Lebanon-Israel maritime talks do not have to stop at the border

Hanin Ghaddar

Published: Updated:

The Lebanon-Israel border talks show that Hezbollah is under pressure. They could lead to more concessions.

According to the Lebanese presidency, the first round of negotiations between Lebanon and Israel on maritime border demarcation are "technical" and specific to maritime border demarcation. A statement was released on Tuesday to assure the Lebanese that these negotiations are merely about a technical demarcation of the borders, and would not be translated in any concessions to the international community, or in any type of normalization with Israel.

However, the mere fact that Lebanon has finally accepted to sit at the table with Israeli officials – after years of stalling – means that pressure is seriously mounting on the Hezbollah-led government and these negotiations could be the beginning of a series of concessions. The trick is to continue the pressure, and use the leverage created by Hezbollah’s current weakness.

The maritime border negotiations may be technical, but they are eventually political – in the sense that Lebanon has for the first time acknowledged Israel’s existence, as a country with borders. And this wouldn’t have happened without Hezbollah and Iran’s blessings. Acknowledgement might be the first step on the road to more compromises. These talks won’t reach a normalization agreement, such as the Abraham Accord, but might push Hezbollah’s weapons and missiles on the table, that is if pressure parallels border negotiations.

Hezbollah cannot afford to go to war with Israel today, due to financial and logistical challenges that are growing by the day. Israel is capitalizing on Hezbollah’s vulnerability to push for more pressure on the organization, recently exposing its missile production factories in Lebanon. Meanwhile, the US Treasury continues to slap Hezbollah and its allies with sanctions, causing mayhem among its political coalition, which has been weakened by the Lebanon protests.

Hezbollah knows that it can only ease the pressure by giving something in return, especially if it wants to avoid an Israeli strike on its missile factories in Lebanon – which could require an unfavorable retaliation that Hezbollah is trying to dodge, at least until the US elections are over. So they agreed to hold discussions with the Israelis, hoping they can continue to buy time until the elections.

Hezbollah is allowing Lebanon and its military institutions to negotiate with Israel, so when the UNIFIL moved some of its troops – for the first time - to the Beirut port, in coordination with the Lebanese Army, Hezbollah said nothing, and Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah did not even mention these negotiations in his most recent speech.

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Hezbollah’s plan is to give in a little so it can survive until elections results in the US are out, hoping that a Biden administration would ease sanctions and stop the maximum pressure campaign that weakened Iran and its proxies in the region. This might be wishful thinking. First, even if Biden wins the elections, he has other priorities, such as COVID-19, China, and Russia. Second, a deal with Iran does not necessarily mean bailing out Lebanon’s corrupt political class. These two things are separate.

When it comes to Lebanon, any financial assistance, from the CEDRE to the IMF aid packages, will not be released without the implementation of certain clear reforms, and no deal with Iran will reconsider these conditions. In any case, it was clear that Hezbollah and Iran do submit under pressure, and if it wasn’t for fear of more sanctions and isolation, they wouldn’t have agreed to the border demarcation talks.

Therefore, whoever wins the next US presidential elections needs to keep in mind that, when it comes to Iran and its militias, diplomacy only works with persistent and accumulative pressure. In addition, these negotiations – if pressure continues on Hezbollah and its allies in Lebanon – do not have to stop at the border demarcation, but could be used to push for more concessions: on Hezbollah’s arsenal, power within the Lebanese political system, and its wider regional military presence.


Hanin Ghaddar is the inaugural Friedmann Visiting Fellow at The Washington Institute's Geduld Program on Arab Politics, where she focuses on Shia politics throughout the Levant. She tweets @haningdr.

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