Expert on Arab affairs Marianna Belenkaya talks on Hamas's negative response to the Biden deal, escalating tensions between Hezbollah and Israel, and the upcoming elections in the USA, France, and the EU.

After the elimination of a Hezbollah general, the onset of a full-scale war between Israel and the Lebanese terror movement seemed imminent. Hezbollah is actively retaliating. The way events unfold is causing concerns in Washington and among its allies. A new escalation in the Middle East would deal a serious blow to the administration of US President Joe Biden on the eve of the elections. It could also become a fiasco for the foreign policy of French President Emmanuel Macron. Washington and Paris are intensifying their mediation efforts in the region, but they have been unsuccessful so far. In particular, US President Joe Biden was forced to admit that he does not expect an immediate ceasefire in the Gaza Strip. Washington publicly places the responsibility on Hamas, forcing the movement's leaders to justify themselves. For the Israeli leadership, this has become a small, yet diplomatic victory. The question is how events will unfold further.

Hamas justifies itself

Neither Hamas nor Israel want to appear guilty of disrupting the ceasefire negotiations based on the three-stage plan announced by US President Joe Biden at the end of May.

It was initially claimed that the basis of President Joe Biden's statement rested on Israeli ceasefire proposals. In Israel, this was neither officially confirmed nor denied. "There is a proposal for a deal on the agenda, approved by the war cabinet. Its general outlines coincide with what President Joe Biden announced; some nuances differ, but there is no point in going into technical details until there is a positive response from Hamas," Dmitry Gendelman, adviser to the office of the Prime Minister of Israel, said to on the Kan Reka radio station on June 7. However, the thesis that Israel agrees with Biden's plan was included in the UN Security Council resolution adopted this Monday. The text also called on Hamas to accept the plan and for both sides of the conflict to start its implementation immediately and unconditionally.

The seven-point resolution was adopted almost unanimously—with 14 votes in favor. Russia abstained, explaining that the US proposals lack precise contours. However, Moscow did not use its veto power, partly because most Arab countries supported the resolution. In matters related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Russia clearly acts in line with Arab interests. The Arab stance was articulated by the Ambassador for the United Nations in Algeria, Amar Bendjama: "This text is not perfect, but it offers a glimmer of hope to the Palestinians as the alternative is continued killing and suffering."

Israel criticized the adopted resolution, fundamentally disagreeing with the terms that obligate it to a permanent ceasefire. In contrast, Hamas welcomed it, giving mediators hope that the movement would agree to Biden's plan. Particularly, the fact that it all depends on Hamas was emphasized by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken during his eighth trip to the Middle East since October 7, which began on Monday.

The long-awaited response from Hamas and the joined Islamic Jihad was conveyed to the mediators the day after the UN Security Council resolution was adopted. Leaders of these two movements, Ismail Haniyeh and Ziyad al-Nakhalah, issued a joint statement emphasizing their "willingness to act positively" towards achieving an agreement to end the war, considering the interests of the Palestinian people. This entailed the need for "ending the aggression" against the Gaza Strip and the withdrawal of all Israeli forces from the area.

These two conditions have long been a constant in all of Hamas's demands, only the nuances change. This time, according to Reuters, Hamas wants to receive written guarantees from the USA for a permanent ceasefire and the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Gaza Strip. In addition, the newspaper Haaretz adds that "the amendments that were submitted are intended to ensure that the withdrawal and cease-fire be established in the first phase and that Israel will not be able to evade the implementation of all stages of the deal and return to fighting once all the hostages are released." Moreover, Hamas wants to add China, Turkey, and Russia as guarantors of the deal.

Immediately after Hamas delivered their response to the mediators, Israel announced that the Palestinians had made significant changes to Biden's proposals, meaning they did not accept them. Hamas quickly denied this. For example, a source within the movement told the newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat that no edits were made that would damage Biden's proposal, and all remarks are negotiable, except for two fundamental points—those already mentioned above about ending the war and withdrawing troops. At the same time, Hamas stated that while Washington repeats that Israel approved Biden's plan, no one has heard a public confirmation of this fact from Israeli officials. Indeed, Israel refuses to commit to ending the war until "Hamas's military and political capabilities are destroyed" and all hostages are returned. Thus, each side insists on its own, and the bargaining continues, as does the struggle for diplomatic support. But this week, the round was in favor of Israel.

The United States and its allies agree with Israel's position. The call for Hamas to accept Biden's proposal is reiterated in the draft communique for the G7 summit in Italy from June 13 to 15. President Biden himself stated before the summit began that he has not yet given up hope for a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip, but "Hamas must act." At the same time, Biden gave a negative answer when journalists asked him if there will be a ceasefire soon.

Nevertheless, the USA, Egypt, and Qatar continue to work towards achieving a ceasefire agreement. According to Antony Blinken, some of Hamas' proposals could be subject to negotiations, but some are unworkable. At the same time, the USA expects more pressure on Hamas from Arab mediators.

However, all this does not negate the demands on Israel to alleviate the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip, as well as the demands to finally determine a plan for "the day after the war."

Hezbollah retaliates

Amid the stalling of plans to advance Biden's ceasefire deal in the Gaza Strip, Washington's and other players' attempts to reduce tensions on the Lebanese-Israeli border, where the situation is on the verge of spiraling out of control, are also in question.

Photo: AP Photo/Bilal Hussein

The Lebanese movement Hezbollah began shelling Israeli territory on October 8 in support of Hamas. Hezbollah emphasizes that they will not cease their attacks until Israel stops the war in the Gaza Strip.

This week, Hezbollah set another record for the number of shellings of Israeli territory. This was in response to Israel's elimination of four Hezbollah militants. Among them was Taleb Sami Abdallah, the commander of the Al-Nasr unit, responsible for the central section of the Lebanese-Israeli border. Regional media emphasize that he is the highest-ranking member of Hezbollah to be eliminated by Israel in the eight months of the war. The death of Taleb Sami Abdallah was mourned by all the so-called "resistance forces": Hamas, Iraqi Shiite militias, and Yemeni Houthis. On social media associated with Hezbollah, photos of Taleb Sami Abdallah appeared alongside Qasem Soleimani – the former commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who was killed by the Americans in 2020, and his successor, Esmail Qaani. This clearly indicates the high status of the deceased.

Arab media compared the death of Taleb Sami Abdallah with the death of IRGC General Mohammad Reza Zahedi during an Israeli attack on a building at the Iranian consulate in Damascus in April. Tehran could not leave this unanswered and struck back at Israel. At that time, there was fear in the region that the escalation between Israel and Iran could evolve into a larger regional war, but ultimately, it ended with a show of force from both sides. Tehran and Jerusalem refrained from crossing the red line.

However, the situation on the Lebanese-Israeli border is much more unstable. The number of victims and casualties continues to rise, including among the civilian population on both sides, not to mention the damage to the economies of both countries. Tens of thousands of people in both Israel and Lebanon have left their homes, agricultural work has been halted, and forests and fields are burning.

Moreover, it seems that Iran has given Hezbollah, as well as other resistance forces, a carte blanche to escalate pressure on Israel, gradually drawing it into another serious conflict. This occurs amidst another round of tension between Tehran and the West. Iran is also closely watching how events are unfolding around the Gaza Strip and the overall regional and international situation. The Iranians are taking into account that President Biden's era may soon come to an end, and the current European sentiment is not in favor of Tehran.

However, Hezbollah itself is still not ready to be blamed by the Lebanese for a war with Israel unless the Israeli side is forced to be the first to cross the dangerous line. Discussions about Israel needing to shift its focus from Hamas to Hezbollah are getting louder, including within the Israeli military leadership. Nonetheless, Israel has not yet abandoned its previously stated goal of continuing the military operation in the Gaza Strip near Rafah.

Elections everywhere

However, time is running out to resolve the situation in Lebanon, and the mediators understand this. Another war with potentially high casualties and a humanitarian crisis is something they do not need, especially now. Clearly, this is not something President Biden wants to deal with going into the presidential elections in November. France is also not interested in such a scenario, as it traditionally considers itself responsible for Lebanon's fate. In recent months, Paris has expended considerable effort to address both Lebanon's internal issues and to de-escalate the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. However, so far, both efforts have been unsuccessful. Nevertheless, President Emmanuel Macron continues his attempts, as he, too, needs political gains ahead of the parliamentary elections scheduled for the end of June.

Photo: AP Photo/Leo Correa

At the beginning of the month, Macron unexpectedly announced the dissolution of the National Assembly after the far-right National Rally, led by Marine Le Pen, won the European Parliament elections in France. However, whether Macron's decision will benefit him and his party is uncertain. The parliamentary election results may alter the balance of power in the legislature and lead to new figures in the government. Although France is a presidential republic, its domestic and foreign policies will still be adjusted, potentially including Paris's stance on the war in the Middle East. Recently, this issue was at the forefront of debates in the European Parliament elections and led to conflicts during sessions of the National Assembly.

Against this backdrop, during the G7 summit, Macron announced that France, the United States, and Israel will work together in a trilateral format on a French "roadmap" to contain tensions on the Lebanese-Israeli border. A similar mechanism will also be established with Beirut.

Until now, Paris and Washington have promoted their own plans for normalization, which sometimes overlapped, but each acted in their own interests. Now, the time has come to unite their efforts.

The efforts are planned to be based on the French framework. This includes, among other things, halting violence from both sides and withdrawing Hezbollah's special forces, known as the Radwan Force, and other armed groups 10 kilometers away from the Israeli border. The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) will be granted complete freedom of movement in the region. At the same time, the mediators plan to strengthen the Lebanese army, with the United States taking the lead on the issue.

However, on Friday, Israel said it had not agreed to create a trilateral format. Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant sharply criticized Paris' approach to the war in the Gaza Strip, accusing France of hostility towards Israel by "openly ignoring the atrocities committed by Hamas terrorists." Furthermore, Jerusalem indicated that it generally trusts the US more on the Lebanese issue, as well as the Palestinian one. Interestingly, Hezbollah also hinted that it relies more on Washington's word. Yet, the positions of the US and France largely align, including their mutual desire to strengthen the Lebanese army. However, the practical aspects of this are primarily handled by the US.

This week, Washington was visited by the commander of the Lebanese army, General Joseph Aoun. He had previously appealed to the USA, the European Union, and Arab monarchies for additional funding for the Lebanese military. However, no one is in a hurry to allocate funds, given that Lebanon cannot overcome its political crisis. The country has been unable to elect a president for over a year, and thus, the government remains in a temporary status, with no one addressing economic issues. In light of the potential war between Israel and Hezbollah, Aoun was assured that they would try to find funding for the army. But the plan to turn the Lebanese army into a buffer between Hezbollah and Israel is still far from realization. It's doubtful that UN peacekeepers will manage it either, as they have been unable to do so far. Moreover, Hezbollah has repeatedly stated that it will not stop until the situation around the Gaza Strip is resolved. The question of how this cycle will be broken seems unsolvable.