On the eve of the US presidential election, a “peace” gift is on its way to President Donald Trump courtesy of an unlikely source: Hezbollah. Nabih Berri—the speaker of Lebanon’s Parliament and leader of the Shiite Amal Movement, as well as a staunch ally of Iran’s Lebanese paramilitary proxy—announced on October 1 that a decade of behind-the-scenes efforts that he led finally came to fruition: serious negotiations between Lebanon and Israel over maritime and land border demarcations would commence on October 15 under UN auspices with the US acting as the third-party facilitator. Notably, Berri referenced Israel several times as just that: Israel—not the Zionist entity or Zionist enemy or Occupied Palestine, as is the habit in all official Lebanese and certainly Hezbollah proclamations.
After the powerful Shiite duo of Amal and Hezbollah derailed a French initiative to form a Lebanese government that would launch much-needed reforms to help Lebanon get back on its feet, an initiative on which President Emmanuel Macron had staked his reputation, Iran’s Lebanese agents promptly courted the Americans. As measly compensation, Lebanon would, according to Berri, grant France’s giant oil company, Total, drilling concessions in the disputed Block 9 in the Mediterranean Sea once Lebanon finalizes demarcation with Israel—or so the expectation stands.
The majority of Lebanese would welcome a peaceful settlement of pending border issues with Israel, arrived at through negotiations shepherded by the United States. After this nothing would prevent complete normalization between the two neighboring countries. With international support and monitoring, Lebanon should also demarcate once and for all its long and porous land border with Syria so as to settle disputed ownership of places like the Shebaa Farms in the southeast, and to end cross-border smuggling operations to and from Syria.
Under the current choreography, however, many have expressed understandable fears regarding what is unfolding with the prospective border demarcations with Israel. Some have said this gambit by Berri and his Iranian handlers is a familiar tactic borrowed from the Syrian playbook. The late Syrian dictator Hafez Assad would string out negotiations, including ones over the Golan, while always dangling the prospect of an imminent breakthrough to keep the Americans and Israelis engaged and in eager anticipation. Meanwhile, Assad had plenty of time to consolidate his stranglehold on Syria and its people. Moreover, Berri is a central figure in the ruling mafia of Lebanese politicians accused of siphoning billions of dollars first from the state coffers and lately from ordinary private Lebanese bank-account holders. So what better way to prolong the life of this gang of mega-crooks than for them to appear as “useful” in the eyes of those who have the power to seize their stolen assets as part of a stringent sanctions protocol deploying the Global Magnitsky Act passed by the US Congress? And if border demarcation negotiations are strung out indefinitely, Lebanon will be fixed more firmly inside the Iranian axis against the will of the majority of its citizens. All these constitute legitimate worries in the minds of ordinary Lebanese who dread the insidious skills of this Iranian engineering of their country’s tightening captivity.
A related apprehension among Lebanese is that both Washington and Jerusalem, to garner immediate dividends (electoral in the case of the Trump administration, and political as well as the avoidance of open war in the case of Netanyahu’s cabinet), would jump at the prospect Iran through Berri and Hezbollah offers, which might even entail a willingness on the part of Washington and Jerusalem to sacrifice Lebanon in the process. After all, hasn’t it become obvious that only strong Shiites in Lebanon can deliver on anything regarding Israel?
But let us pause for a moment to consider what exactly is being “delivered” here. Only—and I repeat only—the promise of negotiations ending presumably at some point in some form of mutually acceptable demarcation of the maritime and land borders between Lebanon and Israel. Sounds pretty vague and open-ended. What else? Nothing else. There is no pledge, for instance, by Hezbollah to disarm; no movement whatsoever by it to terminate its visceral ideological hostility to Israel and the United States; no hint that Iran will stop meddling in Lebanon, or allow a functioning government to be formed and to undertake concrete reforms; not to speak of the utter absence of any indication by Iran that it will halt its clandestine creep toward nuclear breakout and ballistic-missile arsenal enhancement. Does such a flimsy delivery deserve the permanent jettisoning of Lebanon into the lap of Iran and its local henchmen? Does this delivery at this exorbitant price serve Western national and geostrategic interests? Sacrificing Lebanon for so little in return will haunt both Washington and Jerusalem with catastrophic vengeance.
Regardless of any immediate or short-term gains from all this, those overseeing policy in both Washington and Jerusalem are anything but stupid. It is Nabih Berri, Hassan Nasrallah, and, behind them, Ali Khamenei who need a powerful reality check. Tricks, traps, ruses, and games of this familiar sort won’t work. Nor will anyone hand out big rewards for essentially smoke-and-mirror pledges. One certainty will prevail once demarcation negotiations between Lebanon and Israel commence: the accusation regularly hurled by Hezbollah at its critics of treasonous dealings with the Zionist enemy will have fallen forever, and the taboo of normalization hitherto kept out of reach for the Lebanese will become the natural course of subsequent developments.
If the proper proportions of the impending Lebanon-Israel border negotiations remain coupled with accompanying realistic expectations that fall far short of giving away the entire store to Iran, then let the demarcation exercise begin. The move has this author’s sincere wishes for speedy positive results. Lebanon then will be better poised to join the regional peace train, and no one will be in a position to stop this.