Hezbollah will not stop maritime deal with Israel, says Lebanese foreign minister

Lebanon’s chief diplomat, Abdullah Bou Habib, tells 'The National' that the US assured Beirut about a deal before October 31

An Energean floating production storage and offloading ship in the Karish field, an offshore gas field in the Mediterranean Sea that is claimed by Israel and partly by Lebanon. AFP
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Follow developments at the UN General Assembly as they happen.

Hezbollah will neither block nor support a maritime deal between Lebanon and Israel, now in its final stages, Lebanese Foreign Minister Abdullah Bou Habib told The National.

In an exclusive interview on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly, Mr Bou Habib said that Hezbollah has told the government in Beirut it will not derail such an agreement.

“Hezbollah has no issue whatsoever with any agreement we reach as a state, I heard it from them and others did too,” Mr Bou Habib said.

The maritime dispute involves an 860-square-kilometre section of what is thought to be a gas and oil-rich area in the eastern Mediterranean.

A resolution would delineate the maritime border between Lebanon and its southern neighbour for the first time since Israel was established in 1948.

Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militant group established in the 1980s to fight Israel, rejects any normalisation with the Jewish state.

But as Beirut's economy collapses, Hezbollah largely looked the other way as US envoy Amos Hochstein led a diplomatic push to cut a deal between Lebanon and Israel, two bitter foes that have fought several conflicts.

Hezbollah did, however, threaten Israel with the use of force if it starts drilling in the contested maritime region before any deal is finalised.

Diplomatic efforts are approaching the finish line, with Mr Hochstein finalising a draft proposal to be presented to both governments in the coming days.

“Lebanon wants an agreement and we want it before October 31,” Mr Bou Habib said. That date refers to the last day of Lebanese President Michel Aoun's term in office.

A deal opening Lebanon’s energy potential before then would redefine Mr Aoun's legacy, tainted by serious economic crisis and weakened state institutions in Beirut.

The top Lebanese diplomat is optimistic about reaching a deal and said the US has provided some assurances.

“I am not talking to the Israelis, but the US has assured us it [a deal] will happen before October 31, and it may happen very soon,” he said.

The absence of a clear parliamentary majority for any alliance in Lebanon after May's elections could quickly exacerbate the country's political crisis.

The US, France and Saudi Arabia this week called on Lebanese politicians to elect a unifying and internationally co-operative president.

“I am worried about a presidential vacuum … we need 86 members for a quorum, then a simple majority to vote for a president. There is no alliance that can secure a quorum,” Mr Bou Habib said.

The diplomat attended a meeting between Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Mr Hochstein in New York on Wednesday.

The Lebanese delegation was able to extract commitments to pay the salaries of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) through a UN fund to be established as soon as November. The US will be the biggest donor but others will contribute as well, Mr Bou Habib said.

“There is agreement among many in the international community on the need to shield the army from the financial crisis. The LAF is the backbone of the country, if we lose it, we lose everything,” he said.

On the crucial issue of refugees, however, Mr Bou Habib saw no plan from the West to address Lebanon’s concerns as it hosts nearly two million Syrian and Palestinian refugees.

He noted that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency that provides aid to Palestinian refugees had been "waiting for a political settlement for 74 years, and that hasn’t come."

“For Syrians, it’s been 11 years, and we asked the Europeans and the international community for a roadmap, but there is none. If there is a roadmap we stand ready to co-operate, but if there isn’t, we have to act in co-ordination" with the Syrian authorities, Mr Bou Habib said.

He said Beirut will not pursue a mandatory return of Syrian refugees but “if they’re economic-driven refugees, it is time for their return, the situation is more stable now in Syria”.

Mr Bou Habib said the US did not bring up the issue of normalisation with the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad this time.

“They used to say: ‘No normalisation’, but it didn’t come up this time," he said.

On talks with the International Monetary Fund and the prospect of approving crucial reforms to secure funding, the Lebanese foreign minister and former senior World Bank official said the ball is in Beirut’s court, awaiting a parliamentary vote.

Asked about Lebanon’s relations with Gulf countries, Mr Bou Habib described them as normal, but said that Hezbollah is the elephant in the room when it comes to strengthening those ties.

On Iran, Mr Bou Habib rejected the hypothesis of Tehran’s hegemony over Lebanon but said strained regional geopolitics and worsened US-Iran relations hurt Beirut.

“Tension constrains us, not because we are worried about war, but because we are a small and weak state and the prospect of US sanctions scare us,” he said.

Mr Bou Habib did not anticipate a conflict between Hezbollah and Israel in the immediate future, despite heightened rhetoric from both sides.

Updated: September 23, 2022, 2:18 PM