Lebanon’s wariness over Netanyahu’s re-election

Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah said Netanyahu’s victory would likely put Lebanon “before a major juncture” related to its borders.
Sunday 14/04/2019
A Lebanese soldier uses a pair of binoculars in the Shebaa area of southern Lebanon as he looks towards a position near the border with Israel. (Reuters)
Bone of contention. A Lebanese soldier uses a pair of binoculars in the Shebaa area of southern Lebanon as he looks towards a position near the border with Israel. (Reuters)

BEIRUT - Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s election win is poised to inflame tensions in an increasingly volatile Middle East and statements by Lebanese officials indicate wariness about the trajectory of regional politics.

Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah said Netanyahu’s victory would likely herald even closer ties between Israel and the United States and put Lebanon “before a major juncture” related to its borders.

“Netanyahu will likely form a new right-wing Zionist government and we are before a new stage of unprecedented cooperation between America and Israel represented in Netanyahu and [US President Donald] Trump,” Nasrallah was quoted as saying by Lebanese news site Naharnet.

Trump’s decision to recognise Israel’s sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights, seized from Syria in 1967 and annexed in 1981, caused concern in Lebanon that it would mean also recognising the occupied Shebaa farms and nearby Kfar Chouba Hills.

The territorial dispute over who controls the Shebaa farms dates to the French colonial period, when France drew maps of the area without officially demarcating the border.

Following an 18-year occupation, Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000 but retained control of the Shebaa farms. Hezbollah claimed the withdrawal to be incomplete and, with support of the Lebanese government, demanded that Israel continue the withdrawal.

Israel rejected the demands, saying the land was Syrian when it was captured in 1967. Syria, however, has held an ambiguous position and generally refuses to demarcate the border before Israel withdraws from the Golan.

The United Nations, which doesn’t recognise Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan, has said Lebanon’s claim is to be settled along with the Golan’s fate.

However, there remains contention over the territory, even among the Lebanese themselves.

Although most Lebanese agree the Shebaa Farms and Kfar Chouba Hills are part of their country, anti-Syrian politicians suggested the territory has served as an excuse for Hezbollah to keep its weapons.

The anti-Syria camp also called for the demarcation of the Lebanon-Syria border, a demand backed by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri April 10, despite referring to the territory as Lebanese.

The latest Lebanese politician to join the heated debate was President Michel Aoun.

“Lebanon strongly refuses any attempt by the United States to recognise Israel’s sovereignty over Shebaa Farms or Kfar Chouba Hills, which are part of the Lebanese territories,” Aoun was quoted by the presidency website as saying April 12.

“Lebanon has the right to restore its occupied territories using all possible means,” Aoun added.

Other statements by the Lebanese president over possible cooperation with Israel in the eastern Mediterranean indicated that the aftermath of Netanyahu’s electoral victory would undoubtedly be marred by tension and deterioration of their already strained relationship.

Speaking at a news conference with Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos, after talks at Baabda Palace, Aoun affirmed Lebanon’s right to extract oil and gas within its exclusive economic zone. However, he stressed Lebanon’s refusal to join any forum or cooperation mechanism in which Israel participates, especially the East Mediterranean Gas Forum.

Seven Mediterranean countries, including Cyprus, Egypt and Israel, agreed to form the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum to establish a regional gas market that serves the interests of its members.

Although gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean has raised hopes about an economic transition that could consolidate partnerships in the region, there have been concerns about potential tension over disputed territorial waters, such as the case between Lebanon and Israel.

Beirut has supported a summit between Lebanon, Greece and Cyprus, which would be hosted by Cyprus, to consolidate various aspects of cooperation.

Though bold in appearance, the statements of Aoun, a Hezbollah ally who became head of state in 2016 with the support of the Shia movement, were in step with his previous stances and in line with Hezbollah’s positions.

Since he took office, Aoun has staunchly defended the Shia group, its political agenda for Lebanon, as well as its approach to regional and international affairs.

In March, Aoun, who in 2017 defended Hezbollah’s possession of weapons, spoke in defence of the Shia group, telling visiting British Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt that Hezbollah’s allegiances in the region had not affected internal Lebanese politics.

Aoun’s office quoted him as saying that Hezbollah was part of the Lebanese people, represented in both the cabinet and parliament.