NEAR EAST REPORT AIPAC'S BIWEEKLY ON AMERICAN MIDDLE EAST POLICY
A Snapshot of Recent Developments in Lebanon
Israel recently marked the five-year anniversary of its war in Lebanon against the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hizballah. The situation in Lebanon is today very different from what it was five years ago, and recent developments have been particularly significant. Hizballah has effectively taken control of the Lebanese government, arrest warrants for members of Hizballah have been issued by an international tribunal for assassinating a former prime minister, and Beirut has raised Middle East tensions by contesting its maritime borders with Israel.
Hizballah Leads Lebanese Cabinet
On June 13, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati announced the formation of a long-delayed new government, dominated by allies of Hizballah. The Hizballah-led coalition, known as March 8, received 18 out of 30 cabinet seats in the new government, up from its previous 11. The coalition took control of key government ministries including justice, defense and labor, in addition to retaining the energy and telecommunications portfolios.
The announcement of the new government came five months after the previous government, led by pro-Western and Saudi-backed Saad Hariri, was toppled over the U.N.-backed probe into the assassination of his father, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. After Saad Hariri refused to end cooperation with the probe, Hizballah and its allies left the cabinet. Today, Hariri’s movement, March 14, has no representation in the new government, which he has described as “Hizballah’s government.”
While touting himself as a political independent who represents all Lebanese, current Prime Minister Mikati—a wealthy Sunni businessman with a long history in Lebanese politics—was handpicked by Hizballah. In a speech introducing his new government Mikati used rhetoric appealing to Hizballah and its supporters, promising to pursue the liberation of “land that remains under the occupation of the Israeli enemy.” The ministerial statement summarizing the government’s political program similarly refers to Lebanon’s right as a “resistance” to eliminate the “Israeli occupation” of the Shebaa Farms, despite U.N. confirmation that Israel completely withdrew from all Lebanese territory in 2000.
Hizballah Indicted for Murder of Former Prime Minister
Issues other than territorial disputes with Israel are on the Mikati government’s agenda for the coming months. Indeed, the first test for the government has involved the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), a U.N.-backed body set up to investigate the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri in a massive car bombing. On June 30, the tribunal submitted to the Lebanese authorities arrest warrants for four senior members of Hizballah. Among those named are Mustafa Badr al-Din, brother-in-law of top Hizballah operative Imad Mughniyah, who was killed by a car bomb in 2008.
As expected, Hizballah chief Hassan Nasrallah rejected the international group’s warrants, claiming that the STL is part of an Israeli plot and stating that no power would be able to arrest the “honorable brothers.” To support his claim of Israeli involvement, Nasrallah displayed a document allegedly proving the transfer of 97 computers from the tribunal in Beirut to Israel. It turns out, however, that the document Nasrallah referenced is signed by the U.N. organization responsible for peacekeeping in the Middle East, the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO), and has no link to the STL.
The Lebanese authorities have a 30-day window to arrest the four men. Saad Hariri has urged the new government to turn over those indicted, and Mikati has stated that his government would “continue to cooperate” with the tribunal. However, given the dominant position of Hizballah within the government, Lebanon is unlikely to do so, and can use the supposed threat to the country’s “stability, unity and civil peace”—referred to in the government’s ministerial statement—as a pretext for ignoring the arrest warrants.
Lebanon’s New Border Claims Spark Maritime Tensions with Israel
Alongside the discord within Lebanon, tensions have also risen between the new Lebanese government and its southern neighbor, Israel. Beirut has rejected an agreement reached between Israel’s government and Cyprus that sets Israel’s maritime borders, claiming that the lines encroach on its maritime territory. In response to the Lebanese claims, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pointed out that the proposal the previous Lebanese government submitted to the United Nations in 2010 is at odds with the line Lebanon itself agreed upon with Cyprus in 2007.
The issue of maritime borders has taken on great economic importance due to Israel’s recent natural gas discoveries in the Mediterranean Sea. In the past two years, a U.S.-Israeli consortium has identified off the coast of Haifa two massive offshore gas fields, dubbed Tamar and Leviathan. These two fields contain an estimated 250 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas. Utilizing these resources would enable Israel to become self-sufficient in terms of its gas needs for decades to come, and to become an energy exporter.
Although Tamar and Leviathan lie well south of the line that Lebanon is disputing, the prospect of additional fossil fuel deposits have made this part of the Mediterranean highly attractive. Indeed, the change in Beirut’s sea boundary proposals between 2007 and 2010, even according to sources in Lebanon, is due to Israel’s gas discoveries. Furthermore, the Lebanese cabinet recently signed an energy exploration deal with Iran, in a move that may violate U.N. Security Council sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
At the moment, the dispute between Israel and Lebanon remains at the level of statements, and both countries will apparently present their cases to the United Nations in an effort to resolve the situation. Meanwhile, the border between the countries has been very quiet in the five years since the U.N. Security Council imposed a ceasefire ending the 2006 Lebanon war. “There is a recognition that the end of hostilities is holding very well,” the U.N. special envoy for Lebanon recently stated. In the extremely volatile Middle East, however, the potential for renewed military conflict is a constant concern, particularly since Hizballah has amassed a huge arsenal of more than 50,000 rockets since 2006. BACK TO TOP