The topic of normalization with Israel is no longer a complete taboo in the Middle East, with several Arab and Gulf states already taking the plunge. In Lebanon however, speaking freely on the matter still holds reservations. In a recent interview with Fox News, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman stated that talks with Israel had made progress. Asked about their thoughts on the Saudi-Israel talks, various Lebanese politicians spoke with caution. With a few nuances, they all referred to the Arab initiative launched at the Beirut summit in 2002, which defined the framework and conditions for peaceful relations with Israel, based on UN Security Council Resolution 242.
What came as a surprise however, was the position of those close to Hezbollah, whose views on the Saudi-Israel matter betrayed their historically radical stance on the issue. Hezbollah itself refused to comment on the topic, arguing that it is premature to do so. Those in the party’s entourage however, have said that it would be met with refusal, but "in principle."
“Every day, we are getting a little closer” to normalization, said MBS to Fox News, adding that “for the first time,” Riyadh and Tel Aviv were engaging in “serious talks.” A source close to Hezbollah told L’Orient-Le Jour that the party has not yet discussed in detail this new development within its ranks . “We first have to see what the reaction of the Palestinians will be,” said the source. “It also remains to be seen what the Saudi Prince’s intentions were behind this interview, which he himself requested from the American channel. Perhaps he was trying to improve his relations with the US,” added the source, who said it is “impossible” for the Israelis to concede the West Bank to the Palestinians, a request that was proposed in previous Arab-Israeli peace talks. Several members of Israel’s right wing ruling coalition have already made it clear that they will not make any concessions to the Palestinians.
However, in Hezbollah’s circles, it has been made clear that “in principle,” the party rejects the potential normalization and aligns itself with the position of Iranian President Ebrahim Raissi. The later stated last Friday at a press conference on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York that “a relationship between regional countries and the Zionist regime would be a stab in the back of the Palestinian people and the Palestinian resistance.” At the same time, the Iranian leader welcomed Iran’s “developing relationship with Saudi Arabia,” in reference to the China-brokered Saudi-Iran deal.
Pro Hezbollah commentator and political analyst Kassem Kassir believes that the Saudi-Iran deal will produce “positive results,” and that Hezbollah’s “objection to Saudi Arabia will be limited, as is currently the case with the Emirates.” In other words, within the context of regional détente, Iran and Hezbollah do not want to be on bad terms with Saudi Arabia.
In southern Lebanon, the situation “will remain stable, even in the event of Saudi-Israeli normalization,” said Kassir. “Everyone is waiting for the gas to be extracted,” he said, in reference to the maritime border demarcation agreement Lebanon and Israel signed in October 2022, which enabled exploration work to begin in Lebanon’s zone 9.
Former leader of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), Walid Joumblatt, is amongst the doubtful when it comes to the Saudi-Israeli talks. He cited all the historic failures that have marked the issue. “We are back to the same subversion, the principle of land for peace having been blocked for 20 years, since the 2002 summit. Proof of this is the arrival of 800,000 settlers in the meantime and the uncertainty over the holy places issue,” Joumblatt said. The 2002 peace initiative proposed a normalization of relations between Israel and all Arab League member states in exchange for the creation of a Palestinian state within the borders that existed before the 1967 war, with East Jerusalem as its capital and a solution for the return of refugees based on UN Resolution 194. Israel refused this proposition.
Joumblatt deplored the fact that the new trade corridor project linking India, the Middle East and Europe, announced by the US President at the G20 summit in New Delhi last week, bypasses Beirut and its port, making Haifa the new “gate of the Orient.” The initiative aims to stimulate trade relations between India, the Middle East and Europe, to counter Chinese influence and to bring the countries of the Middle East closer together, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia. “This mega-project is creating a new Suez Canal, which will also be to Egypt’s detriment. The spice trade is now seasoned with oil,” Joumblatt said ironically. He fears that history is being shaped without Lebanon. In a recent interview with Bloomberg, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the trade corridor will be realized “whether we have formal peace or not.”
A new regional dynamic
The Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) approached the issue with just as much doubt as the PSP, but without dismissing the possibility of a breakthrough. “Since 2002, the peace process has been going backwards,” said Alain Aoun, MP for the Strong Lebanon bloc. Aoun acknowledged that the new dynamic in the region could mean a standstill in the Saudi-Iran talks — a process that is undeniably moving toward “stabilizing the region.”
“One thing is certain: the geopolitical impact of such an agreement will not be insignificant. We will have to follow the details,” Aoun said.
Meanwhile, the Lebanese Forces (LF) — a Saudi ally — tried to avoid the question by emphasizing the priority of distancing Lebanon from regional developments. “We will assess whether this process is positive or negative when there is a state in Lebanon. For the time being, it is held hostage by Hezbollah,” said LF spokesperson Charles Jabbour. “The fact remains that the Palestinian cause must be taken into account. Israel will have to take a step towards granting them their rights,” Jabbour continued.
A former Sunni minister who spoke on condition of anonymity, echoed Joumblatt. “Nothing is clear yet and we still don’t know whether the Palestinians will be able to have a state of their own,” he said, expressing fears that the radical authorities in Israel would refuse such a concession for “demagogic” reasons. Netanyahu confirmed this in his recent Bloomberg interview: “You won't have a Palestinian state — you'll have an Iranian terror state,” he declared.
The former minister believes that in any case, Lebanon will have to be the last Arab state to normalize relations with Israel. However, he remained optimistic about another event: “The rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran is the most important historic act in 50 years,” he said.