As the violence between Hezbollah and Israel intensifies, the potential for an uncontrollable escalation necessitates a decisive role for US diplomacy to avert a full-scale war. The outbreak of such an expanded conflict would be an unmitigated disaster for Hezbollah, Israel, Lebanon, and the United States, making clear the urgency of negotiating a sustainable and robust deal. In navigating the thickening fog of war, ongoing US-led mediation must actively take two critical steps to pull Lebanon and Israel back from the brink and avoid a direct US-Iran confrontation. First, any deal must secure credible third-party guarantees to ensure compliance from Israel and Hezbollah and remove the long-standing, but manageable territorial disputes between Israel and Lebanon. Second, Lebanon’s protracted state failure, highlighted by its more than year-long presidential vacuum, undermines the credibility and sustainability of any deal, necessitating international backers to endorse local efforts to elect a president that can ensure Lebanon’s compliance with any accord.
What a deal should look like
Despite the escalating violence, the outlines of a possible agreement between Israel and Hezbollah exist, especially given the existing framework laid out in United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1701 — according to which, Hezbollah is required to pull its military infrastructure north of the Litani River, and Israel is obliged to respect Lebanese sovereignty north of the Blue Line.
Firstly, ensuring the actual withdrawal of Hezbollah and the effective implementation of Resolution 1701 demands the establishment of a robust international force. As soon as the 2006 July War ended, Hezbollah immediately began replenishing its weapons arsenal in contravention to 1701, multiplying its rocket capability five-fold. With the winding down of the war in Syria in 2017, it doubled-down on its strategy and engaged in overt military deployments south of the Litani River, including building military posts for its elite force, known as Radwan Forces.
Even though UNSCR 2650 (2022) enabled the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) to conduct search operations without coordinating with the Lebanese authorities, recent experience has demonstrated Hezbollah’s unchecked use of coercion to challenge the new modus operandi. On Dec. 15, 2022, Hezbollah operatives shot and killed an Irish UNIFIL soldier — Pvt. Sean Rooney, whose car had deviated from its conventional route — sending a clear message that the international peacekeeping force was only allowed to operate per Hezbollah’s guidelines. The international response to the killing was muted, undermining the credibility of UNIFIL to fulfill its newly acquired mandate.
Adding insult to injury, in November 2023, the release of the man accused of murdering Rooney from prison by a military court in Lebanon, while four other men facing charges remain at large, further undermined the credibility of the country’s current military and judicial mechanisms to hold Hezbollah accountable.
The proven failure of UNIFIL and the inability of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) to fulfill such responsibility since 2006 underscore the need for a credible third-party entity capable of enforcing compliance in line with UNSCR 2650, drawing inspiration from the successful Implementation Force (IFOR) model in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Simultaneously, the United States must provide explicit and unequivocal guarantees, assuring Lebanon that its airspace and sovereignty will be upheld if and when Hezbollah has verifiably complied with its side of the bargain. Moreover, remaining issues of contention, namely Israel’s continued control of the northern part of the village of Ghajar, which Hezbollah uses in its multi-faceted attempts to legitimize its weapons, must be addressed. Finally, the Shebaa Farms, which the Lebanese government claims as part of its sovereign territory but which, under international law, are part of the Syrian Golan Heights, should be ceded by Israel to a UN peacekeeping force. In return, the Lebanese government would have to officially and unequivocally announce that no remaining part of Lebanese territory remains occupied by Israel, putting an official end to the “liberation” agenda that has continued to dominate Hezbollah’s rhetoric for the past 24 years.
Hezbollah’s central role cannot be ignored
While the overall parameters of any security arrangement between Hezbollah and Israel are well defined by now, there remains a severe and legitimate concern among many Lebanese that any potential deal would involve the United States ceding control of Lebanese domestic politics to the Iranian-backed militia. This is not without precedent; eager for Arab support in the First Gulf War against Saddam Hussein, the US government allowed Damascus unchecked control over postwar Lebanon in return for Syria’s participation in Operation Desert Shield. The result was not only 15 years of military occupation by Syria but also the steady and uninhibited growth of Iran’s strategic influence in Lebanon, one which US policymakers at the time mistakenly hoped Syria would restrain.
Today, Iranian-backed Hezbollah, and not the Lebanese government, is the principal actor that decides if Lebanon goes to war. International actors can no longer afford to ignore the central role of Hezbollah’s coercive power. Nor is it possible to turn a blind eye to the consequences of legitimizing a political consensus in Lebanon in which Hezbollah retains free reign to establish its security dominion while the country’s political class siphons off the remains of a bankrupt state. Essential to Hezbollah’s success has been the international community’s de facto legitimation of its coercion through quasi-consensus deals, such as those struck in Doha in 2008 that paid the ransom of Hezbollah’s targeted use of violence and destabilization by conceding to it politically. This politics of appeasement has not only emboldened Hezbollah and eliminated its local rivals, it has also allowed Lebanon to become the planning grounds of the Axis of Resistance that explicitly aims to dislodge the US from the region, a hub for criminality and impunity, and the primary theater of a potential new regional war.
After more than a year without a president and only a caretaker government to navigate Lebanon’s debilitating economic crisis, the battle for Lebanon’s presidency should not be overlooked. The Lebanese president is elected by the country’s parliament for a fixed, six-year term. Still, international and regional backers play a decisive role in shaping the voting of their Lebanese allies in parliamentary blocs. The national legislature, under the speakership of Hezbollah ally Nabih Berry, has manifestly failed in fulfilling its responsibility to elect a president. For more than a year, Hezbollah has obstructed the election of a president — refusing to even put forward an alternative to its candidate and Bashar al-Assad ally, Suleiman Frangieh, despite alternatives presented by the opposition.
A presidency that can ensure peace
While the election of a Lebanese president is first and foremost the responsibility of Lebanon’s elected representatives, the US and its allies have a fundamental role to play in preventing Hezbollah from using its military prowess to circumvent the constitutional process. Thus, any US acquiescence on the issue of Lebanon’s presidency would constitute a blatant betrayal of the democratic aspirations of the Lebanese people, actively contribute to furthering the socio-economic plight brought about by the recent crisis, and finally, jeopardize the sustainability of the security arrangement in south Lebanon in the medium and long term. As was the case with UNSCR 1701, Hezbollah will seek to weather the current storm, only to carefully orchestrate a return to the status quo ante once circumstances allow. Between 2011 and 2023, the Lebanese government, controlled by Hezbollah under the framework of the mafia-militia nexus, was complicit in allowing and legitimizing Hezbollah’s circumvention of 1701. The experiences of President Michel Aoun and Assad-aligned Emile Lahoud serve as stark examples of Hezbollah entrenching its position and disregarding agreements. A newly elected president aligned with Hezbollah would be all but certain to shift gears once the latter begins equivocating on the agreement.
The pivotal role of a trustworthy Lebanese president committed to implementing both the letter and spirit of any potential agreement thus cannot be overstated. Active advocacy by the US for a president unwaveringly committed to Lebanon’s sovereignty is key to ensuring success and preventing any future breach that could lead to war.
Fadi Nicholas Nassar is an assistant professor in political science and international affairs at the Lebanese American University and the US-Lebanon Fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC.
Saleh El Machnouk is a lecturer in political science at Saint-Joseph University in Beirut and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC.
Photo by Houssam Shbaro/Anadolu via Getty Images
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