Following the great transformation that was witnessed after the assassination of late Lebanese President Rafic al-Hariri and his colleagues, and amidst the demonstrations of the March 14 movement, came the launch of new slogans, namely those that fall under the “Lebanon first” motto.
Such slogans reflected drastic shifts in the political rhetoric of Muslim Lebanese, particularly Sunnis. Although Christian Lebanese have been calling upon their fellow Muslim Lebanese for decades to embrace these slogans, the attitude of an active Christian colleague of mine is still shocking to me, as he regretfully stated that Muslims highjacked the Christian public slogans like they did their positions, wondering: “What is there left of our demands anymore?”
I recall this incident because it almost resembles current positions opposed to the agreement of the Amal Movement and Hezbollah duo, about a framework agreement to enter Lebanese-Israeli border demarcation negotiations - held under US mediation and UN sponsorship - specifically addressing maritime borders.
Despite formal and legal objections, the lingering question is still regarding the significance of objections on content, particularly from parties opposed to the idea of armed resistance against Israel, monopolized by Hezbollah, and maintaining the Lebanese-Israeli front as the only hotspot in the Arab-Israeli conflict in favor of its regional patron.
An Israeli crane erects a wall near border, as seen from Lebanon, near the village of Naqoura, March 6, 2018. (Reuters)
This signals the short-sightedness of the promoters of the objections and their blindness to the strategic shift implied in the agreement, which, if ever successful, will be in Lebanon’s best interest.
It is also necessary to acknowledge the importance of the border demarcation agreement to Lebanon at this stage, which is most notably due to the fact that it may indicate a turning point in the bilateral Shia positions, which might reflect a strategic shift caused by several local and regional factors.
The most prominent of which is the noticeable change in the Shia incubator disposition vis-à-vis the long-lasting conflicts without foreseeable solutions.
The most important factor being the outrage at the Iranian interference in the Arab national countries, and its attempts to impose the doctrine of the Wilayat al-Faqih [Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist] on its Shia followers, amid the historical conflict between Qom and Iraq's Najaf, and the attempt of the first to control the second on one hand, and to obliterate national identities on the other hand.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani meets with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (C) and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (R) in the Iraqi central city of Najaf. (AFP)
This outrage is being clearly manifested by what is happening in Iraq today.
The pressure exerted upon Beirut by the US, Arab, and European countries is also another significant factor to be considered. Especially as pressure intensifies on Iran and its allies, on the one hand, and the signing of recent peace agreements between Arab states and Israel, on the other.
If we agree that the goal of the American pressure is protecting Israel, that of the Arabs is to minimize Iranian threat, and that of the Europeans is to take advantage of the Eastern Mediterranean gas, it remains a fact that they all involve having peace with Israel, and the Shia duo is well aware of this fact.
So, if the negotiations entailed in the Framework Agreement are ever successful, and the border with Israel is demarcated, an implicit recognition of Israel will be entailed, thereby, bringing forth the demise of the distorted bidding accounts on the enemy and resistance ideologies that have bound political life in Lebanon for decades. Would it really be harmful to Lebanon to be relieved of this historical burden?
An additional factor is the economic gains the success of such an agreement would bring, if not eliminated by procrastination.
The commencement of oil exploration operations is very significant for Lebanon in general and for the Amal and Hezbollah duo in particular, as it is expected to bring about essential benefits for their grassroots bases. Southern Lebanon will be the main beneficiary, as it will host all onshore operations, from equipment and maintenance to helipad transportation and housing services, in addition to all the jobs that will be created for workers, engineers and consultants needed by exploration companies.
Thus, granting the lion’s share of the on-ground exploration logistics in Block 9 to the people of the South.
We cannot deny the presumption that this step might merely be a tactical maneuver by Hezbollah to traverse these difficult times Lebanon and the region are living, awaiting the outcome of the US presidential elections and whether the therefrom arising orientations in Washington vis-à-vis its patron, Iran, would be tougher or more accommodating to build on.
Tactically, this step may have stemmed from the Shia duo’s desire to improve their image in the eyes of France after they foiled the French initiative offered to Lebanon, given the French role in the oil exploration forthcoming business.
French President Emmanuel Macron meets members of the military mobilized for the reconstruction of the port of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon September 1, 2020. (Reuters)
Neither can we deny what some consider to be an overestimation of the significance of this Framework Agreement. The Lebanese problem is deeper and more complex than to be solved by mere negotiations on border demarcation, which, in turn, might need years before we are able to witness their conclusion.
Resolving the Lebanese crisis requires seriously approaching the issue of Iran and Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon and the region, keeping in mind the multiple and deep-rooted weaknesses of the Lebanese regime. Nor should the successful outcome of the negotiations enable Hezbollah to control state functions any more than it does today. We also cannot deny that the demarcation of the Lebanese-Syrian borders is as important as that of the Lebanese-Israeli ones.
Despite it all, be the Shia duo’s motives strategic or tactical, the Framework Agreement is still in Lebanon’s best interest. Rather than objecting to it, all parties opposed to Hezbollah’s policy in Lebanon should accept it while attempting to stop the party from endorsing peace to its own benefits, if the negotiations are ever to succeed, as it has done in the past, using the surplus of arms to support its political preponderance, which it has benefited from for decades.
This is a custom of Arab authoritarian regimes that launched the motto, “No voice should be louder than the voice of war,” during wartime, while making liberation deals during peacetime to tighten their grip on public freedoms.
This can only be achieved by finding an interlocutor with a serious and inclusive agenda among the ranks of the opposers, someone who has international trust and Arab support, and can lead a clear, direct dialogue with both Hezbollah and Iran from a nationalistic perspective that transcends affiliations, especially sectarianism.
Without such a balanced and inclusive national force, Hezbollah will not sit at the negotiations table with the intent of reaching realistic solutions that allay what it perceives as fears, such as the fears that all Lebanese people have, regardless of their religious sects, and restoring the abducted role of the Lebanese State.
On the other hand, it will not be wise, at the current stage, to jump from negotiations and a framework agreement to a hasty talk of normalization with Israel. What is really needed at this stage is the widest measure of realism, balance, and compromise. The way forward is open through a direct application of the Lebanese Constitution and the Taif Agreement, on the one hand, and full compliance with the 1949 Lebanese-Israeli Armistice Agreement, on the other. The Agreement can act as the main entry point for pacification that will lead to mutually beneficial results if the talks succeed.
The bet remains on the Hezbollah’s modesty, which seems to have become attainable due to the pressures and existential battles that Lebanon has been through. The party may even be approaching the conviction that it cannot continue with its policies as they are on the local and regional fronts, as it will take the entire country to its demise with repercussions affecting its incubator environment firsthand. Let us take this chance to recall Hezbollah representatives’ highly indicative statement: “It is the responsibility of the Lebanese State to determine national sovereignty coordinates.”
This piece was originally published in, and translated from, Asharq Al-Awsat.
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