Lebanon Update – March 2018
Border Escalation between Lebanon and Israel
Tensions rose on the southern border of Lebanon after Hezbollah threatened to target Israel’s Mediterranean natural gas. Lebanon has an ongoing dispute with Israel over defining the gas-rich exclusive economic zone. Hezbollah Secretary General, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah also warned Tel Aviv that the group would retaliate against any Israeli strike on Lebanon by attacking Israel’s offshore platforms. The dispute started after the Lebanese government planned and signed contracts to start exploring offshore oil and gas fields known as Block 9. Israel contested the Lebanese step and insisted on setting the disputed border before Lebanon start exploring.
Addressing the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman threatened to wage a full-scale war against Lebanon if Hezbollah launched any attacks against Israel. Moreover, he said that Lebanon’s plans were “very, very challenging and provocative,” On the other hand, Israel started building a new wall along its border with Lebanon on Feb. 8th. No official reason was given regarding the Israeli action, but the last time Israel built a wall along the border in 2012, the purpose was to avoid friction. Lebanon’s Higher Defense Council gave orders to prevent Israel from building a border wall on disputed territory. Lebanon has focused its complaints on 13 points where the fence and Israeli Defense Forces outposts enter Lebanese territory north of the line drawn in 1949. Israel also has complaints about the precision with which the border was determined. David Satterfield, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, delivered a mediation attempt between Israel and Lebanon. Satterfield, has assured Lebanon that Israel is not seeking an escalation between the countries following a surge in hostile rhetoric. He added that there is no call for concern and no direction toward escalation.
- It is the interest and hopefully the intention of both states to adopt a peaceful approach to settle the conflict and not to allow it to be used in opportunist ideological feuds that will certainly benefit Hezbollah’s propaganda or the right-wing Israeli government.
- Potential peaceful settlement includes: US Mediation (not welcomed by several Lebanese parties), another neutral mediator (no suggestions so far), UN or International arbitrations courts (suggested by President Aoun, not very welcomed by Berri) , and UNIFIL tripartite military committee (suggested by Berri not very welcomed by Israel).
- Lebanon should grab the Israeli offer to settle 12 out of 13 disputed land points in its favor.
International Conferences: “Rome, Brussels, and Paris 4”
Lebanon is getting ready for three international conferences scheduled for March and April 2018, seeking to rally international support for its security institutions and attract foreign investments to shore up the economy facing the burden of a sizeable refugee population. The first conference in Rome aims to receiving international support for Lebanon’s security agencies and further strengthening the Lebanese army’s capabilities. The “Cedar Conference” which will be held in Paris, aims at bolstering financial support for Lebanon. The government aims to receive financial support for its projects through soft loans from international funds and different financial institutions. The Brussels conference, which will be held on the 4th of April, bring together over 70 countries, international organizations and civil society to “reconfirm existing pledges and identify additional support to Syrians inside Syria and in the neighboring countries”.
The main challenge for these conferences are:
- Very high level of corruption in the Lebanese institutions: Supporting the state with additional soft loans without securing real reforms and fighting corruption will increase the deficit of the treasury and public debt. Moreover, Lebanon ranked 87th among 113 countries in terms of corruption and rule of law while scoring 6 out of 7 countries in the MENA region, and 31 out of 36 among upper-middle-income countries, according to Washington-based NGO, World Justice Project’s yearly Rule of Law Index. Speaking at an interview with Arab Economic News, Deputy Prime Minister Ghassan Hasbani warned against betting on the upcoming donor conference in Paris to solve Lebanon’s economic problems and called for implementing reforms rather than waiting for external funding. Hasbani added that the conference will not lead to the desired positive results if Lebanon fails to implement the commitments it will make. Large reforms that go beyond reducing the budget deficit are essential to get out of the financial crisis and regain the international donors trust; these include structural reforms in the Lebanese economy and public finances in addition to reforming the electricity and the telecommunications sectors.
- Low enthusiasm: The different expected invitees to the international conferences notably the “Cedar Conference” have shown little enthusiasm for participating and for the expected financial commitment. On one hand the international donors such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, but also the EU are hesitant to commit large amounts before they see significant change in the way that the Lebanese public finance are managed, including a serious effort to stop corruption, lower the budget deficit, increase private public partnership and privatization, etc. and it is certain that their commitments will be conditioned to the application of these steps, and a follow up mechanism. On the other hand, and for their own political reasons, the Gulf States which used to be major donors in previous support conferences, are still hesitant in engaging serious amounts of money for a Lebanon that is drifting further away from them into the Iranian camp. Thus, some major steps with regards to re-establishing state sovereignty and re-affirming Lebanon’s disassociation position have been requested. Hariri’s visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) in the first week of March had this topic as a major point on the agenda and it seems that he succeeded in receiving a participation commitment  but nothing can be said with regards to the actual contributions.
- Very high expectations: Prime Minister Hariri’s suggested financing plan for the Cedar – Paris Conference includes some 250 large projects and is estimated at around USD 16B; while all estimates are reaching a maximum of USD 4B due to the weak enthusiasm of the Gulf countries about. If the expectations are not lowered or the funding commitment significantly raised, the conference even if it convenes, may be considered a failure and this may be one of the hidden reasons that led President Macron to cancel his planned trip to Lebanon in April, as he will not have a major achievement at hand.
Saudi Envoy Visit to Lebanon
Saudi high-ranking envoy Nizar Al-Aloula finished a four-day visit to Beirut during which he met with top Lebanese officials. Aloula was accompanied by a delegation that includes former Saudi Embassy Charge d’Affaires Walid Al-Bukhari. During his visit to Lebanon, Aloula invited the Lebanese Prime Minister to visit the Kingdom. Hariri welcomed the invitation and quickly visited the Kingdom where he met with King Salman and the Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. The Saudi envoy’s visit to Lebanon, followed by Hariri’s trip to Riyadh, included several political messages:
- The “November Episode” page has been turned over completely by both parties.
- Riyadh will clearly not give up on Lebanon and will not leave it to slip into full Iranian control.
- KSA will not allow the Sunni arena in Lebanon to get closer to the pro-Hezbollah axis.
- Riyadh will play an important role into guaranteeing an internal balance by preventing a division between the Future Movement and the Lebanese Forces party although the relations between the two parties went to unrest in previous months.
- All the above will be visible to a certain extent in the parliamentary elections, but much more in the post-election structure and politics, with a special focus on Lebanon’s disassociation policy.
Lebanese Parliamentary Elections
The deadline for submitting candidacy finished on March 7th with a record high number of candidates, and the deadline for the list formation is on March 27th. The final image of the alliances in the upcoming parliamentarian elections is not yet clear even though time is running out. It is clear that the new electoral law is making it difficult for the different political parties to have a clear vision of their alliances and of the expected results. However, few things can be noted:
- It is clear that the Future Movement, Lebanese Forces Party (LFP) and the rest of the March 14 groups will not ally with Hezbollah under any circumstances. But a March 14 alliance is also highly unlikely.
- The Future movement is managing the election very pragmatically and will ally with the LFP in some districts and with the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) in others, in order to diminish the chance of other Sunni parties and candidates to gain seats in the different districts; notably with the huge number of candidates challenging its control.
- The only nationwide alliances so far are: The Progressive Socialist Party (PSP – Jumblat) in the three districts of Chouf/Aley, Baabda and West Bekaa with the Future movement and the LFP; Hezbollah and Amal with their traditional allies Marada (Frangiye), Syrian Nationalist (SSNP), Baath party and the Sunnis of March 8.
LFP and FPM are so far running separately and alone in most districts with a Christian majority, allying only with independents who will accept to join their parliamentary blocs.
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