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Why Hezbollah won't torpedo Lebanon's maritime border talks with Israel

Israeli sources believe that Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah realizes how important it is for economically failing Lebanon to reach an agreement with Jerusalem on its maritime border and the extraction of natural gas.
Lebanese protesters sail in boats with slogans affirming Lebanon's right to its offshore gas wealth, near a border-marking buoy between Israel and Lebanon in the Mediterranean waters off the southern town of Naqoura, Sept. 4, 2022.

Security and political sources told the Israeli press Sept. 8 that the extraction of natural gas from the undersea Karish gas field would not be launched this month, but rather in mid-October. The reason for the delay is unclear at present. Energy Minister Karin Elharar said Sept. 8 that the possible delay was due to the complexity of installation operations. While the reason for the delay seems to be technical, it nonetheless dissipates to some extent tensions that have been building up in recent weeks, following the threats of Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah against Israeli drilling.

Nasrallah’s latest public threat came Aug. 9, when the leader of Hezbollah warned the group would not sit idly by if Israel continued using the natural gas it had discovered near the maritime border with Lebanon.

Israel is not taking lightly these threats. Still, after so many years with Nasrallah as a rival, Israel’s take on the Hezbollah leader is lucid and pragmatic.

“If there is one leader for whose health and longevity we should be praying three times a day, it is Nasrallah,” a senior Israeli intelligence source told Al-Monitor earlier this year in discussing Israel’s assessment of the Hezbollah leader who now marks 30 years in power.

The comments reflected the strange coexistence and even stranger balance of deterrence that Israel and the Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite group have maintained since the 2006 Second Lebanon War. They are somewhat reminiscent of Israel’s relationship with the late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, who engaged it in two bitter wars, in 1967 and 1973, but subsequently maintained calm along his country’s Golan Heights border with Israel until his death in 2000.

“He [Nasrallah] is calculated, credible, plays by the rules, sticks to his promises — and at the same time he is deterred,” the Israeli intelligence source said at the time. “He knows us very well and we know him. He is far more pragmatic than his bellicose rhetoric suggests. Overall, this is a man with whom we can do business and reach a balance that translates into stability for both sides.”

That assessment was prompted by Israel’s start of natural gas production from the Karish natural gas reservoir in the eastern Mediterranean, part of which Lebanon claims as its own, and the discovery of at least one other significant natural gas source, the Sidon reservoir (also known as Qana), which borders Israel’s territorial economic waters.

Realizing the tremendous benefits of a natural gas bonanza for its failed economy, Lebanon has engaged over the past two years in US-mediated talks with Israel to resolve the maritime border dispute, which appear to have made some progress recently.

An updated Israeli intelligence assessment of Nasrallah issued last week was somewhat different than the one described above, albeit not dramatically so. “Nasrallah is a tragic figure,” a senior Israeli military official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “He is lonely, having lost all his top partners and confidants.”

The source listed the 2008 assassination of Nasrallah’s second-in-command Imad Mughniyeh, the 2016 death (in a bomb blast) of Hezbollah military commander Moustafa Badreddin and the 2020 assassination of Nasrallah’s main patron and ally, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Qasem Soleimani.

“He still spends most of his time in a bunker, does not see daylight, is overweight and burdened by Lebanon’s mounting troubles. Being Nasrallah is not easy, these days. We are hoping he returns to his old self, for his own good, for Lebanon’s benefit and for that of the entire region,” said the source.

Rumors of Nasrallah’s ill-health have dogged him for the past year. The hopes for his well-being, expressed by the Israeli source, come amid growing tensions between the sides as they enter into a decisive stage of their maritime border negotiations.

Nasrallah has been depicted as the “enfant terrible,” intent on raining on the Lebanese people’s hoped-for parade. Israel, on the other hand, is the responsible adult trying to contain Nasrallah’s threats, along with the drones he launched three months ago toward Israel’s Karish gas drilling rig.

Conflicting assessments have emerged in Israel recently regarding Nasrallah's intentions.

Some have argued that the Hezbollah leader would not hesitate to engage Israel in a limited clash over several days in order to bolster his self-proclaimed image as the "defender of Lebanon" and to claim credit for the gas riches if and when they are produced.

Israel’s Northern Command disagrees. "Nasrallah," said a senior commanding officer, who spoke with Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, "does not want war. He was at war with us and knows its meaning. Even his Iranian handlers will probably not be satisfied with such a flare-up. … This Shiite forward base vis-a-vis Israel was not established to wage a fight over natural gas, but to create a strategic threat to Israel in case it decides to attack Iran. Nasrallah knows it; he also knows that we know it."

In addition to Nasrallah’s questionable health and ongoing isolation, Israel believes he is frustrated by the contrast between his own country’s grim condition and that of his enemy’s. “He looks toward Israel to his south and sees the prosperity, the lights at night, while Lebanon is dark and will soon also be cold [due to its energy crisis]. He is not fooling himself,” said the commanding officer.

Israeli intelligence is also analyzing developments among Nasrallah's base, the Shiite community in Lebanon and especially in its south. "This is not what it used to be," an Israeli security source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. "The concept of the Shiite suicide bomber is gone, a process that happened in Israel even before [with Palestinian suicide bombers who attacked Israelis]."

The security source attributed this shift to recognition of “the sanctity and value of human life. They are not willing to commit suicide. They want to live and they want to live well. They see what's going on around them. In the age of [social] networks it is hard to sell them an imaginary reality."

The Israel Defense Forces monitors the Lebanese media, the sentiment on social media, and the cohesion and fabric of the population that constitutes Hezbollah's base. "There is dissatisfaction there," said one of these monitors, speaking on condition of anonymity. "People are mocking Nasrallah, writing things like, 'We want to be like some of the ones you defeated,' warning him that 'those who live in a glass palace should not throw stones at the neighbors.’”

Journalists, said the monitor, are also increasingly outspoken against Hezbollah, dubbing it a mafia-like terrorist organization. “Nasrallah is aware of this. On the one hand, Hezbollah cannot contain formal negotiations between the Lebanese government, of which it is a part, and Israel. On the other hand, it cannot be the one to torpedo an agreement that could trigger a process that would rescue Lebanon from some of its economic woes. He is facing an unbearable dilemma," the monitor noted.

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