Negotiations between Lebanon and Israel to demarcate the sea and land borders are scheduled to take place within the next week in the city of Naqoura, with American participation and under UN auspices. This follows an announcement by the Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, Nabih Berri, who said a few days ago that a framework agreement was reached in this regard. He used a new kind of language when talking about Israel; gone was the typical, official and popular “occupied Palestine, the enemy and the occupation state”, which led to widespread discussions at various levels which concluded that these talks are nothing but a road map for normalisation with Israel.
Reaching a framework agreement to demarcate the borders is purely an American-Israeli achievement, as it comes after Lebanon’s official and popular refusal to do so over the past eight years; more specifically since US envoy Frederick Hoff proposed sharing the disputed maritime zone in 2012. The area in question covers 860 square kilometres, of which Hoff proposed that Lebanon would retain 500 sq. km. Lebanon rejected this offer, considering it all to be Lebanese territory and not a disputed area.
Lebanon intensified its rejection of border demarcation based on Israeli conditions after Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah announced that the movement would respond forcefully to Israel’s drilling for oil and gas in Lebanese territorial waters. This was after Israel had already conducted exploratory operations. Fearing a response from the resistance group which could target Israeli gas pipelines, the occupation state concluded agreements with Cyprus, Greece and Egypt to establish a marine pipeline to transport gas to Greece, then Italy and various European countries.
Berri’s announcement suggests that US and Israeli pressure has succeeded in getting the Lebanese authorities to change their mind and open negotiations on the border demarcation. This development is connected, of course, to the upcoming US presidential election next month, with Donald Trump fighting to stay in the White House. Israel has clearly put pressure on Washington to get something done about the border issue while Trump is still in office. This is at a time when Lebanon’s economy has collapsed and there are ongoing popular protests against corruption and the failure of the current political system based on sectarian quotas to address the crises affecting the country. It is logical that in such circumstances Lebanon is in no position to negotiate for a just and fair agreement.
Officials in Lebanon believe that it is possible to compensate partially for the causes of the economic collapse and find solutions by investing in the oil and gas reserves in Lebanese territorial waters, even if this means sharing rights to the area with Israel. This suggests that the politicians are willing to make concessions that would recognise new land and sea borders with the occupation state, despite the fact that the 1949 armistice agreement granted Lebanon all sea and land areas that have suddenly become “disputed”, a large part of which will now be relinquished in the context of border demarcation. In addition, tackling the economic decline cannot be done by making concessions to Israel, but rather by facing up to the rampant corruption within the government system, making real changes that affect state institutions based on sectarian quotas, and confronting all attempts to concede sovereign rights in the mistaken belief that this will solve Lebanon’s economic and political collapse.
It is probable that Lebanon would not have been susceptible to US-Israeli impositions if the latest Arab normalisation had not taken place. The UAE and Bahrain deals have made it easier for the government to slip in quietly and follow this normalisation race under the guise of border demarcation, not least because Lebanon relies heavily on financial support from Gulf States. Such support looks like coming at a price that Lebanon may not be able to pay in light of the mounting popular rejection of any border agreement.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Ayyam on 7 October 2020
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.