Hezbollah refuses US offers but remains open to diplomacy to prevent conflict

Iranian-backed Hezbollah has rejected the US’s ideas for cooling tit-for-tat clashes with neighboring Israel, such as pulling fighters back from the border. Yet it is willing to engage in US diplomacy to avoid a disastrous war, stated Lebanese officials. US envoy Amos Hochstein has been leading a diplomatic outreach to restore security at the Israel-Lebanon frontier as the wider region teeters dangerously towards a major escalation of the conflict ignited by the Gaza fighting. Attacks by Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthis on shipping in the Red Sea and US retaliatory strikes, as well as fighting elsewhere in the Middle East, have boosted the urgency of the efforts.

Hezbollah, a terrorist organization according to the US, is open to discussions but considers the proposals foreseeable. It has made it clear that it will continue firing rockets at Israel until there is a complete ceasefire in Gaza. Rejection of the ideas presented by Hochstein to Hezbollah has not been previously disclosed. Nonetheless, despite the dismissal and Hezbollah’s launches of rockets in support of Gaza, the group’s willingness to diplomatic contact indicates a reluctance to engage in a broader war, said a Lebanese official and a security source. This is after an Israeli strike reached Beirut on Jan. 2, killing a Hamas leader.

Israel has also indicated its desire to avoid war but states that it is prepared to fight if necessary. Israel has cautioned that it will respond more aggressively if an agreement to secure the border area is not reached. The escalation of the conflict would mark a major new phase in the regional warfare.

Designated a terrorist group by Washington, Hezbollah has not directly been part of the discussions. Instead, Hochstein’s proposals were conveyed by Lebanese intermediaries. According to Reuters, consultation with eleven Lebanese, US, Israeli, and European officials was conducted for this story.

One idea floated last week was to scale down border hostilities in tandem with Israeli movements towards lowering intensity operations in Gaza, according to US officials and three Lebanese sources. Another proposal is for Hezbollah to keep its fighters at least 7 km from the border, which according to two out of three Lebanese officials and an Israeli official was communicated to Hezbollah.

Other requirements include Hezbollah’s elite Radwan force being kept north of the Litani River and a stronger United Nations peacekeeper force, stated an Israeli official. The Prime Minister’s office of Israel declined to comment on “reports of diplomatic discussions,” in response to questions from Reuters.

Spokespeople for Hezbollah and the Lebanon government did not respond immediately to in-depth requests for comment. The White House declined to comment on Reuters’ reporting. Hezbollah implied that after the Gaza war concludes, it could be open to Lebanon negotiating a mediated deal over contested areas at the border, stated three high-ranking Lebanese officials. During the last 7-day Gaza truce in late November, Hezbollah ceased fire.

In 2022, Hochstein brokered a deal delineating the countries’ disputed maritime boundary, an agreement sealed with Hezbollah’s behind-the-scenes approval. During his Jan. 11 visit to Beirut, Hochstein met the Lebanese Prime Minister and the army commander, where he publicly stated that the United States, Israel, and Lebanon all preferred a diplomatic solution to the situation.

Hezbollah now seeks to avoid a prolonged war. It does not want to be in a condition where Israeli strikes continue or escalate in Lebanon after the Gaza war concludes or is notably scaled back. This was stated by Mohanad Hage Ali, deputy director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, a think-tank based in Beirut.

Hezbollah’s leader has alluded to the possibility of a negotiated deal settling the status of disputed border areas. Hezbollah has said its campaign has aided Palestinians by stretching Israeli forces and driving tens of thousands of Israelis from their homes.

Reaching a deal would provide benefits in terms of de-escalation, stated Hage Ali, implying it would be in Hezbollah’s interest.

But Hezbollah has also hinted at diplomatic possibilities. It has stated that once the Gaza war is over Lebanon has “a historic opportunity” to liberate land. These remarks were widely interpreted as reflecting the possibility of a negotiated deal settling the status of disputed border areas.