The return of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri as head of a new government that could avert economic collapse in Lebanon is a real possibility just days before the anniversary of the revolution that came a year ago this month. It is a twist of fate for the Lebanese people who brought down, through democratic protests, the very government of Hariri. Lebanon is in dire need of a bailout and France has conditioned financial support to much needed political reforms.
At the same time, Lebanon and Israel will start negotiations brokered by the United States to resolve a maritime border dispute over contested waters between the two countries. This will be the first time in three decades that direct negotiations between them take place. This diplomatic feat comes amidst American victories with deals to normalize relations between Israel and two Gulf countries. But Lebanon and Israel have no diplomatic ties and unresolved issues on their boundaries, namely the “blue line” for Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon demarcated by the United Nations in 2000.
The negotiations come amidst a severe crisis in Lebanon, with the political class under fire as the country faces drastic debt, soaring poverty, and unemployment. Estimates indicate that the exclusive economic zone of Lebanon contains up to 25 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. This would be an enormous windfall to a country whose economy is in ruins. The country has not had a cabinet since the Beirut blast and negotiations over a new government have stalled because of in-fighting about cabinet posts and control of key ministries, namely the finance ministry. And Hezbollah remains the dominant power broker.
The question being asked today is whether progress on the maritime issue could give new momentum to solving other issues in Lebanon. There is the unsettled matter of Shebaa farms, a small strip of disputed, volatile land at the intersection of the Lebanese-Syrian border and the Golan currently under Israeli control, that has inflamed tensions and provided justification for Hezbollah’s continued “narrative of resistance.” Hezbollah has adopted Shebaa, as well as other territorial disputes, such as Ghajar on the Lebanese-Syrian border, to maintain the pretext for armed resistance since Israel’s retreat.
A key raison detre for Hezbollah has been its opposition to the “Israeli foe.” In 2006, Hezbollah fought a war with Israel which gave fodder to its rhetoric as defender against Israeli aggression. Hezbollah has cultivated since the image of “vanguard of resistance” against the Zionist regime and U.S. domination. The U.S. in turn deems Hezbollah a terrorist organization and recently sanctioned Hezbollah-allied officials and companies, including top Amal party official and former Minister, Ali Hassan Khalil. Ironically, it was Nabih Berri, Speaker of Parliament and head of the Amal Party, who announced Lebanon’s agreement to maritime talks, suggesting that gas from the area could alleviate the country’s debt.
If the negotiations are successful, this could, in theory, weaken Hezbollah’s grip by eliminating the threat of war and using a brandished narrative of resistance, which is what the U.S. is hoping. The possibility of exploiting the gas fields could furthermore provide the country with a much-needed economic reprieve. However, with Hezbollah so ensconced in the Lebanese state, additional sources of revenues will be captured by it, consolidating its control over the state.
In reality, these negotiations are unlikely to produce the win the U.S. is seeking. With the pressure of sanctions, Lebanese politicians see the talks as, if not a way to escape sanctions, one to fend off the pressure until after the November elections. Their timing is based on the hope in a change of administration that would take a softer stance on Iran. And unless serious changes are made in the country’s governance, it is the existing political class and its Iranian patron that will reap any profits from the deal.
Lebanon’s kleptocrats have nothing to lose by participating in these talks. While making a show of flexibility on an issue the U.S. greatly cares about, they will dig their heels in on government formation, an issue that is elemental for them. Meanwhile, the Lebanese people, after a terrible year of protests, fiscal meltdown, banking crisis, pandemic, catastrophic explosion and continuing impunity of the political class, have everything to lose by being back where they started with, one year later, the inauspicious return of Hariri as prime minister.