Naqoura talks a step towards normalcy, not normalisation

The Lebanese have to figure out first how to extricate themselves from their dire economic crisis and from regional entanglements that have brought their country into US crosshairs.
Thursday 15/10/2020
Signs bearing names of cities are pictured in Naqoura, near the Lebanese-Israeli border, southern Lebanon October 13. (REUTERS)
Signs bearing names of cities are pictured in Naqoura, near the Lebanese-Israeli border, southern Lebanon October 13. (REUTERS)

In the past weeks, there have been two major changes in the dynamics of the Middle East, as the UAE and Bahrain established full diplomatic relations with Israel.

More changes are likely to follow as other Arab countries ponder potential new alliances that could serve their interests and those of the region.

In a different albeit related part of the Middle East, potentially groundbreaking talks took place October 14 near the small southern Lebanese village of Naqoura, from where one can see the beautiful landscapes of both Lebanon and northern Israel. These talks took place away from the glare of the White House lawn and teams of reporters, and involved instead a small contingent of Lebanese and Israeli officials who met under the auspices of the UN and were helped by the mediation of senior US State Department officials, including US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker, who is continuing the efforts of his predecessor, Ambassador David Satterfield.

The expectations for these talks, which were described as “productive” by the UN and the US, have been intentionally kept low. The premise of the talks was to further discuss demarcation lines in a region of the Mediterranean that borders both Israel and Lebanon and has shown early promise of natural gas and oil riches. Determining the maritime borders would allow both countries to pursue efforts to develop undersea energy resources. For Lebanon, a country on the edge of a financial precipice, the issue is of existential proportions.

Surely, there are wins to be had for both sides based on the progress of these talks. But the fact that they are taking place at all is a tribute to the the participants’ agreement to give negotiations a chance and to US willingness to moderate the dispute, as earlier attempts that would have had the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) serve as the mediator were not agreeable to Israel.

Both sides were represented by a small contingent of military and civilian representatives. These talks could not have taken place without the acquiescence of Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri’s Shia Amal party and its radical ally Hezbollah,  both of which control much of what takes place in Lebanese politics. Despite their attempts to downplay the political significance of the talks, Berri and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah knew in advance there was a wider context for the talks than technical demarcation details. They were willing to grin and bear it, but not to the extent of acknowledging normalisation intent.

An activist stands on the road leading to Rosh Hanikra border crossing with Lebanon, northern Israel October 14. (REUTERS)
An activist stands on the road leading to Rosh Hanikra border crossing with Lebanon, northern Israel October 14. (REUTERS)

Why now?  Lebanon is on the verge of political and financial collapse. Governed for years by a parliament whose MPs were either among the former “warlords of Lebanon” or, in many cases, their self-appointed heirs, the level of corruption has decimated the country financially. It has ruined what used to be a relatively prosperous nation with a large middle class of Western-looking and well-educated population that enjoyed life. The small country used to count on a diaspora of some 14 million to send remittances to their families back home. The financial bankruptcy of the country in the last few years, primarily attributed to years of unchecked corruption due to the sectarian system and its selfish patrons, has destroyed Lebanon’s economy. It has also sparked a huge protest movement as the dire crisis brought Lebanese from every economic class and sectarian stripe together to demonstrate and aggressively call for deep change.

Even Israelis are saying today that normalisation is not in the cards. They know they can surely benefit from the oil and gas opportunities off the country’s shores, but they realise they could ultimately see mutual benefits from any form of normalcy with their northern neighbour.  Sometime in the future, the self-described “Start Up Nation” could sell to the Lebanese the assets that both the UAE and Bahrain have sought through normalisation.

Even Egypt and Jordan have found many economic and security advantages in engaging with Israel, though they have remained reluctant to publicly acknowledge such dividends. Despite peace treaties with Tel Aviv, Cairo and Amman still have to deal with the psychological legacies of war that dampen their populations’ enthusiasm for a warmer peace with Israel.

Lebanon is another story. The August 4 blast at the Beirut seaport, which has claimed hundreds of lives and displaced thousands, coupled with the country’s long burden of shouldering some 1.5 million Syrian refugees, has forced the country to seek new avenues to rebuild.

As French President Emmanuel Macron made clear when he visited Lebanon immediately after the Beirut port explosion, France is willing to help, but not until sufficient controls are put in place to ensure that aid does not fall into the very hands that have brought Lebanon to its knees. This caveat has been echoed by other countries and international aid organisations that are willing to help Lebanon.

The Naqoura talks have not set in motion a normalisation process, but rather a process that could boost chances of reaching some level of normalcy with Lebanon.

The mediated negotiations make the argument that a different reality is possible, and while no one is placing any lofty hopes on the results of these talks, my own multiple visits to Lebanon in 2018 and 2019, including meetings with scores of Lebanese from every sectarian stripe, both in Beirut and in many parts of the country, lead me to believe there are possibilities of another world in the future.

Conversations would frequently turn to the above noted possibilities — how the region could change if only Lebanon and Israel could be cooperative neighbours rather than neighbours that are technically in “a state of war.” Nearly every conversation morphed into a different tone once the people I met with were sure they were no longer within earshot of a possible listener. Many of these same people frequently told me how much they respected what Israel has achieved and how they hoped one day they could share their commonalities of Western vision and entrepreneurship.

But there are also decades of memories that still linger in the minds of many Lebanese: Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, periodic fighting between Israeli and Hezbollah troops from the late 1980s until 2006, a renewed war again in 2006, with Israel trying to wipe out Hezbollah and occasional bombings by both Israel and Hezbollah troops that have taken place after. All of this has left many Lebanese mindful of the mass death and destruction these wars have brought to their soil and caused them to view Hezbollah as the “resistance fighters,” as they are the only Lebanese fighters to have repelled Israel’s military.

These years of conflict and their psychological impact have underlied the Naqoura talks. In a more peaceful Middle East planet, one would have imagined Israeli technical teams driving three hours from Israel into Beirut and using their extensive experience in saving lives.

Israel is not there yet, neither is Lebanon.

The Lebanese have to figure out first how to extricate themselves from their dire economic crisis and from regional entanglements that have brought their country into US crosshairs.

That starts with putting their country on the track of full independence from Iran’s damaging influence and free their politics from the smothering control of Hezbollah, a militant and foreign-agenda driven local proxy that thrives off of the demonisation of Israel and the inflated rhetoric of “resistance.”

Quiet diplomacy, away from the glare of microphones and five-star hotels, is the beginning of what could be benefits for the Lebanese, who deserve to live in peace, provide for their families and live the life that has given them a reputation for knowing how to enjoy it.

Having come so close to the brink of economic disaster, Lebanon will be tempted in the future to second guess Hezbollah when it advocates for war.