Israel Lebanon maritime deal

The Lebanon-Israel maritime deal: A masterstroke from Hezbollah?

Hezbollah’s approach to Lebanon’s historic maritime deal with Israel is canny because it can be interpreted in two ways.

As the Lebanese government rubs its hands in anticipation of potential lucrative hydrocarbon revenues, Hezbollah has another reason to celebrate last month’s landmark maritime border deal with Israel.

Soon after the breakthrough, which saw the two warring countries recognise a fixed border between Lebanese and Israeli waters for the first time, commentators were quick to laud Hezbollah for its supposed pragmatism. “Hezbollah favours pragmatism on marine matters,” proclaimed Le Monde, describing the party’s stance as “taboo-breaking.” Other commentators echoed this narrative, interpreting Hezbollah’s role in the agreement as recognition of the Israeli state. It was a move that dealt a major blow to the party’s resistance rhetoric, declared Washington Institute fellow Hanin Ghaddar in an article for defence and security blog War on the Rocks.

Hydrocarbons – however tenuous or distant – may just provide the Lebanese state coffers with enough money to scrape by for another few years.

The pragmatism over ideology argument is compelling because the Lebanese economy and body politic is experiencing unique distress. Now three years into an economic and political crisis of unprecedented proportions, the state sorely needs revenues. Hydrocarbons – however tenuous or distant – may just provide the Lebanese state coffers with enough money to scrape by for another few years. This is at least the message pushed by
Lebanese politicians of various political allegiances; appearing to jeopardise these mythical riches would be political suicide for any party.

Even Hezbollah is being forced to play ball, the logic continues. Why else would Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah welcome a deal with its avowed enemy, if not through domestic pressure to keep the country’s economy afloat? The narrative also fits with Iran’s reduced ability to fund Hezbollah’s military activities in the region and the party’s focus on domestic policy. If anything, the economic crisis and rock bottom faith in the Lebanese state has increased the importance of Hezbollah’s extensive patronage networks.

But this interpretation reveals a selective reading of the facts. Firstly, both the Lebanese presidency and Hezbollah expressly deny that the agreement meant recognition of Israel. In form and in substance, the agreement managed to sidestep most accusations of normalisation. For example, Lebanese negotiators were careful never to meet their Israeli counterparts in person, acting exclusively through U.S. special envoy Amos Hochstein. The agreement’s text itself deliberately avoids discussion of the land border, an issue of far greater contention between the countries. Through painstaking care from all Lebanese actors, Nasrallah was able to reassure his supporters that the agreement represented nothing “even resembling normalisation.”

Secondly, it ignores the period of exceptionally high tension between Lebanon and Israel this summer.

Hezbollah very nearly sparked conflict with Israel over the disputed Karish gas field.

The pomp which welcomed the agreement served to obscure the fact that just months before, Hezbollah very nearly sparked conflict with Israel over the disputed Karish gas field. In June, Nasrallah threatened to attack offshore gas infrastructure if Israel began extracting gas before the two countries agreed on a border. The next month, the Israeli air force intercepted unarmed drones deployed by Hezbollah’s military wing over Karish. Later, the group published footage displaying the party’s capacity to attack Israeli gas infrastructure.

By the end of the summer, escalation seemed like a very real prospect. With its credibility on the line, Hezbollah would have had little choice but to follow through on its threats to attack Israel, if the latter had begun extracting gas before an agreement was signed. On its side, Israel could hardly be expected to back down against a group it designates as a terrorist organisation. Based on its willingness to engage in dangerous brinkmanship, therefore, Hezbollah’s power to influence domestic and regional decisions appears just as predicated on violent confrontation than ever.

A less united Arab opposition to engagement with Israel provides a degree of flexibility to Lebanon.

Of course, Hezbollah’s arms were not the only factor pushing through the deal. A unique combination of events in Lebanon, Israel, and the region contributed to the success of negotiations. European energy security is one important factor. Helping Europe find alternative fuel supplies in order to be less fuel dependent on Russia was a key motivation for the Biden administration’s continued mediation between the countries. Uncertainty about the future of the energy market was an added incentive to sign the maritime deal as quickly as possible. Fossil fuels will likely be worth less to both Lebanon and Israel if demand and prices begin to fall as renewable technologies become cheaper and more widely available. Such a scenario looks increasingly likely at least in Europe, the most natural export market. The Abraham Accords (2020), which saw the normalisation of diplomatic relations between two Gulf states and Israel, also laid the groundwork for productive negotiation. A less united Arab opposition to engagement with Israel provides a degree of flexibility to Lebanon, where Gulf influence through capital and tourist inflows is still strong.

Nonetheless, the very plausible threat of Hezbollah’s arms still hung over the process, complicating the pragmatism over ideology argument. Although this fact did not alter Israel’s fundamental reasons for signing the deal, it did impose upon Israel an extra level of urgency. Given that the Karish field is the smallest of Israel’s potential extraction sites, securing a guarantee that Hezbollah would not attack its extensive gas field infrastructure was a strategic win for Israel – and one that could be sold domestically in the build up to elections. Meanwhile, Hezbollah’s sabre-rattling scored points at home and provided a solid counterargument for those accusing the party of normalisation or recognition of Israel.

Hezbollah’s approach to the maritime deal is canny precisely because it can be interpreted in two ways. By using the threat of ideologically motivated violence to push the deal through, the group was able to simultaneously draw attention to the effectiveness of its large arsenal whilst also appearing as a pragmatic player with national domestic interests at heart. Substantially, then, its role in the border agreement with Israel does not significantly indicate a shift in Hezbollah’s priorities. And yet, its leadership has left such an interpretation on the table to head off criticism domestically and from abroad.

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