Focus: Foreign Policy

Diplomatic Gestures

Oct. 10, 2018

Despite tensions with Israel, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and the UN, Lebanon's defiant foreign policy under Gebran Bassil continues to keep the cedar republic afloat.

It has oft been said that whither Lebanon goes, so too the Levant, and whither the Levant, the Middle East. And so on and so forth. Balkanized long before the term was coined, the country has set the contemporary standard for the postmodern nation-state torn between competing identities and civilizational pulls. Yet while Lebanon rarely presents a united face to the world, the world often makes the mistake of treating it as a single entity—and rewarding or punishing it as such.

No greater example of this can be found than in Israeli Prime Minister's Benjamin Netanyahu's increasingly bellicose language toward the cedar nation in the past year. Indeed, analysts of every ideological persuasion have concluded that war between Lebanon and the southern neighbor it does not diplomatically recognize is all but inevitable: in the immediate future because Lebanon has become, in the words of Netanyahu, “one giant missile site… for precision missiles against the state of Israel" dominated by Hezbollah and, by proxy, Iran. In the medium term, critical maritime disputes with Tel Aviv and, by extension, Cyprus, over offshore gas fields in the Mediterranean are ongoing. Add to this Saudi Arabia's increasingly blustering behavior toward the country, and the picture is far from rosy.

A closer look, however, reveals that things are hardly as clear-cut as the editorials would have them appear. Despite Netanyahu's pugnacious posturing, in December Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil stated publicly on the al-Mayadin television network that Lebanon had no ideological qualm with the existence of the state of Israel, and that the latter was entitled to security. Though calls for his resignation were swift from certain quarters—and Bassil was quick to qualify his statement on social media after the fact—the fact that he survived the gaffe, a major no-no for Lebanese politicians since 1948, is revealing. Whether his remark was a Freudian slip or a craftily placed olive branch is not clear; but if one thing is certain, the hawks in Netanyahu's war cabinet will have far less fodder when making their case for war against any Lebanon led by Bassil's father-in-law, President Michel Aoun.

To be sure, that did not stop Israel from throwing up yet another border wall in February 2018. Starting meters from the Mediterranean, the 0.3km wall in a remote military zone went up in nearly a day, against the wishes of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), and many in Lebanon fear it will cut into what is believed to be Lebanese territory lying north of the Blue Line, the UN-backed demarcation that has held between the two countries since Israel ended its occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000. Though Israel claims the wall will not encroach upon Lebanese territory, Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah told the newspaper Al-Akhbar in February that the country's state and army would unite and “the resistance… take its responsibilities" should Israel not heed its warnings to cease and desist from further construction.

Why they chose February to build the wall was also revealing. Though clashes occurred near the crossing in 2010 and 2012, it has been quiet ever since. But that was also around the time that rhetoric reached a fever pitch over Mediterranean gas fields nearly equidistant from both countries' maritime borders. An issue of contention ever since Israel and Cyprus signed a maritime border agreement in 2010 that Beirut claims encroaches upon its own Exclusive Economic Zone (EEC), it came to a head in January when Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman urged oil firms not to bid on a Lebanese gas licensing process announced earlier that week for Block 9 in the eastern Mediterranean. With Aoun calling Lieberman's words a “threat to Lebanon and its right to sovereignty," on February 9 Lebanon still awarded a Total-led consortium including ENI (Italian) and Novatek (Russian) drilling rights in Block 9, a total area of 1,742sqkm, roughly 8% of which (145sqkm) lies in disputed territory. Though Total has committed to drilling at least one well in Block 9 within three years of signing and will incur a penalty in the millions of dollars for failing to do so, until things calm down that does not necessarily mean it will. Back in 2015 it failed to uphold an agreement it had struck with Cyprus to drill in Block 10.

On the whole, however, rhetorical disputes with Israel still paled in comparison to the real ones that erupted with Saudi Arabia last November. Summoned to Riyadh for what he thought would be a camping trip in the desert with his counterpart, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was unexpectedly forced to announce his resignation from a pre-written script on Saudi state television on November 4, 2017. Citing Iran's efforts to sow “discord, devastation, and destruction" in the region, Hariri remained in the country for two full weeks. Part of a larger set of offensives by the ambitious young Saudi Minister of Defense, which includes the war in Yemen, sanctions against Qatar, and mass arrests and corruption charges against leading businesspeople back home, Hariri's brief encounter with unemployment was short but hardly sweet. Though reinstated as PM upon return to Lebanon—riding a wave of public sympathy—his fortnightly “kidnapping," as it has come to be known, not only saw USD3 billion in capital flee the country, but is said by many to have even strengthened Hezbollah's domestic hand. The Lebanese state's relationship with the paramilitary organization neither changed after Hariri's brief resignation nor since the parliamentary elections of May 2018, which returned Hariri to his position as PM, while also increasing Hezbollah's share in parliament.

Yet November's shenanigans did not stop Foreign Minister Bassil from traveling to Mexico in December to host the inaugural Lebanese Diaspora Energy Conference in Cancún. Hosted in a Lebanese-owned hotel, Bassil encouraged his guests, which included many Mexican, Brazilian, and Argentine deputies of Lebanese origin—not to mention the world's wealthiest businessman, the Lebanese-Mexican Carlos Slim, to “be the defenders of this land on the outside as we are its guards on the inside." He also came with good tidings, announcing, “We are here to restore your Lebanese citizenship through the law of nationality restoration, which Lebanon has approved for you, not to increase the number of Lebanese but because you are an elite and every Lebanese is a resourceful energy... and because your Lebanese identity does not conflict with your Latin identity, neither in ideology nor in law nor in tax." Promising them the right to be represented by deputies for the diaspora, a new parliamentary category, the Cancún conference was the pièce de resistance of Bassil's most consistent and concerted diplomatic effort: to invigorate and reinsert the (largely Maronite) diaspora back into Lebanon's domestic political economy.

Bassil's second-biggest diplomatic initiative, it should be noted, has been his continued efforts to restrict and eventually repatriate the extensive numbers of Syrian refugees resident in Lebanon. Suffering to provide food, shelter, and services for many of the estimated 1-1.5 million Syrian refugees who have taken refuge in the cedar republic, relations between the Foreign Ministry and UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency, have long been tense. Calling for refugees to return to 'safe areas' within Syria before a final peace deal is struck to end the Syrian war, Bassil's rhetoric has often been at odds with bodies such as the UN. Accusing the UNHCR of preventing otherwise willing Syrians from returning home, Bassil said in early June that Beirut would immediately begin procedures against the humanitarian organization. Without specifying what these were, the chief of Lebanon's general security agency, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, did say that Beirut was already working with Damascus to ensure the safe return of thousands of refugees to Syria.