On October 14, Lebanon held initial talks with Israel over 850 square kilometers of disputed maritime territory. While the negotiations are predicated on hydrocarbon exploration, the fact that they are happening at all is implicit recognition of Israel by Lebanon. If and when the maritime border is settled, there is likelihood that the two parties will then turn their attention to other border disputes, further cementing Lebanon’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty.
There is no question, of course, that Lebanon primarily is motivated to negotiate for economic reasons. It had previously pinned much hope for a hydrocarbon discovery in an area called Block 4 off its coast – only to have it dashed when the French energy company Total announced it found little there. Now, its hopes are that Block 9 might yield tangible results. Block 9 abuts Israel’s Block 72. A settlement of border demarcations between the two countries would give energy companies clarity and comfort over the sovereignty of any possible discovery.
A maritime border agreement between Lebanon and Israel would involve both signing off on a final map of the maritime region, which would then be deposited with the UN. This means Lebanon explicitly recognizing Israel as a sovereign state, with UN attestation. For its part, the US has said that once the maritime border is agreed upon, it will mediate talks to resolve disagreements between Lebanon and Israel over 13 points on their land border. Bit by bit, this means an entrenchment of normality in relations between the two countries.
But no one is foolish enough to think this will be easy. Why? In a word, Hezbollah. Already, the militant group, which also controls politics in Lebanon, has issued a statement saying the negotiations are “in no way at all connected” to making peace with Israel. Some analysts concede it is possible for Lebanon to reach an agreement that doesn’t rise to the level of explicit recognition of Israel, which would allow Hezbollah to have its cake and eat it too. Such a deal would be difficult for Israel to accept, of course. And Hezbollah deludes itself if it believes this possible.
It wouldn’t be the first time.
The border – land as well as sea – has been a mess for decades. The PLO began launching attacks on Israel from south Lebanon in the late 1960s. In 1978, Israel sought to defend against further such attacks by launching an incursion north, seizing Lebanese territory. The UN, just days after this, issued Security Council Resolution 425, calling on Israel to withdraw.
It didn’t do much good. But fast forward to 2000 and Israel finally withdrew its forces behind a “Blue Line” negotiated between Lebanon and Israel under the auspices of the UN. Lebanon’s then president, Emile Lahoud, signed off on this and Hezbollah triumphantly declared victory. However, instead of closure on the border problem, Hezbollah invented new disputes by nudging boundary lines a few meters forward here and there.
Lebanon’s dispute with Israel, in a nutshell, has been instigated by outsiders: by the PLO and by Iran through Hezbollah supposedly in support of the Palestinians. Today, however, neither of these lines of argument hold much weight. While the UN says there are as many as 470,000 Palestinians in Lebanon, the truer number may be as few as 165,000. And with just a third of refugees left, it is possible a significant number of them can be eventually resettled abroad.
This robs Hezbollah of its argument for a perpetual war against Israel on behalf of Palestinians. As for the Lebanese in this calculus, while Palestinians deserve sympathy and support for the cards history has dealt them, it is equally true that the Lebanese deserve to have full control of their own country and to be able to pursue policy that are in their own interest.
With its national debt at least twice the size of its GDP, a crumbling infrastructure and a polluted environment, Lebanon today has much work to do to dig itself out of failure. It is not in a position to offer “solidarity” with anyone. Lebanon needs a “Lebanon First” policy, which means grasping at whatever opportunity for economic growth.
Those opportunities are to its south. Israel’s economy is at least seven times the size of Lebanon’s, and Israel’s per capita GDP is five folds larger. Clearly, there is a comparative advantage to be arbitraged between the two countries. Lebanon, for example, can supply cheap labor – now either under-utilized or totally unemployed – for Israel’s industries.
Lebanon’s coastal South Highway reaches down to the border with Israel. From there, 300 meters of dirt separates it from Israel’s Highway 4. If there were to be normalized relations with Israel, a Lebanese in Tyre would find it easier to work and shop in Israeli Haifa than in Beirut.
Hezbollah’s role in the border negotiation is based on its attempt to secure funds for its treasury from Lebanese hydrocarbon, given the fall in funds it receives from Iran. Thus, at stake is not only potential gas revenues, but the even bigger matter of the rehabilitation of a Lebanon finally at peace with the biggest economy in its neighborhood.
While Lebanon can gain much from its potential hydrocarbon reserves, and this should be encouraged, it will profit even more if the ability to exploit those very same resources comes from the fact that it has made peace with Israel.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai and a former visiting fellow at Chatham House in London.