A new opening in the Middle East?
An unprecedented deal between Israel and Lebanon could chart a new course for the two countries
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Lebanon is counted among the countries that have never recognized Israel, starting with Israel’s establishment in 1948. Though sharing a border with Israel, Lebanon has adamantly refused to establish diplomatic relations with Israel and the two countries remain technically at war. Lebanese citizens are forbidden from having any exchange of any sort with Israelis—not even a word of greeting—or risk jail time. Israelis are banned from entering Lebanon, and even those international travelers who obtain an Israeli entry-visa stamp on their passports, will not be granted admission to Lebanon.
While you can actually stand near the border and see some homes on the other side, no border crossing is allowed. This severely affects many families. I know of some Arab Israelis who have close family ties to Lebanese relatives and yet cannot visit them. The political enmity between these countries is deep and serious.
But on Oct. 11, Israel and Lebanon reached a historic agreement on maritime border and gas fields, particularly the Mediterranean Karish oil and gas field. The deal is a huge economic win for both countries, with billions of dollars at stake in the production of oil and gas. This is especially important for Lebanon as it has experienced a crippled economy for years.
Militarily, Israel’s military leadership unequivocally supported the deal. Politically, it is a positive accomplishment for Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, especially as the elections are around the corner. Strategically, this deal is expected to launch a tremendous opportunity for rich gas exploration and exportation. This is good news for Europe, especially after Russia has indefinitely cut off its gas supplies to the continent.
This deal is a step forward in the decades-old impasse in Israeli-Lebanese relations, but should be viewed as a natural development due to the change in the balance of power in the Middle East over the past decade. To understand the significance of this deal and its timing, we need to highlight the complex nature of Lebanon as a country.
Lebanon is uniquely a divided country, due to a religious sectarianism that shapes its political affairs. With over 15 religious sects, Lebanon is roughly divided between three major groups, Christian, Sunni, and Shiite, with each comprising about 30 percent of the population. Add to the mix the minority Druze people, who sometimes align with the Shiites.
Each of these groups has a clear presence in the government by an unwritten agreement from the 1940s, officially establishing Lebanon as a multi-sectarian state. According to this agreement, the president must be a Maronite Catholic, the prime minister must be Sunni, and the speaker of the parliament must be Shiite.
Due to this official sectarianism, Lebanon has been the focal point of various international players with political and economic interests. While Lebanese Christians have often leaned toward the West, particularly Europe (and especially France), the Sunnis rely on their strong ties to the Sunni Saudi Arabia. The Lebanonese Shiites have been controlled by the radical group Hezbollah, with a direct influence from Iran and its Syrian ally, which is controlled by a Shiite regime.
However, in recent years, the political and economic scene changed significantly, which made a deal with Israel possible. More recently, civil war in Syria has provided a new opening for Lebanon.
At the same time, several Arab countries—through the apparent blessing of Saudi Arabia—have joined in making outstanding economic deals with Israel, entering a much-needed peaceful state of normalized relations through the Abraham Accords.
Lebanon appears to have realized it is time to begin making baby steps toward its own flourishing. The agreement with Israel suggests that Lebanon sees an opportunity to chart a new course.
While in the past, the mere mentioning of “Israel” would place a Lebanese citizen in jail, now there is an economic deal that essentially recognizes Israel as a true player in the Middle East. Lebanon cannot live in denial any longer. We are still a long way from normalized relations, but we can hope that this agreement brings some much-needed peace to the region and help to a crippled Lebanese economy.
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