Lebanon needs American help on two key fronts
The US is currently activating its foreign policy in Lebanon in two areas. First, there is an American demand that it must hold its parliamentary elections in May. Second, Washington is urging the country to sign a maritime border agreement with Israel.
While these two requests are critical to the existence of Lebanon as a sovereign state, the Biden administration has to help it fulfill them and make sure they serve the Lebanese national interest.
American officials have expressed strong views on these two policy issues. “The international community is unanimous that the elections must be held on time in a fair and transparent manner,” US Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea told Reuters on Monday. “There’s no wiggle room.”
Amos Hochstein, senior US adviser on energy security, told the Lebanese leadership that it is approaching “the last chance” to conclude a maritime border agreement with Israel. The reward, he said, would be help for the two nations in exploring more energy resources.
These important developments miss the critical fact that Lebanon needs help to pursue these two goals. There are political forces in the country that want to postpone the elections and oppose a maritime border agreement with Israel. Chief among them is Hezbollah, whose ruinous policies have destroyed Lebanon in the past. The country’s unified political will must not allow Hezbollah to destroy Lebanon again.
In 2000, the UN demarcated the Blue Line, a temporary border between Lebanon and Israel. The two countries can now draw a new and permanent maritime border without recognizing each other diplomatically.
There are political forces in the country that want to postpone the elections and oppose a maritime border agreement with Israel.
According to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, nations are given a maximum of 12 nautical miles from their shorelines as territorial waters. And up to 200 nautical miles can be used as a nation’s exclusive economic zone for fishing and mineral rights. The US has to help Lebanon extend its rights in the Mediterranean proportional to its state’s power and authority and in accordance with its economic needs. The area in dispute between Lebanon and Israel is about 840 sq km. The US must determine how that area should be divided. Any oil exploration in the maritime areas between Israel and Lebanon has to assess early on any potential revenue for both.
Hezbollah wants to exploit any oil and energy resources in Lebanon for its own advantages, and to cater them to Iran’s oil policy. The US must not let Hezbollah make war against Israel on the pretext of protecting Lebanon’s maritime sovereignty.
Hezbollah also wants to postpone the elections in Lebanon for fear of losing power. This could happen if the result favors new individuals and political forces that challenge the group’s hegemony over Lebanon.
In particular, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri’s Amal Movement and President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, both allies of Hezbollah, know they will lose big when the elections are held.
These three parties embody the utmost degree of political decay in Lebanon. They could use violence to stop the elections from taking place on time. Hezbollah could launch attacks against Israel as a delaying tactic. The three parties could try to sabotage the elections by intimidating voters not to go to the ballot box. Most likely, they will cast doubt over the legitimacy of the vote.
All these dangerous policies should have equivalent responses from the Lebanese government. The Biden administration must support Lebanon in holding these elections. Any effort by Hezbollah and its allies to play spoiler must be detected early and thwarted. France also has a role to play.
The best outcome of the parliamentary elections depends on the Lebanese people themselves. They have to fear nothing and organize themselves to restore their lost political, economic and social freedoms when they select their representatives.
• Maria Maalouf is a Lebanese journalist, broadcaster, publisher and writer. She has a master’s degree in political sociology from the University of Lyon.