Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 27 October 2020

Lebanon-Israel talks will mark another win for Donald Trump

Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, left, Lebanese outgoing defence minister Zeina Akar, centre, and Unifil head Maj Gen Stefano Del Col announced an agreement on a framework of indirect talks between Lebanon and Israel over the longstanding disputed maritime border between the two countries. AP Photo
Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, left, Lebanese outgoing defence minister Zeina Akar, centre, and Unifil head Maj Gen Stefano Del Col announced an agreement on a framework of indirect talks between Lebanon and Israel over the longstanding disputed maritime border between the two countries. AP Photo

Whatever be the outcome of the US presidential election in November, credit must be given where credit is due. And it would be fair to say that, for the Middle East, the current incumbent Donald Trump has been consequential as an American leader. In fact, it would not be inaccurate to suggest that he has managed to bring about a radical change in the political landscape of the region – with one of the biggest beneficiaries of Mr Trump’s diplomatic efforts being Israel.

The ink is not yet dry on the Abraham accords, recently signed by the UAE and Bahrain with Israel, but progress is already being made in Israel-Lebanon relations. The surprise announcement of the start of the first civilian negotiations regarding the demarcation of land and maritime borders – brokered by the US and overseen by the United Nations – may only be receiving fleeting coverage from American media outlets. But it is a major achievement for the Trump administration.

The President will, no doubt, focus on what Israel stands to gain from having positive relations with its neighbours, in order to please the Jewish and pro-Israeli sections of America’s electorate. But the positive outcome of talks with Israel is just as important for Lebanon’s future, because it gives Beirut the option of hedging its relations with Iran. The influence of Tehran, lest we forget, is deeply entrenched in Lebanese politics – not least because its proxy Hezbollah doubles up as a powerful political party and militia inside the tiny Arab country.

Unifil vehicles patrol the area of Naqura, south of the Lebanese city of Tyre, on the border with Israel, this week. AFP
Unifil vehicles patrol the area of Naqura, south of the Lebanese city of Tyre, on the border with Israel, this week. AFP

The real threat of sanctions, which the Trump administration often effectively wields, has played a key role in Lebanon’s decision to talk to Israel, which is both a neighbour and an adversary.

The so-called “Shiite Duo” of Lebanese politics – Hezbollah and the Amal Movement – had long refused to demarcate the country’s borders with Israel. The reason for this being that they had sought to avoid doing the same with their other neighbour, Syria, with a view to remain coupled with the powers that be in Damascus. Iran and Hezbollah have been determined to keep the Lebanese-Syrian border wide open to allow for the flow of weapons, fighters, narcotics and cash unhindered, and to maintain the subjugation of Lebanon and its people.

Sanctions, however, have shaken the ground beneath the feet of those Lebanese leaders allied to Hezbollah and Amal.

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who leads Amal, agreed to hold talks with Israel only after the Trump administration slapped sanctions on one of his closest associates, former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil. Likewise, the tone of Gebran Bassil, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement and son-in-law of President Michel Aoun, changed drastically after Youssef Fenianos, the former transport minister, was similarly sanctioned by Washington. Even Saad Hariri, the former prime minister, and his Future Movement party may avoid striking a deal with Hezbollah in the future, for fear of such retribution.

The threat of US sanctions loom large not just for Lebanese politicians, however. Many Syrian and Iranian leaders are nervous as well, and possibly counting down to US Election Day. But they must realise that whether it is Republicans or Democrats who will run Washington over the next four years, there is a consensus in American politics over how best to deal with Tehran and its proxies, be it Hezbollah in Lebanon or the Assad regime in Syria.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, and Defence Secretary Mark Esper attend a news conference to announce the Trump administration's restoration of sanctions on Iran last month. AP Photo
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, and Defence Secretary Mark Esper attend a news conference to announce the Trump administration's restoration of sanctions on Iran last month. AP Photo

I got a sense of this consensus during a recent conversation with Joel Rayburn, the US Deputy Assistant Secretary for Levant Affairs, and James Jeffrey, the US Special Representative for Syria Engagement.

“Whether it's in Syria, whether it's in Lebanon, or elsewhere, we have a charge from the leaders of the administration, and we have a charge from Congress to implement our sanctions authorities – and we're on a path to do that,” Mr Rayburn told me. He added that it was a strategy that also had the backing of the international community at large. Indeed, the West has grown tired of extremists and the adverse impact they are having across Europe and North America.

This is precisely why the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act has been such an effective tool in punishing those wrongdoers who have the backing of the Assad regime and have profited from the ongoing civil war in that country – regardless of nationality. According to Mr Jeffrey, the Trump administration has “full authority and every intention” to implement the act.

“If you, wherever you are in the world, are supporting this criminal regime, we're coming after you,” he added. “There is such a rich target list of Syrian officials who have done so much to deserve sanctions, that we're still working our way through them. But people need to be patient, we're going to take them down sooner or later.”

Mr Jeffrey also claimed that the relative calm in Syria at the moment is the result of the sanctions. “[Bashar Al] Assad's not taking any more territory, [and] he's going to have to deal sooner or later.”

However, it is clear that Iran continues its attempts to push back against American presence in the region, notably in Iraq, where its proxies are constantly attacking the US embassy and personnel in Baghdad. Even as Iran struggles under the grip of a sanctions regime, its strategy in the Middle East is to depend even more on its proxies to create unrest and instability.

As Election Day nears, there is the potential for escalation, as both sides refuse to concede an inch to the other.

Raghida Dergham is the founder and executive chairwoman of the Beirut Institute

Updated: October 3, 2020 07:30 PM

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