After almost a decade of mediating on behalf of the US, Lebanon and Israel finally began indirect talks on Wednesday over their disputed maritime border, with American officials mediating the talks. It is too early to say if a deal will be signed, and if it will benefit Lebanon, beyond the technical and procedural details. What took place so far is a smooth launch of the negotiations, after the two parties agreed on the framework; however, as much as the devil lies in the details, it is also true that these details will determine who will benefit, and who won’t, and if Lebanon – as a country and people – will see any rewards.
FACTS AND EXPECTATIONS
Disagreement over the border had discouraged oil and gas exploration, especially for Lebanon, which has divided its expanse of waters into 10 blocs, of which three are in the area under dispute with Israel. Prior to the talks, Israel signaled to Lebanon that it is prepared to split the 860 square kilometers of contested maritime territory in a 58:42 ratio in Beirut’s favor. The Lebanese are eager for the French company Total to start drilling in Block 9 adjacent to the contested area, while Israel is preparing international tenders for drilling at the neighboring “Alon D” block.
Israel already pumps gas from huge offshore fields, but Lebanon, hoping to find commercial gas reserves in its waters, needs fast financial gains as it faces its worst economic crisis.
It is unclear how long the talks will last but one cannot ignore the fact that Lebanon has suddenly agreed to the talks, after years of stalling. The only reason for this sudden positivity – against the backdrop of the financial crisis – is that it occurred after the US ramped up sanctions on Lebanese individuals and entities with ties to Hezbollah. The US Treasury sanctioned Speaker Nabih Berri’s top aide, former finance minister Ali Hasan Khalil, only three weeks before Berri announced that negotiations would take place.
In addition, Lebanon was insisting that no talks will happen unless they include both land and maritime border disputes, but then suddenly agreed to focus on the maritime borders.
During a recent press conference, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker has emphasized that the talks will focus on the maritime border only, and for now there is no intention of dealing with other questions in dispute between the two countries – such as the 13 disputed spots along their land border. That was another compromise on Lebanon’s part.
Speaker Berri and President Michel Aoun wouldn’t be able to agree on the talks – even if they are indirect – without Hezbollah’s full blessing. However, that blessing created a serious dilemma for Hezbollah, whose secretary general Hassan Nasrallah ignored the whole issue during his most recent speech. But that also didn’t work and backlash against “the resistance” acknowledging Israel’s border didn’t go well with Hezbollah’s constituency.
Therefore, Hezbollah created some noise right before the negotiations kicked off, by insisting the Lebanese delegation avoided the group picture, and releasing a statement with Amal, saying that the talks did not signal peace-making with long-time enemy Israel. In addition, they criticized the delegation set to negotiate with Israel, calling for changing the team hours before the first meeting.
Of course, none of this worked as the talks were going to proceed with or without their last-minute false campaigns. What is done is done: Hezbollah agreed that the Hezbollah-led government acknowledge Israel’s borders; meaning that Hezbollah has indirectly acknowledged the existence of Israel.
Hezbollah only assumed this major concession because they were under serious pressure of sanctions and isolation on behalf of the US, and a stronger international consensus over its compliance in international acts of terrorism and in Lebanon’s financial crisis. Now that they have finally proceeded with the negotiations, Hezbollah and its allies hope that the compromise on their behalf would ease the US maximum pressure on them and their allies in Lebanon, at least until the results of the US presidential elections are out.
It is essential that Hezbollah does not feel at ease until then, or even afterwards. They have probed in this instance that they will compromise under pressure.
LEBANON AND THE LEBANESE
It is also essential to make sure that Lebanon and the Lebanese – not the corrupt political class that is still ruling Lebanon – benefit from any monetary rewards resulting from the offshore drilling in the future. If these rewards are going to be recycled by the same corrupt system, it will end up in the same corrupt hands of the same sectarian leaders, meaning that the Lebanese people won’t benefit.
Considering the country’s dire financial situation, the talks could be good news for Lebanon because an agreed boundary could benefit the economy in the long term. Yet these benefits may be negated if Hezbollah is permitted to maintain its current access to most of Lebanon’s key ministries, since the group and its allies would no doubt tap any oil and gas profits that materialize.
On the one hand, then, it is important to shelter the maritime demarcation deal from U.S. pressure related to Lebanon’s political reform process. Therefore, as these talks proceed, the international community should continue working on changing Lebanon’s political structure—which means supporting early elections and a new electoral law, as well as implementing the reforms stipulated during the Paris meeting last December and more recently.
Hezbollah has always been good at buying time when it is cornered. As sanctions pile up against the group, its domestic allies, and Iran, some observers in Lebanon are concerned that maritime talks may just be the latest bid to stall any real reforms and freeze further outside pressure. The international community cannot stop its efforts to pressure Hezbollah, its allies, and the corrupt political system, and to show the Lebanese people that this deal is for their benefit.
Hezbollah is in a very weak position and its allies are almost ready to jump ship. A little more pressure can go a long way. Today, they sat with Israel on the same table. With a bit more pressure on them and their allies, Hezbollah could be pushed to compromise in politics, security, and economy. The group might also be pushed to put its arms on the table. It is certainly worth a try.