- Pragmatism trumped ideology when Hezbollah approved the deal
- The US reached a landmark compromise between Israel and Lebanon
- Offshore gas would provide Lebanon with much-needed foreign exchange
BEIRUT, Oct 18 (Reuters) – (This October 18 story has been corrected to clarify that Atallah is the founding director of think tank The Policy Initiative and not the executive director of the Lebanese Center for Political Studies in Paragraph 14.)
Before the Lebanese government agreed to a US-brokered deal to settle a decades-old maritime border dispute with Israel, powerful Hezbollah scrutinized the final draft line by line and gave a decisive nod of approval.
Branded by Washington as a terrorist group and a sworn enemy of Israel, Iran-backed Hezbollah was certainly nowhere near the negotiating floor during the US shuttle diplomacy that sealed the landmark deal last week.
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But behind the scenes, the heavily armed group was briefed on the details and voiced their views, despite threatening military action if Lebanon’s interests were not secured, according to sources familiar with Hezbollah’s mindset, a Lebanese official and a western source familiar with the process.
As an unprecedented compromise between the hostile states, the deal paves the way for offshore energy exploration and defuses a source of potential conflict between Israel and Hezbollah.
Observers say the deal is all the more significant for the pragmatism Hezbollah has shown, citing the shifting priorities of a group formed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards four decades ago to fight Israel.
“Hezbollah leadership reviewed the agreement line by line before approving it,” said one of the sources familiar with the group’s thinking.
After spending much of the last decade deploying combatants and military expertise across the Middle East to aid Iran’s allies, particularly Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah is now focused squarely on Lebanon — one country in deep crisis.
Hezbollah is more involved than ever in state affairs and has said offshore oil and gas is the only way for Lebanon to emerge from a devastating financial crisis that has hit all Lebanese hard, including its large Shia constituency.
Although Hezbollah says it fears no war with Israel, the group has also said it is not looking for one with a formidable enemy that staged major invasions of Lebanon in 1978 and 1982.
Rebuilding Lebanon after the last war in 2006 took years – much of the bill footed by Gulf Arabs who have since shunned Beirut over Hezbollah influence. And while Tehran’s support remains strong, Western sanctions have squeezed the amount of cash Iran can send to the group.
“HAVOC” OR PRAGMATISM
An offshore energy discovery — while not alone enough to solve Lebanon’s deep economic woes — would be a major boon, providing much-needed hard currency and potentially relieving crippling power outages one day.
Two Hezbollah MPs told Reuters the group was open to the idea of a deal as a way to ease some of Lebanon’s economic woes.
“They had to deal with it pragmatically instead of ideologically,” said Sami Atallah, founding director of the think tank The Policy Initiative, describing Hezbollah’s role as critical. “They knew they had the power to wreak havoc if they wanted to – but it would have come at such a high cost.”
US proposals were brought to Hezbollah leadership by senior Lebanese security official Abbas Ibrahim, who also met with US envoy Amos Hochstein, according to the Lebanese official and the Western source familiar with the process.
At one point, Hezbollah conveyed its frustration at the slow pace of talks about Ibrahim to Hochstein, the Western source said.
Asked about Hezbollah’s role, the head of its media office, Mohamed Afif, said the state led the negotiations and “we were behind it”. “Our concern was that Lebanon would secure its rights to its resources,” he said.
Reuters could not immediately reach Ibrahim’s office for comment. The US State Department did not respond to emailed questions about Hochstein’s contacts with Ibrahim.
A senior US government official said the negotiations were conducted with Lebanon’s sovereign leadership and did not include talks with Hezbollah.
The urgency of Hochstein’s mission increased in June when an Israeli gas rig arrived offshore to explore the Karish field – waters claimed by Lebanon but which Israel said were in its exclusive economic zone.
On July 2, Hezbollah sent three unarmed drones over the Karish field. They were intercepted by the Israeli military.
Hezbollah claimed this was a show of force, and its allies in Lebanon credited the group’s military stance with crushing concessions from Israel — a claim fully denied by Israel.
A US official told Reuters that Hezbollah “nearly wrecked the deal with its provocative rhetoric and war-threatening actions.” “Neither party can – or should – claim victory.”
PEACE STILL FAR AWAY
Hezbollah gave the green light to controversial details.
This included a tacit allusion to agreements that will result in Israel receiving a portion of the proceeds from the Qana prospect – which Lebanon believes is entirely within its waters but which Israel says is partially within its own waters.
The diplomatic workaround will require France’s TotalEnergies – which is set to conduct exploration on behalf of Lebanon – to strike a separate deal with Israel, giving it a share of the royalties and bypassing any Lebanese involvement, said politician Gebran Bassil, who has been following the talks closely , to Reuters .
A TotalEnergies spokesman said they had no comment.
French officials met with Hezbollah officials about the overall deal, three French diplomatic sources said.
France’s foreign ministry said France actively contributed to the deal, “particularly through the transmission of messages between the different parties, in collaboration with the American mediator.”
While the stars may have aligned in bringing about this deal, peace remains a distant prospect between the states, which are at odds on numerous issues, and Hezbollah’s influence is deeply rooted in Beirut.
But more than 16 years after the last war, the benefits of gas extraction could help stave off another one. “Once the pipes are in the water, the war is far away,” said a source familiar with Hezbollah’s mindset.
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Additional reporting by John Irish and Benjamin Mallet in Paris; and editing by Tom Perry, editing by William Maclean
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