The Maritime border deal between Israel and Lebanon, brokered by the US, is primarily an American effort to save Lebanon from itself. Currently, Lebanese people have only two hours of electricity a day. It means that hospitals cannot fully operate; it impacts on critical infrastructure, and deprives them of sufficient electricity to heat their homes and water, and preserve their food. As far as the Biden administration is concerned, this maritime deal may bring some hope to the Lebanese people who have endured an economic and social collapse. Perhaps more importantly, Biden wants to help the Europeans get the gas from sources other than from Russia, which is under western sanctions. But let us remember that the state of Lebanon is controlled by Iran’s Islamic Republic proxy: the terrorist “Party of God” known as Hezbollah. Therefore, there is no guarantee that the deal will be consummated. For Israel, the deal is at best questionable with regards to its long-term security and economic interests.
Lebanon’s Foreign Minister and Hezbollah’s ally, Gebran Bassil (Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun’s son-in-law), attributed the timing of the agreement between Israel and Lebanon on the maritime border demarcation to the war in Ukraine. In an interview with the Associated Press, Bassil said that demand for gas around the world was created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February, and is a factor that sealed the deal. But he also declared, “I think that the equation established with the strength or force of Hezbollah, and the threat to use it helped.”
Benjamin Netanyahu, former Prime Minister of Israel and current opposition leader charged that the Lapid government “caved to Hezbollah’s threats” and essentially rushed to the agreement that forfeited sovereign Israeli territory. Tony Badran, a native of Lebanon and a Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), buttressed Netanyahu’s argument stating that, “The US administration made a point to publicly force Israel to capitulate entirely to Hezbollah on this deal, which Team Biden has framed as part of its agenda to prop up and ‘integrate’ Iran’s ‘equities’ in the region. On its own terms, this deal provides American protection to Hezbollah’s effective partnership with France while eroding Israeli deterrence, even as threats to Jerusalem’s security continue to grow in Lebanon.”
Yair Lapid, the current Israeli caretaker Prime Minister declared that the maritime deal “not only preserve our security, it enhances our security.” In a twitter post Lapid maintained that the agreement will “minimize Lebanon’s dependence on Hezbollah and Iran,” and benefit the economies of both countries. Lapid assured the people of Israel that the deal will decrease the likelihood of a war with Hezbollah and would “bring the people of Israel billions in revenue and energy security for years to come.”
An unnamed senior US official stated that “The win for Israel is sound security, stability, and economic gain. The win for Lebanon is economic prosperity, economic development, foreign direct investment, and hope for an economic recovery.” Israel’s economic gain is supposed to be derived from a small portion of the Qana field, mostly in Lebanese territorial waters though no one knows if the yet unexplored field will yield gas. The Karish field is within Israel’s territorial waters, and revenue from its platform would provide Israel with income regardless of whether there is a maritime agreement or not. Both the US senior official and Lapid in particular are deluding themselves if they think that the agreement will be honored by Hezbollah in the long run, if not violated much sooner. And the US official’s promise of “sound security” is reminiscent of Chamberlain’s naïve promise of “peace in our time” following the 1938 Munich agreement with Hitler.
The nitty-gritty details of the agreement remain hidden from view, and Netanyahu has demanded that the full details of the deal be presented to the Knesset for approval. Lapid has maintained that the deal only requires the approval of the government, which he leads as a caretaker prime minister until the elections scheduled for November 1, 2022. According to reports in the press, Israel conceded some of what it claimed as its territorial waters to Lebanon so that the Lebanese could explore and then possibly exploit the Qana gas field. In return, according to the reports, Israel will get a percentage of the royalties from the Qana field although the exact percentage has not been revealed. Beyond that, little more is known.
The major beneficiary from the maritime border deal is Hezbollah. The operative question is how long would Hezbollah restrain its instincts to attack Israel? Moreover, let us remember that Hezbollah controls the government in Lebanon. The Christian President of Lebanon, Michel Aoun serves at Nasrallah’s pleasure. Hezbollah has both a decisive voice in the Lebanese parliament and the military strength to make or break any Lebanese government. The excuse made by the Biden administration and the Lapid government that they have excluded Hezbollah from being a party to the deal is simply ludicrous. The maritime border deal has obviously strengthened Hezbollah’s hold on Lebanon since it is perceived in Beirut that Hezbollah’s threat to attack the Israeli Karish platform led to the Israeli concessions on the maritime border line.
Nasrallah understands that vetoing the maritime deal at this time when Lebanon’s economy is in free fall will tarnish Hezbollah’s reputation as the defender of Lebanon’s interests from the “villainous” Israelis, and “perfidious” Americans. Nasrallah can ill-afford to reject the deal with Israel given the recent street demonstrations by ordinary Lebanese, including moderate Shiites, against the corruption and mismanagement of the government. The protesters blame Hezbollah for much of Lebanon’s troubles. Still, Nasrallah went through the fine print of the proposed agreement, line by line before approving it. He was clearly satisfied that the deal is 100% positive for Lebanon. Nasrallah could argue that the agreement provides for “what is mine is mine, and what is yours is mine, now too.” It reminds me of my Lebanese friend; Joseph Hakim’s warning that the potential financial windfall from the Qana gas field will end up in the pockets of Hezbollah and its cronies, with little or no benefit to the Lebanese people. For Israel, the deal amounts to a risky gamble.
Next week, after the Israeli government approves the deal, the American negotiator Amos Hochstein will arrive to the Rosh-Ha-Nikra border to sign on the dotted line on behalf of the US. Following Lebanon’s approval, the signing ceremonies won’t be friendly; the two delegations would be separated on their own side of the border. Lebanese president Aoun made it clear that this agreement should not be seen as a step toward a normalization of relations with Israel. In fact, a state of war between the two nations still stands.