COVID-19, the normalization deals between Israel and both the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain and the massive blast in Beirut are not connected by causation.
But taken together, in concert with other events shaking the Middle East, this series of events could trigger a new era in the Arab – Israeli conflict, focused on the once-unthinkable possibility of relations between Israel and Lebanon.
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What appear to some to be lightning bolts out of the blue cannot be properly understood without understanding deeper shifts that are upending old paradigms. Some of the more critical shifts are happening in the economic realm, and their repercussions have geopolitical significance.
The broader context is of economic decline, if not desperation. The COVID-19 pandemic is having a far-reaching and likely long-lasting impact, and for Middle East economies built on the oil industry, that means losses today and far lower future demand, on top of already shrinking oil reserves and the emergence of other global hydrocarbon and alternative energy sources.
One of those economies is the UAE: its drop in revenues, accelerated by the pandemic, means it needs Israel’s technological knowhow and economic cooperation far more than Israel needs their oil. Israel’s high-tech sector is well-developed and a potential model for once oil-rich Arab neighbors.
Notably, both countries have been doing business under the radar for so many years, and Israeli arms and cybersecurity technology exports to the UAE are already estimated to be worth several hundred million shekels annually.
For Israel, the ongoing oil sector crisis, intensified by coronavirus, is an opportunity to push a shift in its relations with other Middle East states: from a military conflict to economic and technological cooperation. For other Mideast states, that shift in relations with Israel is becoming an inevitable necessity.
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Israel has diligently prepared the groundwork for this economic shift with its domino effect of normalizing relations with formerly hostile Arab states. Infrastructure projects are center stage in encouraging a reconfiguration of Mideast alliances.
"Tracks for Regional Peace" is one such infrastructure initiative: a railway connecting the Haifa port with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The objective is for Israel and Jordan to function as the land bridge linking the Mediterranean Sea to the Arabian Gulf, to create a trade route linking Europe with Israel and the Gulf. Israel began promoting the project in 2018.
The project’s explicit aim is to knit together the economies of Israel and potential Gulf allies more closely and to create a bigger economic bloc undercutting Iran’s regional economic influence. As Israel’s foreign minister noted when he revealed more details in 2019, it is intended to "create shorter, faster, cheaper and safer regional trade routes," enhance "regional stability" and push "peace forward."
Another example of an infrastructure project with a clear geopolitical agenda is the natural gas pipeline, which runs from Israel to Europe, through Greece and Cyprus to Italy. This project is aided by the investment of the UAE. The pipeline, which aims to be operational by 2025, is, like the railway, intended to shift the political and economic geography of the region: as the world’s longest and deepest pipeline, it would provide a different route for the gas export trade from the Middle East to Europe.
The geopolitics of the pipeline are clear: to strengthen the eastern Mediterranean-Israel-Gulf axis at the expense of Turkey, an ally of Iran and hostile politically to both Israel and the UAE. Israel opposes Turkey’s own attempts to build an oil and gas pipeline from Libya to Europe and defies its efforts to maximize its territorial waters.
In fact, a pipeline based on Israel-Turkey collaboration would seem rational and could have been less expensive. But Ankara’s antagonism places it outside of the Israel-Gulf bloc; for Jerusalem, strengthening the relationship with the UAE was a far greater priority both strategically and funding-wise. It is no accident that one of the most aggressive responses to the Israel-UAE normalization deal came from Turkey.
Lebanon is also involved. In 2019, it warned the pipeline consortium not to violate its maritime borders: the route of the pipeline went through territory still in dispute between Lebanon and Israel, who consider each other enemy states. Israel approved an agreement with its European partners nonetheless.
The U.S. has acted as intermediary in negotiations to draw those borders, whose significance have been boosted by the presence of potentially lucrative gas fields under the sea floor. This week, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Schenker announced that Israel and Lebanon are "getting closer" to reaching agreement on the demarcation of the maritime border between them.
Lebanon’s initial warnings and threats have transfigured into willingness to negotiate (even at one step removed) – and it is its dire economic distress that has catalyzed this spirit of compromise. Indeed, if an Israeli-Lebanese agreement is reached on this specific border issue, that would throw open the potential for "four-way cooperation," between Israel, Lebanon, Cyprus, and Egypt, on transport and trade.
That would indeed change the political and economic geography of the eastern Mediterranean, but its feasibility still hinges on the degree to which Lebanon would engage with Israel. Moreover, its economic crisis is likely to dissolve more old oppositions to engagement with Israel than the maritime borders issue.
The Beirut port explosion is likely to be another trigger. The massive blast destroyed large parts of Lebanon’s main port, its largest shipping and clearing point (carrying over 70 percent of Lebanon’s imports and exports by sea) and one of the largest and busiest ports on the Eastern Mediterranean.
81 miles to the south is Haifa port, also one of the largest ports in the Middle East, now undergoing a major expansion which will make it one of the most modern, advanced ports in the region. Its new terminals already operational; the world’s two largest shipping companies have already sent ships there.
With the Beirut port out of action (and Thursday’s new blaze another sign how far away it is even from beginning its reconstruction), is there a chance of cooperation with Israel’s Haifa port for importing and exporting goods? Will the urgency of finding a logistics solution to salvage its trade networks make this a game changer for Lebanon? Could this lead to a de facto normalization on economic grounds that could then slide into political recognition? Does Lebanon even have a choice?
The obvious biggest obstacle to even tentative steps towards normalization is Hezbollah, the most powerful and heavily armed militia in Lebanon, backed by Iran and a close ally of Syria’s Assad, operating as a state within a state and which holds kingmaker status in the formation of Lebanon’s governments.
Hezbollah’s raison d’etre has always been to lead the military resistance against Israel and, more recently, to guard against Islamist insurgents in Syria. But Hezbollah is not autonomous of its context: the movement has far less space for manoeuvre now, not least when recent events have severely punctured its popularity, and even the rationale for its existence.
Hezbollah formally entered Lebanese politics after the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. In a twist of fate, the court case in The Hague trying his alleged murderers wrapped up in mid-August, just after the Beirut blast.
The Special Tribunal for Lebanon, a UN-established court, found a Hezbollah member guilty of his murder, and three other defendants - described by the court as supporters of Hezbollah - were acquitted. In its verdict, the court said it lacked direct evidence to directly implicate Hezbollah’s leaders in ordering the assassination, but noted they had clear motives to do so.
Even after the court ruling, Hezbollah denied any involvement and accused the tribunal of serving a political agenda: to undermine Hezbollah, in a campaign orchestrated by its enemies in the United States and Israel.
Even if it seems Hezbollah got off lightly from the Hariri verdict, the movement has not escaped unprecedented criticism for its part in the Beirut blast. Hezbollah’s leaders have been targeted by numerous public demonstrations ever since the blast, including being depicted in life-size cut-outs of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah with a noose around his neck.
That anger was triggered by suspicions that Hezbollah was involved in the storage of the explosive ammonium nitrate. German newspaper Die Welt reported that, according to Western intelligence sources, the militia bought considerable quantities of the dangerous substance and had it delivered to Lebanon at precisely that time.
What is certain is that Hezbollah repeatedly used ammonium nitrate for attacks. According to the U.S. National Intelligence Coordinator, four incidents involving Hezbollah using ammonium nitrate are on record. The Hezbollah chief has said on many occasions that Beirut’s airport, port and land borders are all under the militia’s control, but in the aftermath of the attack, denied his organization had anything to do with the chemical supply that caused the explosion.
When the ship brought the ammonium nitrate to Beirut, Hezbollah was expanding its fighting positions on the Israeli border and also digging tunnels towards Israel. The explosives could have been intended for attacks against Israel using these tunnels.
It’s hard to predict the fate of Hezbollah amongst all this, but the militia is clearly struggling to sustain its funding levels (given Iran’s own financial straits) and maintain its political protection.
Hezbollah has managed to keep a lid on Lebaneses critics of its activities and corruption, but in today’s political turmoil, protestors are demanding wholesale change, and Hezbollah is a target. According to Beirut-based commentator Gino Raidy, "What was once taboo and banned, like talking about Nasrallah, is everywhere."
Despite Nasrallah’s attempts to deflect blame by turning up the decibel on threatening Israel, many more Lebanese are now dismissive of these tactics. As Iran expert Sanam Vakil has noted: “There will be absolutely no appetite and no support for any such adventurism.”
And Hezbollah’s cozy alliance with the Free Patriotic Movement, one of Lebanon’s leading political parties, has become fraught. Hezbollah got the FPM’s backing to retain its weapons, and political cover for acting outside of the state’s control. In return, Hezbollah helped elevate FBM’s leader, Michel Aoun, to the presidency.
But ever since Aoun handed over the party leadership to his son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, tensions have surfaced, including regarding Lebanon’s relationship with Israel.
Bassil has made remarks on more than one occasion about not having a problem with Israel, much to Hezbollah’s displeasure. "To us, [Israel] isn’t an ideological cause. We are not against Israel existing with security. We are not against it," Bassil said in a December 2017 interview. Again, in September 2018, he added that when Lebanon accepts a peace agreement with Israel, "it means that you accept its existence."
When President Aoun was asked about the chances of peace with Israel following the UAE deal, he didn’t rule out the possibility: "It depends," he replied. "We have problems with Israel that we need to solve first."
With the UAE and Bahrain now seeking to formalize normal relations with Israel and to kick-start wide-scale economic cooperation, is Lebanon, buffeted by economic disaster, and with Hezbollah under fire, now being pushed into peace?
What is clear is that any moves towards normalization between Lebanon and Israel, two neighboring states with decades of actual conflict and bloodshed between them, would definitively signal a new era in Arab-Israel relations, and a radically new political and economic geography for the Middle East.
Miran Khwais is a PhD Candidate in Transportation Engineering at Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, from where she was awarded both her BSc and MSc