Lebanon-Israel border talks: 'Hezbollah feels it is losing image battle'
Deal on the Lebanese-Israeli maritime borders is unlikely to happen any time soon, analysts say
The first meeting between Lebanon and Israel to demarcate their hotly contested maritime border has pushed Iran-backed Hezbollah into a communications battle to ensure that it does not look like it is giving in to the demands of its arch-enemy.
Just nine hours before the one-hour meeting in the border town of Naqoura – the base of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon – on Wednesday, Hezbollah and its local ally Amal put out a statement saying they disapproved of the composition of the Lebanese team because two out of four of its members were civilians, not members of the military.
This means negotiations could become more political, and less technical, paving the way to normalising ties with Israel, a deeply unpopular idea among the base support of the two Shiite Muslim parties.
Hezbollah built its popularity during decades of bloody insurgency against Israel, eventually forcing it to retreat from south Lebanon in 2000. The two parties then fought a 33-day war in 2006, although Lebanon and Israel have technically been at war since the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.
“Hezbollah is afraid of losing its grip on its own narrative because the event is being covered as the beginning of normalisation of a new Arab state with Israel,” said Karim El Mufti, professor of political science and international law at Universite La Sagesse in Beirut.
“It was devastating for Hezbollah when the Israeli flag was raised a few days ago above the Unifil headquarters, because they stand on Lebanese soil,” he said. “Hezbollah feels that it is losing a bit of the image battle here.”
Hezbollah tried to save face with its last-minute press release, but cannot stop negotiations from going ahead, Prof El Mufti said. They have been widely interpreted in Lebanon as a gesture of goodwill towards the US from the group's main backer, Iran.
“Iran’s agenda is different from Hezbollah’s, which has a local base to maintain. It has a larger overview of the region and wants to reach out to the West before the US elections,” he said.
But at the same time Lebanese leaders have been pushing to improve relations with the US after two politicians close to Hezbollah were hit with sanctions in September, said Laury Haytayan, Mena director at the Natural Resource Governance Institute.
“The Americans were telling the Lebanese that during his last month in office, [US President] Donald Trump would put more pressure and sanctions,” she told The National.
Presidential elections in the US are scheduled to take place on November 3.
The fact that the head of the Lebanese delegation, air force Brig Gen Bassam Yassin, is a Shiite Muslim was seemingly not enough to reassure Hezbollah and Amal. The other members of the team are Col Mazen Basbous, who conducted a study on the maritime border issue a decade ago, geologist Wissam Chbat and border expert and cartographer Najib Massihi.
“So there is one member of the military who is symbolically good to appease fears of the Shiite community, one member of the military who understands the technicalities, one geologist, and an expert with a PhD on the border dispute,” Ms Haytayan said.
“We have had a maritime border issue for years. Why did the authorities not set up a team a long time ago, instead of asking if discussions are technical or political today?”
On October 1, Amal leader Nabih Berri announced a framework for the US-mediated maritime border negotiations, saying it had been decided in July. The US has been trying to bring Lebanon and Israel to the negotiating table for nearly a decade.
Lebanon and Israel each claim about 860 square kilometres of the Mediterranean Sea as being within their respective exclusive economic zones. By demarcating the border, they hope to be able to make lucrative oil and gas discoveries. Lebanon is currently suffering from its worst economic crisis.
The Lebanese army said that the next round of talks with Israel is scheduled for October 28. Nobody knows when they will end.
“It’s not starting on a great foot but it’s not dead either,” Prof El Mutfi said. “What we can be sure is that it won’t end quickly.”
Updated: October 14, 2020 06:29 PM