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As Israel, Lebanon seal maritime deal, Hezbollah does awkward balancing act

A Lebanese patrol boat sails on the Mediterranean Sea before the signing of a deal setting a maritime border between Israel and Lebanon. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)

BEIRUT — An agreement between Lebanon and Israel to demarcate their maritime border has put Lebanon’s most powerful military and political force in a bind: How should Hezbollah frame a historic deal with its sworn enemy?

After 11 years of snail-like negotiations, the two governments sealed a U.S.-mediated deal Thursday in Naqoura, in south Lebanon, near the Israeli border. It was a media opportunity with no media invited, underscoring the sensitivity of the agreement for all parties.

The deal, signed in separate locations to avoid a direct agreement between the warring countries, ends a decades-long dispute over maritime borders. It is arguably a boon to both Israel and Lebanon, allowing each to exploit the lucrative gas fields off their coasts, and has been hailed as a historic breakthrough.

Israel says historic agreement made with Lebanon on maritime borders

In Israel, critics argue the government has made far too many concessions to a country it has fought two wars against in the past 40 years. In Lebanon, Hezbollah — the Iranian-backed militia and political force created in response to the 1982 Israeli invasion — is seeking to deflect any blame for being involved in a deal, no matter how indirectly, with a state it purports to resist.

Acknowledging the success of the agreement exposes the group to criticism from its hard-line supporters — opposition to Israel is, after all, central to its identity, and Hezbollah is locally referred to as “the resistance.” But not claiming the victory risks minimizing the group’s role in a deal that could have major benefits for the energy-starved Lebanese.

Hezbollah insists the deal in no way reflects a change in its position.

“Anything that leads to normalization with Israel is out of the question,” a spokesman for the group said in an interview last week. The two countries remain enemies, he stressed, and Hezbollah will strike back if hit, as it always has.

He acknowledged the tit-for-tat dynamic has created “a kind of equilibrium,” despite constant risk of disruption. He spoke on the condition of anonymity according to the organization’s rules.

“The equations that we built over the last 15 years remain in place, in isolation from the indirect agreement,” he said.

Hezbollah has walked a fine line since the deal was announced on Oct. 11 — cautious not to criticize it, while not fully adopting the diplomatic victory as its own. But as Lebanon’s most dominant military and political force, it cannot pretend that the negotiations happened without its acquiescence.

The spokesman admitted that the dire economic situation in Lebanon made it clear to the group that “the only pathway to get out of the economic collapse is our gas fields.” Experts caution that while the gas revenue will eventually ease the country’s severe economic crisis, it will likely take years.

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The spokesman described Hezbollah’s role as that of a catalyst encouraging the long-stalled deal over the finish line. In June, an Israeli gas rig arrived offshore to work on the northern Karish gas field, and Hezbollah sent three unarmed drones to the area, which were intercepted by the Israeli military.

The drones were a message to Israel to refrain from exploiting the field until an agreement had been reached, according to the group’s leader Hasan Nasrallah.

“This hastened along the negotiations,” the spokesman said, claiming “if it were not for Nasrallah’s gun that was placed on the head of the Israeli government, [the deal] wouldn’t have happened.”

The agreement came at the right time for Israel because tensions have been spiking along other parts of its border recently, said David Schenker, a former U.S. mediator and now director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Schenker noted that the presence and power of various Hezbollah-allied groups have grown in the south of the country. A March report by the international body responsible for monitoring the border described increased interference with its activities and a rising level of aggressive behavior.

“I think Israel took those threats very seriously,” Schenker said, especially with the Iran nuclear talks seemingly on the verge of collapse and the shrinking of Tehran’s “breakout time” — the long-feared point at which Iran will have enough enriched uranium to assemble a nuclear weapon.

“They don’t want to have an issue with Hezbollah right now,” Schenker said, describing the situation as a “short-term de-escalation” between the two powers. “I think this government believed that this would lock Lebanon into some sort of economic, mutually beneficial agreement with Israel,” he said.

Tensions flare between Israel and Hezbollah over disputed gas fields

The Israeli government pushed to have it formally approved and signed before national elections Tuesday. While the agreement is being disparaged by right-wing politicians as a territorial giveaway and a capitulation to Lebanon, Prime Minister Yair Lapid hopes voters will reward him for a diplomatic breakthrough with one of Israel’s adversaries.

“It is not every day that an enemy country recognizes the State of Israel, in a written agreement, in view of the international community,” Lapid said Thursday.

The agreement, though, leads to the odd situation of Hezbollah, which through its allies controls the largest bloc in the Lebanese parliament, becoming de facto economic partners with Israel.

“You feel as though they are cautious about celebrating this, as it’s concerned about its own internal constituency,” said Sami Atallah, founding director of the Policy Initiative, a Beirut-based think tank.

The group has made it a point to attribute the success to its ally, President Michel Aoun, whose time in office is set to expire on Monday, allowing him to end his crisis-laden tenure with a victory.

“They were using Aoun and the state that he’s supposed to be presiding over as an excuse for having accepted this deal, and hence satisfying their own critics in the party,” Atallah added. “They diluted their role.”

In a speech the day the deal was announced, Hezbollah’s leader Nasrallah addressed such criticisms. “There are people who made claims of betrayal, accused, attacked, insulted and swore on social media sites without having read anything [on the deal].” He invited his supporters to read the final draft and judge its contents from the lens of “a patriotic spirit.”

“He’s giving excuses, so it seems to me that there’s some sort of internal [strife],” Atallah said. “He’s not speaking to you nor me: He’s speaking to his constituency.”

Steve Hendrix in Jerusalem contributed to this report.