After years of blockage and cover, a major economic collapse in Lebanon, multiple unstable governments in Israel, and threats of violence, the United States has successfully brokered an agreement on the maritime border between Beirut and Jerusalem. The war has been avoided and everyone is happy. At least for now.
Israel will receive the most immediate benefits from this agreement, as it can now rapidly begin to exploit existing energy reserves in the Karish gas field. Lebanon could also benefit, but it has more challenges to overcome. Without energy sector reform, the benefits of any future gas discoveries could end up in the hands of the political elite, lining their pockets and doing little for ordinary citizens. Hezbollah, for its part, saw its rhetoric of resistance take a major hit with its public recognition of Israel. However, it is feared that he will now turn his weapons against the Lebanese internal opposition.
US envoy Amos Hochstein deserves huge credit for pushing this deal across the finish line. Now Washington should work to maximize the benefits for the Lebanese people and regional stability. This means increasing pressure on Lebanese officials to implement necessary reforms, particularly in the energy sector.
The advantages of the agreement
Actors on both sides had good reason to make this deal work. With the November elections approaching, Israel wanted to start digging the Karish gas field as soon as possible and position itself as a natural gas producer. Lebanon had its own considerations. President Michel Aoun’s term will also end on November 1, and he wanted to ensure that his legacy is not limited to failure and economic collapse. Hezbollah, in turn, wanted to give the president it chose this parting gift. More importantly, the group wanted to avoid a war with Israel which it knew it could not afford. After numerous threats failed to stop Israel from moving forward in exploring Karish, Hezbollah knew that only diplomacy would help them save face.
Despite accusations that Israel accepted all of Lebanon’s terms and conceded too quickly, the truth is that Lebanon entered this round of negotiations with a low bar. First, knowing that it was a failure for Israel and the United States, President Aoun completely abandoned any discussion of Line 29 as a maritime boundary. This proposed border, the southernmost of the lines under discussion, would have crossed the Karish field, giving Lebanon an interest in it. Instead, Aoun decided to negotiate on Line 23 which gave Israel full control over Karish. Second, while Beirut has secured the Qana field, its ability to exploit it depends on Israeli approval. Total, the French company that will explore Qana, is required to conclude a financial agreement with Israel, in which Lebanon will have no say. In other words, Israel controls the Karish field, which has already been shown to contain gas, while Lebanon must share the Qana field, in which the gas fields have not yet been located. . And if there is gas in Qana, Lebanon has agreed that Israel will receive a payment of at least seventeen percent of Total’s revenue. At best, the money will take five years to start flowing.
The End of the Resistance Story
Seeking to avoid conflict while demonstrating it can use force to advance Lebanese interests, Hezbollah has now given Israel security assurances that it will not target Karish. He sought to pass off the deal as a victory, but failed to translate it into national political gains. Although this is officially an agreement between Lebanon and Israel, in reality many in Lebanon see it as an agreement between Hezbollah and Israel. Indeed, according to Reuters, the group reviewed and approved the agreement line by line.
This in itself is a breakthrough. For forty years, Hezbollah’s discourse of resistance has rejected any kind of border negotiations with its sworn enemy or any recognition of the State of Israel. Now not only have Lebanon and Hezbollah recognized Israel’s existence, but they also share an economic interest and are obligated to maintain stability across the border until the benefits of the deal flow. materialize. Hezbollah’s narrative has already suffered from the group’s involvement in the Syrian civil war, where it ignored Israeli strikes against its military personnel, arms depots and weapons factories. By opting for a pact with Israel rather than a new military confrontation, Hezbollah has rendered itself even more insignificant.
I grew up in a Shia town in southern Lebanon. I was eight years old when the 1982 Israeli invasion and the creation of Hezbollah as a resistance movement. The word “Israel” was taboo – not to be uttered under any circumstances. Although we all knew the country existed and thrived beyond our southern border, Hezbollah made sure we understood that denial was the best way to deal with this reality. And if anyone dared to utter the word “Israel”, the immediate reaction was a forceful reminder that “it’s called Palestine!” or “the occupying entity”.
In response to the maritime border agreement, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said, “We have no problem with the agreement with Israel.” He didn’t say ‘occupied Palestine’ or ‘the enemy state’ – he said ‘Israel’. For many Lebanese, this signals a major shift in narrative and strategy. None of the Hezbollah officials have ever spoken the word “Israel” before. None of them tolerated others who dared to say so.
This new narrative can buy the group time until they are more ready for conflict. Yet this still creates a new reality where the neighboring state actually exists, is Lebanon’s gas partner, and has a say in Lebanon’s economy and stability. Moreover, Hezbollah accepted American mediation in the negotiations and recognized American diplomacy in a matter of the utmost importance for its security and military strategy.
For Hezbollah, the main challenge now is to keep the resistance narrative alive. The group cannot afford to take risks against Israel at this time, inside or outside Lebanon, and is seeking to refocus internally. That doesn’t mean the rhetoric against Israel will stop, but it will likely change, with threats becoming less imminent and more routine. The group’s leadership will return to turning a blind eye to Israeli strikes in Syria and resorting to telling stories of past victories instead of seeking new ones.
But with Hezbollah striving to maintain its role in Lebanese politics, the risk is that its weapons and rhetoric of resistance will backfire on internal opposition and protest. Since its last confrontation with Israel in 2006, Hezbollah has instead confronted its Lebanese adversaries. These include imposing a government of national unity on May 7, 2008, instigating street clashes to obstruct investigations into the Beirut port explosion, assassinating rivals like former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and Shiite critic Lokman Slim, and to target protesters in 2019, mainly in Shiite areas.
Upcoming phases and challenges
For Israel, the main challenge is to preserve the maritime deal after the legislative elections and the formation of a new government. Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu has previously criticized the deal and threatened to roll it back if he becomes prime minister. Many analysts believe, however, that this is a simple electoral posture that would be quickly set aside if he won.
For Lebanon, the next steps are much more difficult. If Total discovers gas at Cana, the revenues will not be enough to cover the country’s financial deficits, banking sector losses and depleted Central Bank reserves. The only way out of this crisis is through substantial financial, economic and legislative reforms that would protect energy revenues, instead of allowing them to be wasted through corruption. The creation of a sovereign wealth fund to manage gas revenues is particularly vital given the sector’s poor record of fiscal responsibility. For example, since 1992, corruption and mismanagement in the electricity sector alone have created $40 billion in debt, or 43% of total public debt.
Without reforms, Lebanon’s corrupt political class will use energy revenues to maintain their interests and positions. It also means maintaining the sectarian narratives and clientelism that have already contributed to the collapse of Lebanon’s state institutions. Indeed, politicians really hope to use the deal as an excuse to avoid reforms. By presenting Cana as a quick fix to the current crisis, they have already helped push back calls for reform on the political agenda.
The role of the United States
This agreement demonstrated that the United States is still the strongest actor in Lebanon. No other country – except perhaps France – has been able to coerce the Lebanese political class into compromising in the name of stability, and no one else has been able to get Hezbollah to agree to a deal with Israel and to recognize its partnership. Thanks to this agreement, Washington has also strengthened its credibility and developed new channels of communication with important actors in Beirut. Biden should use this success to push the Lebanese government to implement long overdue reforms.
The United States can work with its European and Gulf partners to sanction state officials who obstruct energy sector reforms. Actors such as the International Monetary Fund and the French-sponsored 2018 CEDRE donor conference have already spelled out what needs to be done. This includes creating an independent electricity regulator, modernizing the transmission network and raising prices for the first time since the 1990s. A transparent sovereign wealth fund should also be put in place without delay.
In response to the threat posed by Hezbollah, Washington can also play a positive role in forming a new government, implementing legal reforms, investigating the Beirut port explosion, and appointing officials. military. Over the years, the United States has become Lebanon’s largest donor, primarily in the form of military assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces and humanitarian aid during the recent economic crisis. Combined with the sanctions against terrorism and corruption, this has created a degree of influence that the Lebanese authorities understand very well. Washington can use this influence to push Lebanon to elect a new president, protect the judge investigating the port explosion, and ensure the elevation of security officials.
These are not just internal Lebanese problems. They can make or break a very fragile country, whose instability will spill over to its neighbors and affect American interests in the region. The maritime deal shows what American diplomacy can do. Now is the time to do more.
Bio: Hanin Ghaddar is a Friedmann Fellow in the Washington Institute’s Arab Politics Program, where she focuses on Shia politics throughout the Levant. She is the author of HezbollahEarth and tweet @haningdr