by Rozana Bou Monsef -Source: Annahar
BEIRUT: Lebanon has been recently locked in intense US-mediated negotiations to resolve its maritime and land borders dispute with Israel. If successful, the negotiations could have a ripple effect on Hezbollah’s pretext to bear arms, diplomats say.
One could draw parallels with Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, which undermined justifications behind Syria’s continued military presence in the small Mediterranean country leading to its withdrawal five years later.
What remains at the epicenter of the problem is the Shebaa Farms issue, which has been in a sort of geographical limbo between Syria, Israel, and Lebanon, further enabling Hezbollah to justify its arsenal.
When the U.S recognized the Golan Heights as part of Israel through a presidential proclamation this year, concerns were raised over the fate of the Shebaa Farms. These were later alleviated when it became evident that they were not part of the recognition.
Despite Syria alluding that the land belongs to Lebanon, it has failed to provide any topographic maps or documents to back up this position.
Doing so would hurt Hezbollah’s claim for the need to dislodge Israel from that 28 square kilometer area.
Hezbollah has long built up its identity as the liberator of south Lebanon, with its ethos entrenched in the struggle with Israel.
However, much has changed since the Iranian-backed militant group’s first call for armed struggle to end the Israeli occupation of Lebanese territory.
Hezbollah’s arsenal has now morphed into a regional issue tied to Iran and the Islamic Republic’s wider contest with the U.S.
Lebanon’s diplomatic circles are seemingly resigned to that fact, with officials wary of tackling this issue head-on. Instead, the general consensus is to let the issue play out as part of the broader regional dynamics.
In 2018, President Michel Aoun argued that discussions over a national defense strategy would kick off following the conclusion of the country’s May parliamentary elections.
12 months later, and officials from across the board have yet to sit across the negotiating table.
Lebanese sources have reportedly suggested to western ambassadors in Lebanon that incorporating Hezbollah’s armed wing under that of the Lebanese Armed Forces, similarly to that of the mostly Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization (PMF) Forces in Iraq, may not be the most appropriate solution.
What is certain, however, is that the successful demarcation of the land and maritime borders would strip Hezbollah of one of its last “legitimate” arguments in its struggle with Israel, and would undermine the prospect of war with the latter given that a conflict would wreak havoc on Southern Lebanon and deal a significant blow to its population whose loyalty rests with Hezbollah.
Given preparations to tap into oil wealth in the region, this would offer international relief for investors looking to explore potential reserves and push Israel toward a compromise with Lebanon, while also benefitting Hezbollah’s popular base.
Speaker Nabih Berri, a close Shiite ally of Hezbollah, has been heavily involved in the negotiations and met with the U.S Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield on Monday amid heightened regional tensions pitting the U.S against Iran.
Satterfield warned Berri of the disastrous consequences that might ensue if Hezbollah drags Lebanon into a confrontation with Israel, sources say.
While a deal on the demarcation of the borders may pile further pressure on Lebanon to tackle the issue of Hezbollah’s weapons within the framework of a National Defense Strategy, it may also ease tensions. Such a deal would provide a positive sign for European countries who have pledged billions of dollars in soft loans to Lebanon in what could represent a silver lining amid domestic economic woes and heightened regional tensions.