Lebanon is monitoring the January Israeli elections and results from a new and largely unprecedented standpoint. In the past, it had focused primarily on whether the new Israeli government would tout a peaceful or bellicose agenda, in order to gauge the likelihood of a new military offensive against Lebanon. This consideration, however, no longer takes priority, despite the fact that such a fear could still become a reality. Instead, other considerations have emerged.
In response to the question of why Lebanon’s stance has shifted, a source from the Lebanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs cited two driving factors: a UN resolution supporting the stability of Lebanon and the fact that the resolution is bound to the all-important issue of the two countries jointly creating a safe working environment for international companies to explore the offshore gas deposits overlapping their maritime border.
US envoy Frederic Hoff visited Israel and Lebanon twice in the past year and managed to craft a technical document resolving the two countries' dispute over the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which includes the disputed Leviathan gas field overlapping the Israeli-Lebanese border. It is the largest known field of its kind in the region, containing some 122 billion cubic feet of gas.
The same diplomatic source revealed to Al-Monitor that he had been told that Israel wanted to quickly resolve this matter and that it was willing to agree to the American proposal. According to him, none of the involved parties appeared to have reservations about the proposed solution.
The source concluded that when the joint economic benefits of the gas deposits are added to the equation of Israeli-Lebanese relations, they hold the potential to serve as a placating factor, which previously never existed, and could usher in a long-lasting truce between the two countries. Of course, this outcome would require the absence of any sudden regional developments regarding Syria and Iran that could affect the border status between Lebanon and Israel. The source believes that the gas deposits could shift Israel’s strategic approach toward Lebanon from regarding it as a security threat that has to be contained to a possible partner with whom establishing stability would accelerate gas exploration.
In his view, Israel’s strategic interests regarding the gas deposits will force any government that assumes power to pursue the same objective, regardless of its dovish or hawkish composition. Whatever the government’s leanings, it will seek to resolve the gas dispute with Lebanon, especially after Hoff relayed the fact to Beirut on his last visit that Israel considers time to be the biggest obstacle to reaping the benefits of the newly discovered gas deposits. He added that Israel fears that if the issue is not soon resolved, regional developments could delay moving forward for decades.
Fearing a Palestinian Transfer
In contrast to this development, Lebanese officials are closely following the studies and analyses pointing to the rise of religious extremism in Israel, a situation that carries with it the potential to create a new sociopolitical reality and to alter the makeup of the ruling class.
Through years of experience, Lebanon has learned that the larger the proportion of extremist religious parties in an Israeli government, the greater the possibility that Israel will attempt to transfer Palestinians to neighboring Arab states, Lebanon foremost among them.
The recent Israeli election campaign was teeming with indications that right-wing parties will move to the fore, especially the ultra-nationalist HaBayit HaYehudi (The Jewish Home) Party. This prompted some Lebanese to publicly express their concern that Israel will attempt to resolve the Palestinian issue at Lebanon’s expense, either by resettling or expelling Palestinians to Lebanon. They feel that the formation of an extremist, right-wing government in Israel would greatly increase the likelihood of such a transfer. Moreover, they fear that the Israelis will look to exploit the demographic and political chaos gripping the Arab world to deport those who do not share their socio-religious background.
The emerging debate in Lebanese circles regarding the Israeli elections exhibits a novel attribute in that it earnestly analyzes the structural changes taking place in Israeli society. This approach has reminded some of an idea that enjoyed widespread circulation following the creation of Israel. Michel Chiha, a Lebanese political thinker and framer of the 1926 Constitution, was the first to suggest that the Israeli political model was the biggest threat to the Lebanese political model for civilized coexistence between its different sects. Chiha claimed that the success of the Lebanese formula proves that different cultural and religious groups can coexist and undermines the credibility of the Israeli model, which insists that Israel must be a homogenous Jewish state and that Jews cannot live in a bi-national Arab and Jewish state. With all indicators pointing to the likelihood that the Israeli elections will usher in a religious, ultra-nationalist government, the difference between the Lebanese and Israeli models will only become starker.
Hezbollah views the implications of the Israeli elections differently. It assesses the elections through the lens of its existential conflict with Israel, the issue of a nuclear Iran and Israel’s intent to forcefully eliminate the strategic weaknesses that have lingered since the 2006 war.
For the moment, Hezbollah believes that the elections will not produce a government able to take military action against Lebanon or Iran that surpasses the measures previously taken by the Netanyahu government. Hezbollah maintains that early elections were called for domestic reasons, after Netanyahu had lost control of the reins of leadership at home and abroad. Many Lebanese experts share Hezbollah’s belief that the structural transformations and internal stresses racking Israel are confirmation of Uri Avnery’s theory that Israeli society is "easternizing," that is, religiosity is increasingly influencing policy considerations at the expense of the civil state. Thus, the region must prepare to deal with an Israel that, with each passing day, is becoming more easternized at the expense of its European roots.
Nasser Chararah is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Lebanon Pulse and head of the Lebanese Institute for Studies and Publications.