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Lebanon’s economic woes may get the better of Hezbollah

For years, Beirut shied away from any talks with Israel so as not to lend it even a semblance of recognition. Then came the economic crisis.

The Tel Aviv municipality in Rabin Square is lit up with the Lebanese flag, in solidarity with the victims of the Beirut port explosion, on Aug. 5, 2020. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.
The Tel Aviv municipality in Rabin Square is lit up with the Lebanese flag, in solidarity with the victims of the Beirut port explosion, on Aug. 5, 2020. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.
Eyal Zisser
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.

Direct talks between Israel and Lebanon are slated to begin next week over the maritime border between the two countries. Finagling an agreement will allow Lebanon to explore offshore gas fields and potentially produce and sell gas, as Israel has long done.

Negotiations on the demarcation of the border could have taken place a decade ago when large gas fields were discovered in the waters of the Mediterranean. But Lebanon dragged its feet and refused any contact with Israel, as part of the notion that the very existence of negotiations between the two countries constitutes some sort of legitimization of Israel’s existence.

The Lebanese government was paralyzed by the fear of being accused of nothing short of treason should it advance such an agreement with the Jewish state. This, of course, only hurt Lebanon as Israel forged ahead with offshore explorations in the fields clearly not close to a potential Lebanese border.

But since then, Lebanon has reached the brink of complete economic collapse, in the wake of the harsh sanctions imposed by the United States on Hezbollah and its Iranian patron, the COVID-19 crisis and most recently, the catastrophic explosion in the Port of Beirut on Aug. 4.

The massive blast left hundreds dead and caused damages estimated at $15 billion. In many ways, it was the final nail in the Lebanese economy’s coffin.

With their back against the wall, Lebanon’s government, where Hezbollah wields considerable power, gave in and agreed to hold negotiations with Israel, thus reluctantly admitting that the road to economic prosperity runs through talks with Israel.

The pressure is also clearly getting to Hezbollah. Israel’s exposure of its missile depots in the heart of Beirut’s residential areas dealt the Shi’ite terrorist group’s image another blow and made it clear to everyone that it is leading Lebanon down the path of destruction.

If you believe Arab media reports, Syria may not be far behind. Despite the vigorous denials from Damascus, it is clear that given the chance, Syrian President Bashar Assad is more than willing to join the regional peace process if it gets his country out of the dire economic crisis it faces.

As it turns out, economics is stronger than any defeat on the battlefield. The peace deals between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain are not only political or defense agreements but are also based on economic interests.

Lebanon isn’t quite there yet, but if a deal is reached and it too begins harvesting natural gas, that will further curtail Hezbollah’s leeway. The Lebanese people will not forgive Hezbollah if it drags the country into war and endangers the gas field, which many hope could be a pipeline to economic relief.

Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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