanese army will send 10,000 to 12,000 troops to the area along the border with Israel, the sources said.
Israel would also have to take steps to diffuse tensions. The U.S. has asked Israel to stop the overflights its fighter jets are conducting in Lebanese airspace, according to the sources. Israel hasn't rejected this request.
- Under the proposal, Israel would also commit to pulling out some of the forces — mostly reservists — it has amassed along the border in the last four months, the sources said.
- The White House declined to comment but a U.S. official said that getting "Israeli and Lebanese citizens back into their homes, living in peace and security is of the utmost importance."
- "We continue to explore and exhaust all diplomatic options ... to achieve this goal," the official said. The official added that some of the elements described by the sources are not true, but would not give any specifics.
Behind the scenes: U.S. officials, concerned about last month's escalation, have told Israel that the administration doesn't underestimate Israel's ability to cause great harm to Lebanon but thinks it would be a strategic mistake to launch a major military operation against Hezbollah, the source briefed on the issue said.
- Israel, meanwhile, warned publicly that the situation along the border must change — through a diplomatic solution or military action — before it would allow the tens of thousands of evacuated Israeli citizens to go back to their homes near the border.
- The two Israeli officials told Axios Israel didn't want to initiate a war in Lebanon in January but was concerned Hezbollah was planning a wide-ranging attack. It took time for Gallant to convince Hochstein that Israel was truly interested in a diplomatic solution.
The other side: The source briefed on the issue said the U.S. believes Hezbollah has been underestimating the severity of the situation on the border.
- Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah sent messages to the U.S. through intermediaries that he knows the U.S. controls Israel and would therefore stop it from going to war against Lebanon, the source said.
- The U.S. made clear to Nasrallah through Lebanese officials that this was not the case and warned against making a miscalculation, according to the source.
Between the lines: The U.S. hopes a possible hostage deal and pause in the fighting between Israel and Hamas in Gaza would make it easier to calm the situation along the Israel-Lebanon border, but it is preparing to announce the understandings even if that doesn't happen, the sources said.