By Arab News
By Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib*
Hezbollah staged a show of confidence this month, threatening to respond if anyone intercepted an Iranian ship carrying fuel destined for Lebanon. Defying US sanctions on Iran, the tanker arrived in Syria, where the fuel was unloaded and transported by truck to Lebanon. The question is, can a Biden administration that advocates diplomacy use soft power to rein in Hezbollah? The answer is yes.
Washington can use diplomacy to strip from Hezbollah any legitimate claim to possess arms. It can do so by using its leverage with Israel and putting pressure on a newly formed Lebanese government that is so much in need of support.
Delineating the full border between Lebanon and Israel would reduce the potential for conflict between the two countries and make Hezbollah’s “narrative of resistance” void of meaning. This would put internal pressure on the group to disarm and, at the same time, allow it to offer concessions without losing face in case of a regional deal with Iran.
The issue of maritime borders had been stalled for some time. Under the influence of Hezbollah, Lebanon was reluctant to enter into talks with Israel to demarcate the boundaries. This changed as pressure was exerted on the parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri, an ally of Hezbollah. His main man, the former Finance Minister Ali Hassan Al Khalil, was sanctioned by the US.
Feeling the heat, Berri changed position and Lebanon entered into negotiations — a necessary step for the country to extract offshore gas as no company will agree to operate in a contested area.
Now the negotiations are stalled again because of disagreement over where the line should fall that separates the Israeli and Lebanese areas of the potential gas fields in the Mediterranean. While the Lebanese side insists on what is known as Line 23 and is proposing Line 29 as a maximalist starting point for negotiations, the Israeli side wants to use Line 23 as the basis for discussions.
Negotiations from the Lebanese side are handled by the Lebanese army. In this respect, the US should use its leverage to persuade Israel to accept Line 23. The line does not have to be straight, and Israel, by accepting Line 23, would keep the potentially lucrative Karish field. It is important to hand the Lebanese army a victory, which would be a de facto blow to Hezbollah. A victory for the Lebanese armed forces would show that Lebanon, through negotiations, was able to obtain its lawful rights from Israel.
As for the land border, there are 13 points at issue. So far only eight have been agreed on between Israel and the Lebanese. The US should again use its leverage to persuade Israel to reach agreement on the remaining five. After an agreement is reached on those points, the point of contention remains the Shebaa Farms. The Israelis argue that Shebaa is Syrian, and therefore part of the Golan Heights, which Israel claims.
The previous Siniora government in Lebanon asked the Assad regime whether it considered Shebaa to be Syrian. Of course, Assad never gave a formal reply, again because he wanted to retain a point of contention and thus preserve the narrative of resistance against Israel.
Here, the US can use its leverage with the new Najib Mikati-led government of Lebanon — and now is the right time to use such influence, as the government badly needs funds from the international community to keep the country afloat and prevent it from total collapse.
The US can pressure the Mikati government to send a request through the UN to the Syrian government, asking it to define its position on the Shebaa Farms. Syria would be compelled to give a formal answer. If Syria said the area was Syrian, then it would remain outside Lebanon’s borders. However, if Syria said it wasLebanese, then the Israelis should retreat.
As for the security aspect, the Israelis are worried that Hezbollah can use the area to spy on them. The US could give Israel guarantees that the hill town would not be used by Israel’s enemies for espionage purposes. Here, the UNIFIL forces could be deployed with a different mandate from the rest of their mission. UNIFIL cannot inspect, or even fly drones over, private property. However, to give Israel guarantees that Hezbollah would not use the strategic location to threaten them, UNIFIL forces deployed in Shebaa should be given the right to inspect private property, thus ensuring that Hezbollah could not spy on Israel.
If the US were to succeed in diplomatic efforts to define a final border between Israel and Lebanon, it would be able to undermine Hezbollah’s narrative, even its raison d’etre as an armed resistance against Israel.
However, delineating the border does not mean the group would cave in immediately, give up its weapons and turn into a political party. Disarming the group without driving the country into a violent confrontation is a long-term aim, but the delineation of borders between Israel and Lebanon would be an important step toward this goal.
- Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese NGO focused on Track II. She is also an affiliate scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.