Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. envoy to Lebanon and Iraq, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that it was time to talk to Hezbollah.
Hezbollah has evolved from a guerrilla faction bent on forcing Israeli forces from southern Lebanon and a threat to U.S. security interests in the Middle East and Latin America to a political organization that maintains an armed militia. It is still on the list of U.S. State Department-designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations.
Crocker suggested the evolution meant Hezbollah was no longer a "puppet" controlled by overseers in Tehran and Damascus but a resistance movement vulnerable to an emerging Beirut.
"Hezbollah is a part of the Lebanese political landscape and we should deal with it directly," said Crocker.
His comments were in stark contrast to Jeffrey Feltman, acting assistant secretary of state in the bureau of near eastern affairs, who told a Senate subcommittee on Middle East affairs that Hezbollah remained a key threat to regional stability.
Feltman said Hezbollah maintains a "large and potent militia" that has a reach far beyond Lebanon. The group, he said, "refuses" public scrutiny as "the most technically-capable terrorist group in the world."
Though U.N. peacekeepers in the region have downplayed the claims, U.S. and Israeli officials have made repeated allegations that Hezbollah received long-range missiles from Syria.
"These destabilizing developments increase the risks of miscalculation and the possibility of hostilities (from Hezbollah)," said Feltman.