How Hezbollah can use maritime deal as excuse for war - analysis

Hezbollah can claim the need to start a war over the maritime border deal with Israel, and Lebanon will never be held responsible for it.

 HEZBOLLAH MEMBERS hold flags marking Resistance and Liberation Day, in Kfar Kila near the Lebanese border with Israel in May. (photo credit: AZIZ TAHER/REUTERS)
HEZBOLLAH MEMBERS hold flags marking Resistance and Liberation Day, in Kfar Kila near the Lebanese border with Israel in May.
(photo credit: AZIZ TAHER/REUTERS)

In the wake of the maritime deal between Israel and Lebanon, there remain key questions about Hezbollah’s role and its future actions.

Israel agreed to a deal on the eve of the election, and it also appeared to back down from its earlier claims, agreeing to a line off the coast that gives in to most of Lebanon’s demands. Although the deal has been praised by the US, it leaves questions about whether it will bring stability or whether Hezbollah can use it as a pretext to create tensions in the future and lay claim to areas off the coast.

Hezbollah, which appeared to be closely consulted by the Lebanese side about the deal, has claimed that it is some kind of a victory. At the same time, the terrorist group has also reserved for itself the right to “defend” Lebanon’s maritime claims, meaning that it dictated the deal without being a signatory.

This puts Israel in a complex position because Hezbollah can claim at any point in the future a need to start a war over the deal, while Lebanon can never be held to account for Hezbollah’s actions.

The privilege Hezbollah always enjoys is unprecedented in the world. It controls Lebanon and basically controls who will be appointed the country’s president; it controls a swath of southern Lebanon through militia checkpoints; it stockpiles a massive, illegal arsenal of missiles that threaten the region. Yet it is never held to account for any of these actions.

For instance, Lebanon can fire rockets at Israel or launch drones at gas platforms off the coast, and it can pretend that it isn’t responsible, so any Israeli actions against Hezbollah are a “violation” of Lebanon’s sovereignty.

 Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah speaks through a screen during a religious ceremony marking Ashura (credit: AL-MANAR/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS) Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah speaks through a screen during a religious ceremony marking Ashura (credit: AL-MANAR/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

Israel-Lebanon talks show dangers of negotiating with a state that doesn't control its own territory

Throughout its recent history, the goal of the Iranian regime has been to create numerous Hezbollah-like organizations around the Middle East – cutting up countries, hollowing them out and then filling them with extrajudicial militias. It has done this in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

The recent maritime negotiations between Israel and Lebanon show the pitfalls of negotiating with a state that doesn’t control most of its own territory.

Outgoing Lebanese President Michel Aoun has said the maritime deal was partly driven by Hezbollah, which launched drones targeting Israel’s offshore gas rigs. This was a “deterrent,” he claimed.

“It wasn’t coordinated [with the government]. It was an initiative taken by Hezbollah and it was useful,” Aoun said, adding that the Lebanese army “had no role,” Reuters reported.

This means Hezbollah basically runs Lebanon’s foreign and military policy.

“Hezbollah’s military power, including its drone power, caused Israel to fear a war with Lebanon, and this led to the agreement to draw maritime border,” retired Lebanese Army general Hashem Jaber was quoted by Iranian regime media as saying.

This means Lebanon credits Hezbollah with helping create the maritime deal.

That Hezbollah claimed it was on “alert” for a possible conflict with Israel in the days leading up to the deal means an illegal terrorist group was able to influence the deal. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah could then claim a victory when the deal was signed.

It’s unclear why a country would sign a maritime deal under the shadow of a threat of war if the deal wasn’t signed. Israel, nevertheless, went forward and signed. Hezbollah then took credit for having “deterred” the Jewish state and having forced the deal to go through.

ON THE one hand, this rhetoric by Hezbollah could be seen as propaganda. Some voices have portrayed the deal as recognition of Israel by Lebanon, as if it needs recognition by its chaotic and almost bankrupt neighbor, which doesn’t even control most of its own territory.

Nevertheless, these voices argue that the deal makes it seem that Hezbollah recognized Israel because the terrorist group had to agree to the Lebanese government agreeing to the deal. These voices make it seem Israel needs recognition from Hezbollah, as if they are not only on equal terms, but that Hezbollah is actually the stronger party, and Israel needs to beg both Lebanon and Hezbollah for recognition.

According to these voices, any mention of “Israel” in Lebanese media, as opposed to “Zionist entity,” is a major accomplishment. It’s unclear whether this will mean that Hezbollah will feel it needs to work toward more peace on the northern border or whether it will feel empowered by this deal to import more weapons and continue to act as an independent army within Lebanon, dictating its foreign and military policy.

That leads to more questions, including whether Lebanon has outsourced all its foreign and military policy to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and whether Hezbollah will use the deal as a pretext to raise tensions in the future.

While Hezbollah may be celebrating the deal merely to save face and make it seem like a victory, it may also believe that it is actually victorious and can now dictate policies to Israel. For instance, Nasrallah claimed that Hezbollah’s threats prevented Israel from extracting gas from the Karish field until the deal was signed. Nasrallah also said Lebanon got almost everything it wanted in the deal.

Is it possible that Hezbollah will create some new pretext for tensions along the maritime border in the future, some kind of maritime version of the Mount Dov (Shaba Farms) dispute along the northern border? The terrorist group could decide that there are still new areas that Lebanon claims, such as close to the shoreline, and then claim that it needs to “resist” along the maritime border.

Hezbollah thrives on this fake need to “resist.” After 2000, when Israel withdrew from Lebanon, many people believed there would be peace in the North. But Hezbollah created new reasons to claim it needed to “resist” and immediately began increasing its threats to Israel. Hezbollah profits from these threats, so it’s entirely plausible that the maritime deal could lead to new threats.

The group could also use the deal as a way to hide behind gas exploration off the coast to threaten Israel. This means that if large companies are brought in by Lebanon to explore for gas, such as firms linked to Qatar or France or other countries, Hezbollah could use them as cover to build up threats to Israel. Then, if Hezbollah provokes the Jewish state through attacks, any Israeli response would be portrayed as violating the maritime deal and harming Lebanon’s sovereignty.

This is how Hezbollah manages Lebanon’s military and foreign policy while not being held to account.

Hezbollah claims to have driven the details behind the maritime agreement while not being a party to it, not being bound by it and not recognizing Israel. This could set Jerusalem up for difficult policy choices in the future. If a different government after the election wants to change any parts of the deal, then Israel will be seen as violating it, which would give Hezbollah a pretext for war against the Jewish state.

This means that although Israel is bound by the deal, Hezbollah, which dictated it, has carved out a “right” to decide if the deal is being followed and a “right” to go to war with Israel, which has no similar right and flexibility on its side.