The US-mediated "framework agreement" that was reached between Lebanon and Israel regarding negotiation over the delimitation of the maritime boundaries, which was announced at the beginning of October 2020, raises a question about whether this agreement is a prelude to the emergence of new dynamics that would rearrange the regional scene and its equations, especially that the negotiation between the two parties would not be an abstract technical matter, but rather has geopolitical dimensions that may change the nature of the conflict in the region and turn the Lebanese-Israeli relations into a form of political agreement, which would have implications that contradict the reality that has prevailed for more than two decades on the boundaries of the two sides.
The issue of delineating the maritime boundaries between Lebanon and Israel constitutes the focus of the negotiations to be held on 14 October 2020, according to the assurances of the US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker, who will represent the US in the negotiations as a mediator. The maritime boundary crisis between the two sides dates back to the period that followed the discovery of huge stocks of oil and natural gas reserves in the area near their boundaries in 2009, which led to the outbreak of the boundary delineation crisis in the economic waters between them.
The disputed area is nearly 850 square kilometres. In 2011, the US diplomat Frederick Hoff had proposed a solution which came to be called the "Hoff Line", based on giving 58 percent to Lebanon and 42 percent to Israel. At the request of the UN, since 2010, the two sides have also initiated negotiations to demarcate the economic boundaries, but have not reached a consensual formula due to Hezbollah’s objections.
The US played a decisive role in reaching the framework agreement by conducting diplomatic talks between the two parties that lasted more than two years and included eight rounds. According to the statements of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the US administration hopes that the two parties reach an agreement within six months during which companies from both sides would conduct a seismic survey in the disputed area.
In the event of the success of the negotiations, Lebanon looks forward to starting to invest in Blocks 8 and 9. Nabih Berri, the Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, expected that the extracted gas would contribute to the payment of Lebanon's accumulated debts. As for Israel, its strategic objective of the agreement is to reduce the risks of military activities against Israeli gas platforms close to the Lebanese boundaries.
Hezbollah’s motives for accepting the negotiations
While the agreement to negotiate was issued in the name of the state of Lebanon, it is not a secret that Lebanon is ruled by Hezbollah and that the latter obstructed negotiations for many years, accusing whoever criticises its position in this regard of giving up Lebanese rights, given that the conditions for negotiation are the same as the ones that were approved, only after Lebanon has wasted a lot of money, according to David Schenker, which could have supplied the Lebanese Treasury with gas export revenues. So, what prompted Hezbollah to finally agree?
In fact, there are a number of reasons, the most important of which are the following:
Does the agreement constitute the beginning of the road to peace?
Nabih Berri's announcement of the framework agreement with Israel on 1 October 2020 sparked a wave of condemnation in Lebanese circles, considering that his position does not qualify him for such an announcement that is supposed to be issued by the President of the Republic or the Prime Minister. It is known that Berri does not act without the backing of Hezbollah, which has the greatest influence in Lebanese politics. Was the announcement a message to the major international powers, namely the US, that nothing can proceed in Lebanon without Hezbollah’s approval, or that what Hezbollah agrees to is considered valid for all of Lebanon? Or does it constitute an Iranian message to the US administration confirming Hezbollah’s seriousness in resolving the hot issues in the region, and that it is a catalyst for stability? Or is the agreement a sign of goodwill presented by Iran, which is awaiting the results of the US elections that will be held in early November 2020, to the next administration in Washington? Or is it, based on some readings, an attempt by Iran and Hezbollah to buy time until the end of the election round, after which they would re-consider a course of action accordingly?
In addition to those questions, it was noticeable that the Lebanese Parliament Speaker recently used a new language that breaks away with the ideological tone adopted by the axis to which he belongs. In his statement, he spoke about Israel, and not the "Zionist entity" or "the occupation", as is usual. This constitutes a major strategic and ideological change as it harbours recognition of Israel. The recognition of the borders is the recognition of the existence of Israel. The Resistance Alliance has always boasted its difference from the rest of the regional powers by not recognising Israel. Berri’s remarks were not limited to this development; it included a new language that spoke about “common interests”, “resource development”, and “the peoples of the region”. These are terms that the Resistance Alliance has often accused their users of raising slogans that only provide a cover-up for the process of normalisation with Israel.
It is also striking that this development coincided with other developments, namely the deployment of a military force from the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in Beirut and the port area. Lebanese sources expected that this deployment is a prelude to the expansion of the UNIFIL mandate towards the eastern and maritime borders and assigning it new monitoring tasks to prevent smuggling activities, in fulfilment of the US desire that was expressed during the discussion in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) of the renewal of UNIFIL’s mandate in August 2020 and ending its restriction, which was opposed and incited against by Hezbollah.
Perhaps the first possible outcome of the agreement is Hezbollah’s renouncement of its threat to avenge the killing of one of its members near Damascus. Indeed, the matter may develop into freezing the “resistance” against Israel. The agreement that will be reached would most likely curtail Hezbollah’s movement, not only in Lebanon but also within the framework of the Iranian project that aims to besiege Israel on many fronts, from “Syrian” Quneitra to “Lebanese” Naqoura. It would also strengthen the voices of the internal opposition to Hezbollah that demand it to hand over its weapons to the state within the defence strategy agreed upon by the Lebanese, as long as the resistance function is over.
Moreover, Hezbollah’s approval to negotiate with Israel comes under difficult circumstances for the Resistance Alliance. Iraq is witnessing important shifts towards disarming the militias and integrating them into the frameworks and institutions of the Iraqi state. The Syrian regime is reported to make efforts to negotiate with Israel, even as Iran is going through its worst economic, political and security crises.
Conclusion and expectations
Both Hezbollah and Iran have most likely decided to pursue directly their geopolitical priorities of rearranging their cards in the region. The conflict with Israel was nothing but a way to control the Arab Orient region and put pressure on the Gulf states. Today, in light of the pressure exercised on this axis and the crises it is going through, it may seem to Hezbollah’s leaders that it is better to mobilise its resources towards its great goal and favourite dream of controlling the regional spaces that have come under its security and political influence, especially that the function of the conflict with Israel, which is to mobilise and polarise the public, has paid off. In the eyes of Hezbollah, the sectarian dimension has become sufficient to charge its audience for many years.
This does not mean that Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah would not appear on TV to say that the agreement is nothing but a local agreement on a specific point and has nothing to do with the resistance project. But who would believe that Israel and Lebanon, both of which would be linked with economic projects and common interests, would have a disagreement between them, at least in the next decade, a time that may be enough for Hezbollah's weapons to rust?
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