Almost a year after Amos Hochstein helped broker a historic agreement between Lebanon and Israel to demarcate their maritime border, the US energy envoy landed in Beirut on Wednesday to assist the neighbours in their attempt to resolve their outstanding land border disputes.
Success in this regard could provide US President Joe Biden’s 2024 re-election campaign with a considerable boost.
This isn’t a move simply to resolve the fate of a few square metres of disputed territory, or about carrying out land swaps.
We are talking about a potential end to the Lebanon-Israel conflict, achieved by securing Beirut’s independence from the path of negotiations that involved Syria.
It is worth noting that previously Damascus imposed what it termed “twin-track” negotiations on Lebanon for decades, which impeded Beirut’s attempts to end its complex conflict with Israel at a time when Syria’s own issues with Israel remained unresolved. This was intended to ensure that Lebanon remained a bargaining chip for Syria.
However, today’s circumstances have shifted to a “first come, first served” approach, due in large part to the Syrian government’s diminished regional influence, its struggles to maintain control over its own territory, and the fact that the primary Arab player in regional and international affairs today is not Syria but Saudi Arabia. The Biden administration is now actively engaging with Saudi Arabia, marking a shift in strategy as Washington views this as the most viable way to engage with the region.
Mr Hochstein’s Lebanon visit might seem insignificant in the context of US-China and US-Russia relations, Nato’s expansion, and the creation of alliances around the world. But it is of strategic importance to Washington – and one that goes beyond the extraction of oil and gas necessary for Europe in a time of scarcity imposed by the Ukrainian war.
The primary message Mr Hochstein conveyed to those he met in Lebanon, including officials and non-governmental figures, is that the Biden administration is concerned about long-term stability and peace and is prepared to work towards rectifying the irregularities on the Blue Line, which covers the Lebanon-Israel boundary.
Mr Hochstein also emphasised conflict resolution by way of partnering with regional countries, rather than by imposing an agenda, as was sometimes the US approach in the past.
As the two parties’ dossiers are prepared before they are officially presented, negotiations on the land border are unlikely to be more challenging than the maritime border talks were. They are also not expected to take 12 years to resolve.
There are six disputed points along the Blue Line, of which major disagreements revolve around point B1 in the Naqoura sector with an area of 500 square metres, and Shebaa Farms, which fall under the mandate of the UN Disengagement Observer Force, which maintains the ceasefire between Syria and Israel. The rest of the disputed areas are considered “minor”, at least according to a Lebanese official directly involved in the negotiations, and they can be resolved through land swaps.
Mr Hochstein has gained a reputation for engineering deals. And his ambition appears not to be limited to the Lebanese-Syrian-Israeli tripartite framework but extends to resolving a fundamental dispute that would greatly facilitate the normalisation of Saudi-Israeli ties.
A key feature of the demarcation of the Lebanon-Israel maritime border is that it practically eliminated the logic of “resistance” and thus managed to restrain Hezbollah after the group agreed to the deal with Iranian approval. Some argue that this is the most important achievement of the Biden administration in the Middle East, and replicating this success on the land border could become an electoral asset, with the selling point being peace between Lebanon and Israel, and the neutralisation of Hezbollah and the logic of resistance, all with Iran’s consent.
Such a deal could benefit Tehran, given that Donald Trump’s possible return to the American presidency next year would be a source of concern for the Iranian regime. A second Trump administration might resume its policy of maximum pressure as it attempts to force the regime to abandon its governing ideology. It is unlikely to seek normalisation with the regime, or any desire to revive the nuclear agreement with it.
The Biden administration, on the other hand, views improved Saudi-Iran ties as an avenue for reopening discussions with Tehran on reviving the nuclear deal, with Saudi assistance. This marks a major departure on Mr Biden’s part, given that he was vice president when the Obama administration opted to exclude the Arab countries from nuclear negotiations with Iran. Today, Washington appears keen to impress upon Riyadh and Tehran that it has made a fundamental correction in its strategic partnership with the Arab Gulf countries.
Iran understands this and could play ball.
Hezbollah has shown a measure of goodwill regarding the demarcation of the land border. Recent statements by its secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, on the “sovereignty” of the Lebanese state and not interfering in the decisions of the people of Ghajar village, which is split by the Lebanon-Israel border, are important. For they might well reflect an Iranian desire to resolve regional problems through diplomacy.
The UAE, meanwhile, played a key role in the passage of a recent UN Security Council resolution to extend the mandate of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon. But its role went beyond facilitating the adoption of the resolution, to affirming the authority of the Lebanese state in working to end the Israeli occupation of Lebanese territories. If Israel agrees, this could lead to a new chapter in Arab-Israeli conflict resolution and normalisation.
The UAE has led efforts to reintegrate Syria into the Arab fold, alongside its own pioneering steps towards establishing relations with Israel. Damascus, in turn, could be placed on a path to resolving its conflict with Israel, if innovative approaches are followed regarding the issue of the disputed Golan Heights.
In an era of drones and new military technology, the likes of Shebaa Farms and Golan Heights no longer hold the strategic significance they once did. Syria was on the verge of signing a peace treaty with Israel two decades ago, but it was stalled partly over the control of Lake Tiberias. But the lake’s importance has since diminished due to climate change.
Such changes on the ground offer a fresh perspective on securing peace in the Middle East. Could fresh thinking lead to an openly negotiated deal between Iran and Israel one day?