The significance of a Lebanon-Israel maritime border deal

Demarcation will undoubtedly represent a qualitative shift for Lebanon, Hezbollah, and Iran

Israelis walk along the beach as a navy vessel patrols the Mediterranean waters off Rosh Hanikra, known in Lebanon as Ras Al Naqura, on Friday. AFP
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If and when Lebanon and Israel do reach an agreement to demarcate their maritime border, the oil and gas riches that can then be peacefully extracted will benefit the countries economically. The deal will also reduce the chances of war, as long as the basic guarantees in the agreement stipulate that there won’t be tensions at the border or provocations from either side.

All this is assuming the two countries can get over the speed bump they hit last week, when Israel rejected amendments proposed by Lebanon. The US, which is involved in the negotiations, believes all the concerned parties remain committed to reaching a solution to the long-running dispute.

During the discussions so far, Hezbollah has been a silent party. This means that the Iranian-backed group has decided to dissociate itself from developments in Syria and Palestine, and refrain from using the Lebanese border and front to retaliate for the sake of the two entities. Has Hezbollah’s “transformation” taken place for pragmatic, financial and political reasons? Is this part of a behind-the-scenes deal between Iran and Israel/ US amid ongoing efforts to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action? Is this the result of gains-and-losses calculations made by Tehran and Hezbollah?

Whatever be the motivations, it is important to stop and take stock of the benefits of such a deal being finalised – last week's development notwithstanding.

Along with the demarcation talks, the Najib Mikati government's priorities have included holding the presidential election and reaching an agreement with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout. I am given to believe that Beirut has reached the midpoint in this journey, with eventual demarcation paving the way for the IMF deal, as well as investments and renewed confidence from donor countries. The demarcation will provide a guarantee to donor countries that Lebanon will be on solid ground and that there will be no war.

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Lebanon will enter a qualitatively new phase of relations with Israel

The US is involved in the negotiations as a guarantor of a deal, not just a broker. Amos Hochstein, senior adviser for energy security in the Biden administration, has been central to the optimism surrounding a deal, and he will do his utmost to complete it and safeguard it against possible manoeuvres from Israel, Lebanon or Hezbollah. It will be a crucially important achievement for both countries and Washington, which is in need for such a win.

There are verbal pledges that Israel will not provoke Hezbollah, because its interests are better served by extracting gas and not being implicated in a war that will prevent the exploitation of natural resources – as long as Hezbollah does not provoke it first. There are verbal pledges from Hezbollah, too, that it will not heat up the Lebanese front with Israel, on condition that Israel does not provoke it either. Hezbollah, not just Lebanon, also stands to benefit from the border demarcation and the oil and gas extraction.

Lebanon will enter a qualitatively new phase of relations with Israel. Iran and Hezbollah, in turn, are entering into an agreement with Israel, which is also a major shift, despite their denials and protestations. Indeed, pragmatism has required the Iranian regime to recalculate and reposition itself, in light of its domestic situation, the stalling of the nuclear negotiations, and the requirements of economic recovery in Iran, which means Iranian money is needed in Iran – and not to finance Hezbollah’s operations against Israel on the Lebanese front.

Meanwhile, the last thing the Syrian front needs right now is escalation, which will harm the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' regional operations on behalf of the Iranian regime. For this reason, Tehran has concluded that turning a blind eye to the Lebanon-Israel talks is useful, while not being compelled to engage directly and publicly with these agreements.

The uprising led by young Iranian women and men following the death of Mahsa Amini and dozens of others in recent weeks affects the regime’s overall calculus, although it isn't directly linked to Tehran’s decision to not block a possible Lebanon-Israel deal. The Iranian leadership has resolved to put down the uprising. However, it is not certain that the nuclear talks are completely finished.

Black smoke rises from the demolished headquarters of Hezbollah in the suburbs of Beirut following Israeli air strikes in July 2006. AP Photo

The US mid-term election in November has forced all sides to take a step back and think again about how to reach a deal. This is perhaps a key reason why Tehran has shown relative goodwill and hasn't disrupted the talks. European support remains vital for Iran, and on it the latter relies to push the Biden administration into signing the nuclear deal.

The international environment must have also influenced Iran’s calculus, especially the developments in the Ukraine war that are unfavourable to Russia, an ally of Tehran.

Perhaps Hezbollah’s leadership, in light of its gradual isolation by the international community, has concluded that pacifying the Lebanese front would bring relief to its position in Lebanon. By talking about the Lebanese state’s exclusive responsibility for demarcating its maritime boundary with Israel, it is appearing not to be instructed by Iran. Thereby it is also avoiding criticism for attempting to block the extraction of Lebanon’s natural wealth during a time of economic crisis. None of this means that Hezbollah has finally returned to Beirut's fold, but it may be an important step towards the "Lebanonisation" of Hezbollah.

It is also critical that Lebanon’s national wealth be protected from the greed of the country's ruling class.

This requires creating a sovereign wealth fund and overcoming suspicious and selfish opposition whether from the so-called Shia Duo of Hezbollah and the Amal Movement or the Free Patriotic Movement, or anyone else with their agendas. However, this will not be enough. All parties taking part in the negotiations – the US, the UN and the energy and insurance companies – have a responsibility to ensure that the national oil and gas wealth will not become an easy prey for Lebanon's corrupt powers.

As a first step, Beirut should approve the creation of this fund. If it fails to do so, the citizens and the international partners must hold them to their responsibilities. Indeed, popular pressure is important, particularly over an issue that will decide the economic future of the Lebanese people.

Published: October 09, 2022, 2:00 PM
Updated: October 10, 2022, 6:07 PM
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