“an agreement between Lebanon and Israel would suit all parties, even Hezbollah”

"an agreement between Lebanon and Israel would suit all parties, even Hezbollah"

Tasked by President Joe Biden with mediating between the Lebanese and Israelis to settle their maritime border dispute and remove obstacles to hydrocarbon exploration, the American envoy Amos Hochstein went to Beirut on Friday, where he explained that there was “still work to do”. His visit dampened the optimistic echoes of the rapid conclusion of an agreement.

The dispute between Lebanon and Israel over the course of their maritime border, and therefore the sharing of gas resources in this area of ​​the eastern Mediterranean, remains deadlocked. Assigned to mediate by Joe Biden, the American negotiator, Amos Hochstein made a quick trip to Beirut on Friday, September 9, where he was supposed to transmit the Israeli response to the latest Lebanese proposals, expressed in August. If he reported “very good progress” in the indirect negotiations between the two neighboring countries, still technically at war, despite an armistice concluded in 1949, he specified that there was “still work to do”.

An exit that leaves little hope of a rapid conclusion of an agreement, while the echoes reported in recent weeks by the media of the two countries suggested the opposite.

“Lebanon could be on the eve of signing an agreement on the delimitation of its maritime border with Israel. In any case, this is the impression given by the political and official circles involved in this file”, had recently indicated the French-speaking Lebanese daily L’Orient-le-Jour. “We are even talking about the possibility of an agreement during the month of September … except for unforeseen circumstances”, was it still written in its columns.

The disputed area between Lebanon and Israel.
The disputed area between Lebanon and Israel. © France 24

On the Israeli side, the Walla news site had relayed, on August 31, the words of a White House official, affirming that Washington, which mediates between the two countries, “continues to reduce the gaps between the parties” to the point of thinking “that a compromise can be reached”.

Early August, Israeli daily Haaretz reported that a source involved in the indirect negotiations said that Israel “considers September as a target date for concluding a final agreement”.

A diplomatic priority?

An atmosphere of relative optimism therefore reigned before Amos Hochstein’s visit, in an international context marked by tensions on the energy markets and the surge in gas prices since the invasion of Ukraine. by Russia, the main supplier of European countries,

“The international energy crisis being what it is now, everyone has an interest in finding a solution, even Hezbollah, believes Ziad Majed, professor of political science at the American University of Paris. Lebanon, which is entangled until neck in a socio-economic crisis, has a vital need to start exploring its potential hydrocarbon reserves. On the Israeli side too, the government would welcome the conclusion of an agreement that would allow it to secure and to increase its gas production capacities, and to appear as a credible supplier”.

In addition to the two main players in border disputes, Westerners are also in a hurry to settle this file. “Washington is also working in favor of a rapid conclusion so that new alternative avenues to Russian gas can emerge and thus maintain pressure on Moscow,” continues this Middle East specialist.

The US administration claims to have made the resolution of the Lebanese-Israeli border dispute one of its diplomatic priorities. Joe Biden raised this issue directly on August 31 with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid during a telephone interview. The White House said the US president had “stressed the importance of concluding negotiations on the maritime border between Israel and Lebanon in the coming weeks”.

Hezbollah comes out of its reserve

However, on the ground, the situation remains volatile on both sides of the border, where the Israeli army and Hezbollah, the Shiite politico-military movement, which proclaims itself to be the defender of Lebanese hydrocarbon reserves, face.

The pro-Iranian party led by Hassan Nasrallah left the reserve it had imposed on itself, in order to let the negotiators of the Lebanese State move forward on the file, since the arrival, at the beginning of June, of a floating unit production, storage and offloading (FPSO) in the disputed sea area.

Considered one of the most promising, Block 9 of the Lebanese Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) is located in the area disputed by Israel and Lebanon.
Considered one of the most promising, Block 9 of the Lebanese Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) is located in the area disputed by Israel and Lebanon. © France 24

Belonging to the Energean group, this unit is commissioned by the Israeli government to exploit the Karish offshore gas field. If the Hebrew State considers that this field is located in its exclusive economic zone and therefore not concerned by the border dispute, the country of the Cedars considers for its part that Karish is in disputed waters.

Contenting itself until then with occasional verbal threats and warnings against any attempt at normalization with the Jewish state in exchange for a possible agreement on the maritime border, Hezbollah took action by sending, at the beginning of July, “Three unarmed drones heading to disputed Karish field for reconnaissance missions”.

The devices had been intercepted by the Israeli army before approaching the gas field.

The risk of a military escalation

“We tell the enemy not to be mistaken, and to [Amos] Hochstein as well as the Americans not to deceive the Lebanese”, hammered, on July 13, Hassan Nasrallah, to explain his pressure move which aimed to prevent unilateral prospecting in the disputed blocks. “The resistance [ est la seule force dont dispose le Liban pour obtenir son droit au pétrole et au gaz”, a-t-il assuré.

Interrogé le 22 août à la radio israélienne 103 FM sur la possibilité qu’une attaque du parti chiite contre un “champ gazier israélien” puisse mener à une “escalade” militaire, voire une “guerre”, le ministre israélien de la Défense Benny Gantz a répondu par l’affirmative. 

Ces derniers jours, selon plusieurs médias libanais, dont L’Orient-Le Jour, le Hezbollah a rappelé une partie de ses combattants présents en Syrie pour les déployer dans la Bekaa et le sud du Liban. De son côté, l’armée israélienne a achevé, le 6 septembre, 3 jours d’exercices militaires à sa frontière avec le pays du Cèdre. En juin, elle avait organisé un exercice de grande ampleur à Chypre, simulant une offensive terrestre en territoire libanais.

“L’escalade militaire est un risque que nul ne peut écarter, et d’ailleurs chaque camp fait savoir qu’il se prépare à un tel scénario, décrypte Ziad Majed. Mais aucune partie n’a intérêt à basculer dans la confrontation armée”.

Et d’ajouter : “un accord arrangerait toutes les parties, y compris le Hezbollah qui sait que le Liban ne peut plus se permettre le moindre retard sur le dossier du gaz. Le parti chiite s’est retrouvé un peu coincé entre sa volonté de se montrer concerné par l’effondrement économique du pays et les difficultés quotidiennes des Libanais, tout en restant fidèle à sa priorité stratégique qui est directement liée à l’agenda de Téhéran dans la région”.

Un rendez-vous de la dernière chance ?

Selon Ziad Majed, le parti de Hassan Nasrallah cherche toutefois à se montrer intransigeant sur le dossier des frontières, car il est persuadé que ses menaces et ses drones sont un moyen d’éviter que le compromis soit celui voulu par les Américains et les Israéliens.

“Si jamais un accord est conclu, et que le pays du Cèdre arrache quelques acquis, et c’est là le pari du Hezbollah, le parti pourra claironner que c’est grâce à sa force militaire que les Libanais ont pu imposer leurs conditions, et ainsi légitimer son arsenal qui fait toujours débat au Liban”, explique-t-il.

Même Téhéran, poursuit Ziad Majed”, pourra se féliciter d’un accord bénéfique aux Libanais, obtenu par son allié chiite, et ainsi rappeler par la même occasion qu’il reste incontournable dans des dossiers clés du Moyen-Orient, en pleine négociations pour relancer l’accord sur le nucléaire iranien”.

Selon lui, la situation peut même déraper si jamais les Israéliens décident, pour des considérations électoralistes d’ajourner la conclusion d’un accord, ou dans le cas d’un échec de dernière minute dans les négociations sur le nucléaire iranien. “L’opportunité de conclure un accord satisfaisant pour toutes les parties peut ne pas se représenter, dans le cas par exemple d’une nouvelle donne politique en Israël après les législatives du 1er novembre, ou des midterms [les élections de mi-mandat au Congrès américain]“, insists Ziad Majed.

“Such events can push Hezbollah to increase the pressure through shows of force at the border. The region will then enter into another dynamic, from which no one will emerge as a winner.”

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