The timing of the agreement is not surprising, since it seems to suit both Lebanon and the Trump administration which seeks to accumulate successes and reap gains, a few weeks away from the presidential election scheduled for November. Such progress on an issue that may eventually generate income for a bankrupt country can only boost the mandate of President Michel Aoun and the movement he founded, the Free Patriotic Movement, which had made it their main con-cern for years, even if the credit for the announcement of this framework agreement has been ju-diciously recouped by the house speaker.
Although Berri said at his press conference on Thursday that his role ended at this stage and that President Aoun will now have to oversee the actual negotiations, the fact remains that he was the star of what Washington called a "historic" day. It was him and no one else who had to announce this key and symbolically strong agreement, in order to avoid any pitfall that may be interpreted as a concession granted by the Shiite duo to the Jewish state.
For the time being, it is only about the delimitation of the maritime borders and not of the land borders, which were separated from the process of the announced framework agreement, as not-ed on Thursday evening by US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker, during a telephone press briefing with several media. This statement was also made by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who referred to "separate discussions." For his part, Berri merely reiterated the wish that the discussions take place without separation of sea and land routes, a condition that had long obstructed previous talks.
The "Three No's"
Hezbollah still had not commented on the agreement by Friday. The Shiite party's TV channel, al-Manar, however, on the evening of the agreement, welcomed the "red lines" drawn by Berri in the context of this issue and the three no's that he had succeeded in imposing: the rejection of direct negotiations, the non-separation of the maritime and land tracks, and the refusal to give up on a slightest right. The three objections which, according to a source close to the Shiite party, mean that the upcoming negotiations, which will begin on October 14 in Naqoura under the me-diation of the United States and the sponsorship of the UN, immediately cut off the path to any normalization with the Jewish state and signal the continuation of the resistance movement. It is, an informed observer said, a reaction of self-defense and, above all, a way for the Shiite duo to save face vis-à-vi a major compromise that would have been made within the framework of this agreement.
Berri refused to link the announcement of this framework agreement to regional developments, affirming that he "is not one of those who give in to pressure." Several commentators have never-theless interpreted the timing as the result of pressure exerted by the US administration on both the Shiite duo and Tehran.
Iran, which is being increasingly isolated on the international scene and is facing the pressure of economic sanctions imposed by the United States, is said to have temporarily conceded this "tac-tical retreat," wishing to protect itself from any threat of war and, above all, to gain time. "This is a way for Tehran to buy a time-limited insurance policy that expires at the end of January," said Hassan Mneimneh, a lecturer at the Middle East Institute, referring to the inauguration date of the US president-elect. Mneimneh also established a causal link between the way the framework agreement, which had been dragging on for years, was finally concluded and the US sanctions imposed on Berri's man of confidence, Ali Hassan Khalil. All of these factors, he said, have helped speed up the process.
A Semantic Breakthrough
This agreement would have also unveiled a major development in the political culture of Amal and its ally Hezbollah. "There has been a major semantic breakthrough," said the writer and ana-lyst Lokman Slim, alluding to the fact that at no time did Berri use the traditional term "enemy" when referring to the Jewish state.
Lebanon, which for years had categorically refused to negotiate with the "Zionist entity," ended up accepting the reality imposed by geopolitics and economic imperatives and the principle of even indirect negotiations. This framework agreement and the upcoming negotiations presuppose "an (unofficial) recognition of Israel as a neighboring state and thus an admission of its exist-ence," said Mneimneh.
Even if it is still too early, or a "taboo" or "unrealistic" at this stage to talk about a future normali-zation of relations between Lebanon and Israel, following the example of some Gulf states, it remains the case that in the medium term, any economic development will not be able to rhyme with war. However, the negotiations with Israel will inevitably lead, at least, to a pacification of the borders between the two countries, according to analysts.
For Mneimneh, maritime delimitation leads to consider several future scenarios, including the discovery of joint oil and gas reserves, which raises the possibility of the two states opting for the same operating company, "a choice that would lead them into de facto partnership." It is econom-ics that can then lead to politics. This is a plausible scenario if Iran, and its affiliate Hezbollah, do not decide at some point to play the saboteurs, once the negotiation process has reached the final stage of the agreement.
But according to a source familiar with the matter, the negotiations that will take place at Naqoura will not drag on too long, most of the contentious points having been "resolved ahead."
(Thsi article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 3rd of October)