Analysts: Hezbollah push for Lebanon off-shore drilling risks war with Israel "through miscalculation or intentional effort" at escalation

 

The Washington Examiner on Friday outlined a scenario under which the next war in the Middle East may break out as a result of what the outlet described as competing "Israeli and Lebanese claims over a potentially lucrative plot of [underwater] territory," with the recently formed Lebanese government set to "move ahead with decrees that signal the beginning of bidding for drilling rights" to energy resources underneath disputed waters along the Israel-Lebanon border. The outlet cited David Weinberg, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, explaining that Jerusalem would have to react to any such Lebanese move, which would be an implicit claim of sovereignty that would in addition potentially cost the Israelis "billions of dollars of revenue." The Israeli daily financial newspaper Globes had already explained months ago that Israel would be "liable to lose territory if it does not object to the Lebanese acts in court, or even militarily," and Weinberg emphasized that "there's a very significant possibility that this could lead to increased tension on both sides, either as conflict through miscalculation, or an intentional effort by Hezbollah to escalate." The Examiner noted that the Israelis have deliberately "avoided issuing tenders" so as not to inflame the situation. Meanwhile Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah recently reemphasized that his Iran-backed terror group would seek a military confrontation with Israel and has claimed an April attack on Israeli soldiers. The group is widely thought to be seeking a way to rebuild its shattered brand as a Lebanese organization protecting Lebanese sovereignty from Israel, and last October Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea slammed Hezbollah for trying to open "another front with Israel" by pressuring the Lebanese Energy Ministry - which it controlled by proxy - to issue drilling tenders to disputed waters. National Liberal Party leader Dori Chamoun piled on, accusing then-Energy Minister Gebran Bassil of being used by Hezbollah to among other things cause "another clash with Israel." Observers fear that Hezbollah has been specifically setting up a naval confrontation. The group has for years been accusing Israel of stealing Lebanon's energy resources - going so far as to describe Israel's Leviathan field as inside Lebanese waters - and has even warned that Lebanon's oil and gas sector was "becoming vulnerable to Israeli piracy" specifically by the "deliberate obstruction of issuing licenses." A February speech by Nasrallah saw him insisting at least three times that Israel is engaged in a plot to plunder Lebanese oil. Journal of Diplomacy’s Ziad Achkar noted in that context that a war over off-shore energy would be attractive for Nasrallah because it would allow him to "come[] off as Hero of Lebanon, defending resources where government can’t" and to justify holding on to advanced anti-ship weapons that Hezbollah uses to maintain its Lebanese state-within-a-state. Achkar situated the strategy as a "flashback to 2006, provoking Israeli war to regain public support that was dwindling."

 

Analysts through the weekend and into Monday continued to trace signs that - per a headline published at the top of one Agence France-Presse (AFP) story - Rouhani's "honeymoon" with the Iranian public was over amid evidence that he was either unable or unwilling to implement promised social reforms and economic improvements. AFP had last week reported on what the wire described as Rouhani's "first major political defeat," after 95 percent of Iranians chose to accept government hand-outs that his government had urged they forgo. The second AFP story, published on Sunday, assessed that "the public's goodwill towards [Rouhani] is showing the first signs of fading" due to stalled economic progress. Meanwhile the Jerusalem Post reported on the fallout from reports - which had recently been revealed by the Wall Street Journal - that there had recently been a mass beating of imprisoned Iranian dissidents incarcerated in the country's Evin prison. The Post described a growing movement to show solidarity with the political prisoners, dozens of whom had been sent to the hospital by the beatings, with "Iranian men and women posted pictures on social media of themselves with shaved head," a gesture developed after the publication of "a photograph of human rights lawyer Abdolfatah Soltani [who had been beaten in the raid] that showed him last week with a shaved head." The outlet also contextualized the developments against broader trends in the Islamic republic, suggesting that "with 25 percent of the Islamic Republic’s population unemployed or underemployed, the ingredients are present for mushrooming social unrest." Reports published on Saturday indicated that Iranian officials had officially banned the reformist newspaper Ebtekar, the third such move in recent months.

 

The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) on Sunday announced that the group's central committee had adopted a plan under which the Palestinians would seek to join 60 United Nations bodies and international treaties, per a report by Agence France-Presse (AFP) subsequently cited in both Arabic and Israeli media. The moves came a day after Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas gave a speech doubling down on a recent decision by his Fatah faction to reconcile with the rival Hamas group, and then offering to listen to Israel in the context of peace talks provided that Jerusalem would offer a raft of concessions beforehand. The speech fell flat. The Palestinian push to join international institutions - which reemerged in earnest at the beginning of April, with Abbas announcing that Ramallah would seek to ascend to over a dozen multilateral treaties - had quickly been criticized for fundamentally undermining the core gamble of the peace process. Several decades of Israeli-Arab peacemaking had been premised on the notion that Israel could reliably trade fundamentally irreversible tangible concessions, usually but not always land, for theoretically reversible intangible commitments, most often normalization. Palestinian moves to boost their diplomatic status outside of negotiations with Israel, which violate among other things Olso Accord obligations that Israel secured via territorial concessions spanning decades, were blasted for creating a situation in which those theoretically reversible intangible commitments were in fact pocketed. Independent of the peace process, the new move will deepen fears of what has been described as a kind of "scorched earth" campaign, under which Palestinian diplomats ascend to and then politicize international institutions, turning them against Israel and in the process endangering their neutrality and credibility. U.S. lawmakers had expressed exactly such fears when the Palestinians sought and eventually secured an upgrade via the United Nations General Assembly to become a nonmember state. Ramallah had previously gained a seat at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) over similar U.S. objections, triggering a congressional backlash that financially crippled UNESCO. By 2014 - after several sessions in which Israel was subject to lopsided criticism by the body - Palestinian media outlets were openly boasting about how the organization was now focused on pursuing anti-Israel resolutions and investigations.

 

A weekend scoop by The Daily Beast documenting off-the-record comments made by Secretary of State John Kerry to influential world leaders - in which Washington's top diplomat was recorded saying that Israel may become an "apartheid state" should it fail to quickly secure a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - put the State Department on the defensive Monday, with journalists, lawmakers, and Israel-focused organizations from across the political spectrum questioning the wisdom of the remarks. The National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) expressed "deep disappointment" and called on Kerry to apologize, while the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) described the statements as "deeply troubling" and suggested that "the true focus of those who support peace should be on urging President Abbas to revoke his destructive agreement with the terrorist organization Hamas." The AIPAC statement also cited 2008 statements by President Barack Obama that "injecting a term like apartheid into the discussion doesn’t advance [the] goal" of securing peace between Israel and its neighbors, and that the term is "emotionally loaded, historically inaccurate, and... not what I believe." The Anti-Defamation League quickly declared it "startling and deeply disappointing that... [Kerry] chose to use such an inaccurate and incendiary term." The Emergency Committee for Israel - which has been historically critical of the administration for seeking to put distance between Washington and Jerusalem - called on Kerry to resign or be fired, a stance echoed by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). Veteran Associated Press diplomatic writer Matthew Lee - who has been clear that he thinks the controversy is overblown, and who has been harshly critical of some of the groups that have blasted Kerry - nonetheless on Monday pressed State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki on the wisdom of Kerry's remarks. Lee conveyed criticisms from both supporters and detractors of Israel, ultimately asking whether using 'apartheid' was "smart" given that the move was "going to cause him a lot of grief." Psaki declined to answer a question about whether Kerry appreciated that such rhetoric - even if suggesting a future scenario - was out of step with "American officials, who are supposed to be... neutral — you know, the arbiter, the honest broker." In response to a question about why Kerry was unwilling to cede to the demands of pro-Palestinian advocates who insist that Israel is already an apartheid state, Psaki bluntly stated that Kerry "believes that Israel is a vibrant democracy with equal rights for its citizens."


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