BEIRUT: Iran-backed Hezbollah has rebuffed Washington’s initial ideas for cooling tit-for-tat fighting with neighbouring Israel, such as pulling its fighters further from the border, but remains open to US diplomacy to avoid a ruinous war, Lebanese officials said.
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 war.
Attacks by Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthis on shipping in the Red Sea, US strikes in response and fighting elsewhere in the Middle East have added urgency to the efforts.
“Hezbollah is ready to listen,” a senior Lebanese official familiar with the group’s thinking said, while emphasising that the group saw the ideas presented by veteran negotiator Hochstein on a visit to Beirut last week as unrealistic.
Hezbollah’s position is that it will fire rockets at Israel until there is a full ceasefire in Gaza. Hezbollah’s rejection of the proposals presented by Hochstein has not been previously reported.
Despite the rejection and Hezbollah’s volleys of rockets in support of Gaza, the group’s openness to diplomatic contacts signals an aversion to a wider war, one of the Lebanese officials and a security source said, even after an Israeli strike reached Beirut on Jan 2, killing a Hamas leader.
Israel has also said it wants to avoid war, but both sides say they are ready to fight if necessary. Israel warns it will respond more aggressively if a deal to make the border area safe is not reached.
Such an escalation would open a major new phase in the regional conflict.
Branded a terrorist organisation by Washington, Hezbollah has not been directly involved in talks, three Lebanese officials and a European diplomat said. Instead, Hochstein’s ideas were passed on by Lebanese mediators, they said. Reuters consulted eleven Lebanese, US, Israeli and European officials for this story.
One suggestion floated last week was that border hostilities be scaled back in tandem with Israeli moves towards lower intensity operations in Gaza, the three Lebanese sources and a US official said.
A proposal was also communicated to Hezbollah that its fighters move 7km from the border, two of the three Lebanese officials said. That would leave fighters much closer than Israel’s public demand of a 30km withdrawal to the Litani River stipulated in a 2006 UN resolution.
Hezbollah has dismissed both ideas as unrealistic, the Lebanese officials and the diplomat said. The group has long ruled out giving up weapons or withdrawing fighters, many of whom hail from the border region and melt into society at times of peace.
Israel’s Prime Minister’s office declined to comment on “reports of diplomatic discussions” in response to questions from Reuters for this story. Spokespeople for Hezbollah and the Lebanon government did not immediately respond to detailed requests for comment.
The White House declined to comment on Reuters’ reporting.
Hezbollah has, however, signalled that once the Gaza war is over it could be open to Lebanon negotiating a mediated deal over disputed areas at the border, the three Lebanese officials said, a possibility alluded to by Hezbollah’s leader in a speech this month.
“After the war in Gaza, we are ready to support Lebanese negotiators to turn the threat into opportunity,” one senior Hezbollah official told Reuters, speaking on the condition of anonymity. He did not address specific proposals.
Hezbollah previously held fire during a 7-day Gaza truce in late November.
Israeli government spokesperson Eylon Levy, in response to a Reuters question at a media briefing on Wednesday, said there was “still a diplomatic window of opportunity,” to push Hezbollah away from the border.
Hochstein has a track record of successful mediation between Lebanon and Israel. In 2022, he brokered a deal delineating the countries’ disputed maritime boundary – an agreement sealed with Hezbollah’s behind-the-scenes approval.
Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, in whose cabinet Hezbollah has ministers, has said Beirut was ready for talks on long-term border stability.
During his Jan 11 visit to Beirut, Hochstein met Mikati, the parliament speaker and army commander. He said publicly at the time that the United States, Israel and Lebanon all preferred a diplomatic solution.
Hochstein was hopeful “all of us on both sides of the border” could reach a solution to allow Lebanon and Israel to live with guaranteed security, he told reporters.