Hezbollah may still oppose Israel-Lebanon gas deal


The Biden administration boasts of helping Israel and Lebanon settle a maritime border dispute that will allow the two countries, historically hostile to each other, to exploit natural gas reserves in the Mediterranean Sea. Both sides approved the final version of the US-brokered deal last week, after President Joe Biden spoke by phone with Lebanese President Michel Aoun and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

It would be rude to deny Biden’s role in achieving the rarest thing: an American victory in foreign policy in the Middle East. However, there is also the curious incident of the dog during the night.

But, I hear you say, the dog didn’t do anything overnight.

Yes, that was the curious incident.

In this shameless rip-off of “The Adventure of Silver Blaze,” one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s best Sherlock Holmes mysteries, the surprisingly docile pooch is played by Hassan Nasrallah, the usually pugnacious leader of Hezbollah and the world’s favorite poodle. ‘Iran. As eager as Biden was to be the honest broker, the deal is the result of Nasrallah’s willingness to restrain himself from grumbling and sneering at anything to do with Israel and the United States. Nobody knows how long he will curb his instincts.

It is important to remember that Aoun serves at the whim of Nasrallah: in Lebanon’s dysfunctional political system, Hezbollah has the combination of parliamentary representation and military might to make and break governments. Thus, the president could only sign the agreement because Nasrallah withheld his veto.

It is an unusual choice, given the deep hatred that Hezbollah and its masters in Tehran feel for Israel and the United States. It would have been perfectly normal for Nasrallah to cancel the agreement, even if it meant depriving Lebanon of the possibility of accessing the gas basin. He showed little interest in the economic well-being of his country.

Hezbollah is funded by a combination of Iranian largesse, extortion rackets and smuggling. This allows it to operate as a state within a state, funding its mostly Shia supporters while remaining immune to the fate that drives other Lebanese to rob banks to access their own savings.

But as impervious as he is to the despair of his compatriots, Nasrallah is extremely sensitive to any change in the political winds. Over the past two years, more and more Lebanese have come to blame Hezbollah for the political sclerosis plaguing their country, fueling rampant corruption and blocking the way to economic reform. A spasmodic protest movement among young urban Lebanese directed much of his anger at Nasrallah.

For many, Hezbollah’s role as a political saboteur and economic obstacle now replaces its image, carefully nurtured by Nasrallah, as a staunch defender of Lebanese interests in the face of evil Israelis and treacherous Americans.

Blocking negotiations on the maritime border would have confirmed Hezbollah’s reputation as a troublemaker, which Nasrallah can ill afford. He will have gritted his teeth in the face of an agreement which, in effect, obliges Hezbollah to give up attacking the Israeli gas infrastructure, but it is better than incurring even more the ire of his compatriots.

Nasrallah also had to throw Aoun a bone. The president has played a poodle to a poodle and has little to show, either to his own Maronite Christian constituency or to the general public. The deal with Israel gives it something resembling success, although it will be years before gas is extracted from Lebanon’s Kana field.

But if Nasrallah’s restraint is a product of his immediate political situation, it will be fairly easy for him to change his mind if the tide turns in his favor – or if he receives another missive from Tehran. No one should be fooled by his post hoc assertion that the Israeli-Lebanese deal was the result of Hezbollah “resistance”. This is not the same as owning the deal and securing its terms, regardless of political expediency and ideological imperatives.

Biden may have credit for now. But no need for a Sherlock Holmes to deduce that Nasrallah will not remain muzzled for long.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Israel makes the right choice on natural gas fields: Zev Chafets

• Rushdie attack shows harsh reality of Iranian soft power: Bobby Ghosh

• Ignore Israel’s politics. Its economy is booming: Matthew Winkler

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. Previously, he was Editor-in-Chief of the Hindustan Times, Editor-in-Chief of Quartz and International Editor of Time.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion