Hezbollah softens stance on Israel maritime border dispute after Lebanese rage

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The main Lebanese sides blocking a solution to the maritime border dispute with Israel have agreed to American mediation efforts after the deadly Beirut explosions drew the wrath and anger of protesters across Beirut, senior Lebanese officials and multiple diplomats said.

Washington has attempted for years to help reach an understanding over disputed waters between Beirut and Tel Aviv, but Lebanese sides have seen the negotiations as biased toward Israel.

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Iran-backed Hezbollah, via its Shia ally, the Amal Movement, has long determined Lebanon’s position and remained steadfast in their demands.

But after the Beirut explosions and nationwide rage against the ruling elite, Lebanon’s president and parliament speaker were quick to publicize their willingness to reach an agreement on the maritime border.

There are two separate border disputes: the land border and the maritime border.

The UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) continues to work to reach an agreement on the land border, which is currently separated by a UN-demarcated Blue Line. Lebanon disputes 13 of the 200 points along its southern border.

Parliament speaker Nabih Berri told a local newspaper last week that talks “with the Americans are almost finished.” A senior Lebanese political source confirmed this to Al Arabiya English.

Berri is a close ally of Hezbollah and also heads the Amal Movement. Together, the two parties have all government and parliament seats allocated to the Shia sect.

During a phone call on Thursday between US President Donald Trump and his Lebanese counterpart Michel Aoun, the latter voiced his hopes that the US would help solve the border dispute.

The US State Department said it had “no comment” when asked about recent progress and US efforts over the maritime border.

However, the number three State Department official is expected to visit Beirut this week, and the maritime border is set to be a high priority for Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale, according to diplomatic sources.

Read more: Senior US officials will head to Beirut in coming days in wake of Lebanon explosion

Lebanon and Israel are technically in a state of war and both sides have been at loggerheads over 860 sq. km of waters, which contain potential natural gas reserves.

At least three different US envoys have exerted significant diplomatic efforts to help resolve the dispute. In 2012, Frederic Hof, most notably, proposed dividing the disputed waters along what became the “Hof Line.” This would see Lebanon take 500 sq. km. out of the 842. This fell through.

Amos Hochstein succeeded Hof but made little progress.

Before taking up his current role as US ambassador to Turkey, David Satterfield shuttled back and forth between Lebanon and Israel for more than a year. According to Lebanese officials, the most progress was made during Satterfield’s period and the main framework for how talks between the sides, with US and UN mediation, would take place.

Then-US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield, right, trying to mediate the border dispute between Lebanon and Israel, arrives to a meeting at the Lebanese foreign ministry, May 28, 2019. (File Photo: AP)
Then-US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield, right, trying to mediate the border dispute between Lebanon and Israel, arrives to a meeting at the Lebanese foreign ministry, May 28, 2019. (File Photo: AP)

Assistant Secretary of Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker has since succeeded Satterfield and previously voiced his hope that the two sides would agree. Schenker said that progress was waiting for the green light from Beirut.

Hezbollah, the primary opponent of reaching a deal, publicly acknowledged entrusting Berri with deciding Lebanon’s stance. The group’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah previously alleged that the US was using the border talks to try to end Hezbollah’s precision-guided missile arsenal.

Reports surfaced in recent months that Aoun wanted to be the main point of contact for negotiations with the Americans; Berri did not reportedly accept.

Throwing in the towel

But with the growing frustration of Lebanese citizens who are demanding an end to years of corruption from the ruling elite, which has been in power since the end of the 1975-90 civil war, the tide seems to be turning.

A senior Arab diplomat based in Beirut said that “Hezbollah has thrown in the towel,” and softened its hardline stance on refusing an agreement.

Western diplomats have also noticed a significant change in regional geopolitics in recent days, especially following French President Emmanuel Macron’s Beirut visit.

Macron rapped the heads of the main political parties in the country and sat them on one table. Lebanon’s president has been unsuccessful in trying to hold all-party talks under his auspices.

Read more: French President Macron rips into Lebanese political elite after Beirut explosions

Macron also spoke of a “new political pact,” when he was touring decimated parts of Beirut’s Gemayzeh neighborhood.

Some saw this as implying a new ruling class in Lebanon, while other analysts and diplomats said he was referring to a shift in regional geopolitics.

One Western diplomat said they detected a changing political landscape.

“That is going to be bad for Hezbollah,” the diplomat said.

Aram Nerguizian, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), said Hezbollah and Amal have time and again sought to stall efforts US mediation efforts in the pursuit of their own discreet interests.

“Such maneuvers are happening now yet again, except that this time, in the wake of the August 4 Port of Beirut explosion, they are offering to move forward with major concessions in an attempt to placate future US sanctions or worse – to try and slow US calls for drastic political reform in Lebanon by offering a geopolitical carrot to Washington and its allies in Israel,” Nerguizian told Al Arabiya English.

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