How can a country dive into negotiations with Israel in order to demarcate its borders even though it has no diplomatic relations with it because it occupies the homeland of the Palestinian people? What benefit can Lebanon gain from such negotiations as long as they're conducted by a government that is powerless, the economy has collapsed and there is a corrupt and immoral political class that has been plundering the state systematically for decades? Such a government no longer has the confidence of the majority of Lebanese citizens, and is unable to impose its will, not least because decision-making is controlled by a paramilitary organisation — Hezbollah — that takes orders from a foreign, non-Arab state.
After occupying southern Lebanon for more than twenty years, Israel was forced to withdraw in the spring of 2000, and the Blue Line along the nominal border was produced by the UN to determine whether or not a complete withdrawal had taken place. In July 2006, Hezbollah was involved in a war with Israel which, naturally, involved Lebanon, in order to relieve domestic pressure on the movement and allowing it to fill the void left by the assassination of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005, and the withdrawal of the Syrian army from central and north Lebanon.
Hezbollah's secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, continued his attempt to hold on to the internal decision-making even after the March 14 Alliance swept the board in the 2005 parliamentary elections. He occupied the commercial centre of Beirut at the end of 2006 and besieged the government palace for a year and a half, without being able to impose a change in the balance of power. Then he resorted to arms, and on 7 May, 2008 he invaded Beirut, and was able to impose a new reality on the ground. This led the March 14 Alliance to accept the Doha settlement that granted Hezbollah a one-third blocking minority (one-third plus one) of the number of ministers, so that Nasrallah could disrupt the government whenever it suited him to do so.
However, in 2009, the movement was not able to gain a parliamentary majority for the second time in a row, and consequently, the atmosphere remained tense under US and Israeli pressure. Then the Speaker of Parliament and leader of the Amal Movement, Nabih Berri, decided in 2010 — with Hezbollah's approval of, of course — to get his hands on the maritime border demarcation file, meeting Washington halfway, as it was exerting constant pressure to fulfil Israel's wishes, for which demarcation practically means recognition of the occupation state's borders and existence. Intermittent and indirect contacts and negotiations took place during and beyond Obama's terms of office, based on internal and regional developments. In the past five years, these have included a growing Iranian role, especially in Syria and Iraq, after the signing of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear agreement with Tehran. The issue of border demarcation remained a card held by the two Shia parties — Hezbollah and Amal — and not in the hands of the state, which was waved when they ran out of other options.
With President Donald Trump in the White House, the US increased its pressure on Lebanon, especially after Hezbollah managed to impose Michel Aoun as President of the Republic one week before Trump took office, turning him into a major target for the new administration in Washington. The US declared that its main objective in the region was not to overthrow Syria's Bashar Al-Assad but to subdue Iran and prevent its militias expanding in the Arab world, specifically Hezbollah. Trump pulled the US out of the nuclear agreement unilaterally, tightened the economic blockade on Iran and imposed sanctions on the movement.
Two Lebanese banks were liquidated after being accused of financing or providing banking facilities for Hezbollah. A number of Lebanese businessmen, who financed or had a relationship with it, were prosecuted and arrested around the world; Qassem Taj Al-Din, for example, was arrested in Morocco three years ago and handed over to America. He was released in July.
Meanwhile, Berri took action on the negotiations to demarcate the borders, receiving one US envoy after the other. The meetings were supposedly discussing Lebanon's internal situation, including the economy and the crises facing the government. The core of these talks, though, was to decide how and when to sit at the negotiating table with Israel to relieve the pressure on Hezbollah. In the meantime, he was mobilising internally and accusing others of corruption, in order to block any harassment about the border file.
Washington's sanctions on Hezbollah leaders, including Nasrallah himself, were intended to put pressure on Lebanon. Then came the assassination of Major General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, when he was in Iraq. This allowed Berri to announce that an agreement had been reached with the US on a negotiation mechanism. The Lebanon-Israel negotiation card was supposed to remain in Tehran's control — via Hezbollah and Amal — until the time came to sit down with Washington, but Trump did not leave much room for manoeuvre given Iran's concerns that he would be re-elected.
Hence, the Lebanese parliament set out a framework for negotiations with Israel on 14 October, under UN auspices and with US participation, just three weeks before the US presidential election won, as we know now, by Joe Biden. Hezbollah and Amal had some explaining to do in order to justify their move, not least because the prerogative for negotiations about Lebanon's borders lies with the President of the Republic, not the Speaker of the Parliament.
The fact that President Aoun had prepared a negotiation team under Washington's direction created problems for Hezbollah and Amal, as well as within the presidential team itself. The head of the Aounist movement, the president's son-in-law Gebran Bassil, wanted to reassure Washington and Tel Aviv and preserve his 2022 presidential prospects.
Berri was forced to take a step back, leaving Aoun to form the delegation to save face between sworn allies. The most serious paradox, though, is that Hezbollah and Amal had a tough task trying to convince the Lebanese, including their own followers, that launching negotiations with Israel is simply a geographic process to demarcate the borders, and has nothing to do with recognition of the state or normalising relations with it.
Moreover, Nasrallah insists on emphasising that it is an indirect negotiation process, even though the two delegations, Lebanese and Israeli, sit face to face and had dinner together after the end of the second round of talks, at the UN's invitation. Hezbollah has found itself in a desperate and rather messy situation, needing to convince its followers that replacing the word "Israel" with the term "enemy entity" makes negotiations the right step for those who have always demonised Lebanon's southern neighbour.
Translated from Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, 16 November 2020
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.