The Meaning of Hezbollah's "Pragmatism"

Last week was momentous for Lebanon. Our state, with the guiding hand and the blessings of Hezbollah, the resistance movement and political powerhouse, signed a formal maritime border agreement with Israel.

The signature alone signals a turning point for the Party of God, and hence for the country. The group has, in effect, concluded a settlement with its archenemy Israel through the mediation of its other archenemy, the US, over the very issue that it has premised the  vitalness of its weaponry: safeguarding Lebanon’s territorial integrity. In line with this narrative, throughout the negotiations, Hezbollah kept trumpeting that had it not been for  its deterrence capabilities, Israel would have proceeded unopposed in violating our territorial rights and exploiting our gas reserves.

In other words, thanks to the resistance, a bankrupt and glaringly feeble Lebanon managed to protect its wealth and borders.

The actual terms of the deal, at a minimum, pour cold water on this narrative. In fact, the “pragmatism” they betray is so obliging that had they been negotiated by Hezbollah’s opponents, they would have been condemned as capitulation.

Under them, for example, the US, and not the UN, is the ultimate arbiter between Israel and Lebanon, two states technically at war. The US is also the ultimate decider: Lebanon has to share with it all data and it can veto any company that does not formally acknowledge its centrality as “facilitator.” The Lebanese side also cannot proceed with its own explorations in the Qana field, part of whose profits will go to Israel, before the contract is signed between the neighbor and Total, the French energy conglomerate.

The Lebanese team’s concessions over the maritime border, if as generous as reported by some independent expert sources, further undermine the movement’s script. But even if we put the matter of the border aside because it remains subject to competing technical and political interpretations, the terms themselves are hardly a showcase of the strength of its deterrence. What they demonstrate, in fact, is the extent to which the country’s mess, in which the powerful Shiite party is implicated as part of the governing cabal, has weakened its ability to deter militarily.

Which brings us to the reasons for this rather remarkable show of Lebanese pragmatism. The most obvious one is the ruling elite’s desperation for escape hatches from the consequences of wholesale economic and financial collapse. The agreement would finally release them to draw in investments to enrich themselves personally while floating the system itself. When it crows, the resistance is in fact doing so as the protector of this flailing predatory class. However much many of this class’s members like to huff and puff about Hezbollah’s animosity towards them, they in fact owe it the longevity of the hideously corrupt and sectarian bog over which they so happily preside.

But the true significance of the accord actually lies somewhere else. With it, the Party of God has established a striking precedent. It does deals with Israel. Not temporary understandings, not informal protocols through the good offices of the UN or the Swiss embassy, but official compacts hammered out by none other than the US, Israel’s strategic partner. This, for Hezbollah (and Iran) is an openness of historic proportions.

Hezbollah's and Lebanon's flags side-by-side


One very persuasive explanation is that the size of the reward is equal to the compromise: Western and Israeli normalization of the party’s dominance in Lebanon. I include Israel because the US, especially, would not extend this kind of recognition without an Israeli nod.

It sounds radical, but is it? Hezbollah’s critical role, over the past few years, in shoring up a sinking Lebanese regime has been notable. It has amply demonstrated that it is a mainstay of the prevailing order. The West and Israel, each for their own reasons, seem to have been reassured by this performance. And the bargain strongly suggests that they understand it as a reflection of the domestication of Hezbollah and its turn inward.

A bit of a stretch? Perhaps. One can add all manner of nuance and caveats to this scenario: Lebanon and Israel are still in a state war, the Shiite group will still be armed to its teeth, the land border is still in dispute, Lebanon’s disfigurements will become even more debilitating… But the maritime deal is a game-changing precedent all the same. By its measure alone, we can look forward to a time of regional calm. Gas exploration requires peace on both sides of the divide, and the burdens of preserving a broken political system demand it as well. The Lebanese people, who will not receive any tangible benefits from the gas finds and who will still be subjects of a failed state, can at least enjoy the coming quiet.

And if there is pragmatism on such a scale in Lebanon, why not in Syria? The Assad Who Came in From the Cold could be the title of the next chapter in this unfolding story. That’s the thing about precedents of the kind set by Hezbollah. Once the most reticent or the strongest player shows the way, others are free to follow their example.

As always, context is king. Today, it is dynamic and evolving in the region. Russia is very busy elsewhere; Iran has very serious internal pressures to contend with; so does Israel in the West Bank and Jerusalem; the Turks have warmed up to the Israelis again; the Gulf is in a rather confident mood; and recent sudden political openings in Iraq, although very likely short term and of no use to its people, further confirm accommodating attitudes.

In reading the Middle East, the trick, of course, is when to let pass an event as isolated and of limited significance, and when to appreciate it as a harbinger of bigger developments and emerging trends. An official maritime agreement with Israel that was shepherded by Hezbollah safely belongs in the latter category.


On Another Note

Courtesy of the editors of Places, I received Mohamad Nahle’s exquisite piece on his month-long journey on foot in Lebanon’s south. It’s a magnificent weave of history, politics, family, geography, and the many meanings of night. Here’s a peek:

My own family was internally displaced to Beirut following the seizure of our village, Taybeh, by the IDF, which established the South Lebanon Security Belt along the country’s southern border in 1984. 6 I am of the first generation born outside the south — a generation that has rarely returned, even after the liberation of our lands. I felt a duty to go to Jabal ‘Amil, if only for a few weeks, to observe how its people forge nocturnal imaginaries. Yet as I navigated the night, I was neither a native nor a stranger. I felt torn between life in the countryside, where night is rich with ritual and social interaction, and urban protocols of safety and security I’d become accustomed to in Beirut.

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