While Hezbollah has long portrayed itself as defending Lebanon against “Israeli aggression,” an increasing number of Lebanese view Hezbollah as an Iranian pawn that undermines Lebanese sovereignty and unnecessarily seeks conflict with Jerusalem.
Given the growing domestic unpopularity of Hezbollah and its close ties to the Iranian regime and the negotiations between Lebanon and Israel on a Mediterranean pipeline, could a Lebanon-Israel normalization deal be in the cards?
Take for example what happened last week. Lebanese political opponents of the local Shiite terror group Hezbollah and its patron Iran protested on social media against a bronze bust erected in a Hezbollah stronghold near Beirut airport in honor of the late Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani, assassinated in a U.S. airstrike outside Baghdad Airport in January 2020.
Lebanese opponents of Hezbollah criticized the bust of Soleimani on Twitter as the latest example of Iranian interference in Lebanon’s domestic affairs. In a tweet, Lebanese journalist Luna Safwan captured the growing anti-Iranian regime sentiment in the country.
“New Qassem Sulaimani statue in #Lebanon – with Lebanese flags in the background, useful to remind us where we are. Whats next? Sulaimani stamps?”
“Hezbollah seems pretty damn desperate to make late Iranian General Qassem Soleimani a local hero, despite knowing that for the majority of people in Lebanon, he simply represents a foreign power,” remarked Nizar Hassan, an expert on Lebanese politics based in Beirut.
Many Lebanese blamed the Iranian-backed Hezbollah for the devastating explosion at Beirut harbor in August 2020. The blast was caused when 2750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly combustible material used as fertilizer and for bomb making, ignited. In his address to the United Nations General Assembly last year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that Hezbollah endangers the lives of Lebanese civilians by embedding secret arm depots in civilian neighborhoods adjacent to gas stations.
With a majority of Lebanese and all of Israel perceiving Hezbollah as a threat, does this raise any hopes for a Lebanese-Israeli diplomatic rapprochement? On the surface, Lebanon should have been the first Arab state to make peace with Israel. Prior to the Lebanese Civil War in 1975, over 50% of the Lebanese population was Christian. Beirut was known as the “Paris of the Middle East” and the country had close cultural and political ties with the Christian Western world, especially France. Peace with a Western-style democracy like Israel would have seemed natural.
However, due to wars and anti-Christian hostilities, much of Lebanon’s well-educated Christian middle class emigrated to the West, particularly to the United States. And now, as a result of a collapsing economy and chronic political instability, Lebanon faces an exodus of its remaining Christian minority as well as the educated and secularized Muslim middle class.
Decades of wars and foreign interventions transformed Lebanon from the most Western-oriented country in the Arab world to a failed state. Fixing the crumbling economy is a priority for much of the diverse Lebanese population. And just like Morocco and the Gulf states, Lebanon would likely stand to benefit from a normalization deal with an economically and technologically advanced Israel.
Last year, Lebanon and Israel initiated negotiations over their maritime border. Given the rich offshore gas fields, concluding these negotiations is a priority for a financially pressured Lebanon.
Following Israel’s military withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, with the exception of the tiny contested Shebaa farms area, no territorial disputes exist between Lebanon and Israel.
In August 2020, Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun said that Lebanon would not rule out peace with Israel. However, as long as Iranian-backed Hezbollah remains the most powerful player in Lebanon, the country’s recovery and normalization with Israel will remain elusive.