As Lebanon quickly sinks ever deeper into political and economic crisis, the announcement that it had agreed to a framework for negotiations with Israel over its disputed maritime border — after decades of intermittent war — came as something of a surprise.
Fresh on the heels of new US sanctions on his political allies, Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said Thursday the US would facilitate indirect talks between the countries over a wedge of 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) in the Mediterranean Sea.
After the Trump administration’s other recent foreign policy successes, hailed by the President himself as “historic” in brokering friendlier ties between Israel and the region, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo swiftly chalked up the move as offering “the potential for greater stability, security and prosperity for citizens in both nations.”
But experts are doubtful that any real normalization of ties between the two countries is on the cards.
At stake for Lebanon is the potential for sorely needed gas revenues in the disputed zone, as the country labors under crippling debt and dwindling foreign currency reserves.
Israel has already found large proven gas fields off its coast, while Lebanese exploration has yielded little. But, as ever, political considerations have prompted the move, according to Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut.
“The US threatened to introduce further sanctions that would involve Nabih Berri himself and, fearing the consequences of a US escalation, Berri went along with the US proposal,” Khashan said.
US wants to ‘disarm Hezbollah’
Berri is allied with Lebanon’s Shiite movement Hezbollah, which has both a political wing and a significant non-state military, and positions itself as the country’s defender against Israeli aggression. The US deems it an Iran-backed terrorist organization and an impediment to the formation of a new Lebanese government, after Hezbollah-aligned factions blocked Prime Minister designate Mustapha Adib’s proposed Cabinet.
While the agreed framework for talks strictly concerns maritime issues and not the disputed land border — according to the top US diplomat for the Middle East, David Schenker — any step toward resolving borders makes Hezbollah less relevant, Khashan said.
“If a political settlement is reached, then Hezbollah would no longer be able to talk about resisting Israeli occupation,” Khashan said. “I think that’s the ultimate American objective — to disarm Hezbollah.”
But Lebanese reactions suggest negotiations may not be the quick win the White House is looking for.
Lebanese media considered sympathetic to Hezbollah have expressed doubts that the talks will be successful, with outlet Al-Akhbar publishing Friday that negotiations will “take place in a minefield.”
“The negotiations…will be more difficult than those that were fought to reach the framework agreement and may extend for years,” Mayssam Rizk wrote. “Washington and Tel Aviv will extort Lebanon to the maximum, to extract concessions from it. It is feared that some in Beirut will treat the negotiations as a card to escape sanctions, or to improve relations with Washington.”
If Lebanese powerbrokers hoped that a potentially improved relationship would result in the lifting of sanctions, they were quickly rebuffed by the US State Department on Friday, when an official said sanctions would continue.
In addition, Israel is expected to yield little in the negotiations, Khashan said.
Power elite dig in
Nevertheless, engaging in talks may be an attempt to stave off further US pressure until after the US elections, where a Biden presidency would likely take a softer stance on Iranian allies in the region, Khashan said.
While Lebanon’s power elite jockey over forming a new government, just agreeing to enter talks carries little cost, according to Heiko Wimmen at the International Crisis Group.
“It may be an attempt to show flexibility on a file that the US are clearly interested in and that is not really existential, while digging in and hunkering down on the point of government formation to show the US that they are ready to play ball on some things, even if they won’t yield on things they do find existential,” Wimmen said.
“The Lebanese are excellent at political maneuvering. They will engage in anything and then depending on the overall situation, they will shift their position,” Khashan said.
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