“The necessary mission was accomplished and the message was sent,” Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said after his organization launched three drones at Israel’s Karish offshore Mediterranean gas rig on Saturday.
The existence of the gas rig at Karish, which is operated by the Energean gas exploration company, is no secret and doesn’t require launching surveillance drones to confirm, so Nasrallah apparently meant that was the actual mission.
That message had several recipients. Israel could conclude from it that Hezbollah isn’t deterred by the possibility of a violent conflict and even intends to start one if it thinks Israel is infringing on Lebanon’s sovereignty by exploring for gas in areas Lebanon claims as its own.
But that would contradict Nasrallah’s statement a few months ago that he would support any decision the Lebanese government made regarding the maritime boundary between the two countries’ exclusive economic zones. It would also contradict the tacit consent that he gave to negotiating the boundary.
Granted that Nasrallah has threatened in recent weeks to “cut off the hand of anyone who tries to infringe on Lebanese sovereignty.” But the threat wasn’t aimed solely at Israel. In his view, concessions by any Lebanese government or president to Israel would merit such punishment.
The day those drones were launched, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian landed in Damascus for talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad about repairing Syria’s relations with Turkey. That followed the foreign minister’s visit to Turkey last week to discuss Ankara’s plans for an incursion into Kurdish areas of Syria and to apologize for deploying an Iranian terrorist cell that targeted Israelis on Turkish soil.
Amir-Abdollahian’s presence in Syria coupled with the widespread assumption that Hezbollah is committed to coordination with Tehran before taking action against other countries – such as launching drones or shooting at Israel – too easily leads to the conclusion that Iran was behind the drone launch. But there have been cases in the past in which Hezbollah attacked Israel without prior coordination with Iran, including its abduction of Israeli soldiers in 2006, which led to the Second Lebanon War.
Moreover, if Hezbollah indeed coordinated the drone launch with Iran with the goal of avenging attacks attributed to Israel in Iran and Syria, why wouldn’t it have sent armed drones instead of the unarmed ones that it did?
- Israel downs unarmed Hezbollah drones believed to be heading for gas rig
- Hezbollah sends a message with three unarmed drones over Israel's maritime zone
- Lebanon ready to drop claim for disputed gas field off Israeli coast, officials say
If, however, the move was not coordinated with Iran, and given that Nasrallah was also quick to claim responsibility for the operation, then he evidently wanted to send a resounding message to Lebanese politicians even though he and Iran both know Israeli analysts would be quick to blame the Iranians.
That’s the working assumption that ought to guide Israel, and it requires Jerusalem to weigh its response very carefully, particularly since Hezbollah’s actions are based on the expectation of an automatic Israeli response in the form of a show of military force. But it would also inject Israel into Lebanon’s political arena in a way that would play into Hezbollah’s hands and give it political leverage.
And such leverage would enable Hezbollah to force or prevent economic and diplomatic moves that are vital to save Lebanon.
According to Lebanon, its dispute with Israel over the boundaries of their exclusive economic zones is on hold until Israel responds to the latest proposal from American special envoy Amos Hochstein. The proposal would have Lebanon waive its demand for the border to be set at what is known as Line 29 – its maximum demand in the talks – and would have it make do with Line 23 farther north. The difference between the two is an estimated 1,500 square kilometers (580 square miles).
But Lebanon also has another demand: the Qana gas field, which lies between the two lines, must be fully under its sovereignty. That would create a meandering boundary that would have to loop around Qana to include it. So far, Israel has rejected the demand on the grounds that Qana, which lies partly in Israel’s territory and partly in Lebanon’s, should be divided between the countries.
Ideas for surmounting the hurdle include having Lebanon sell its share of the field to Israel or having the companies that extract gas from Qana only pay a portion of their royalties to Israel. As far as is known, Israel has yet to respond to the proposals.
For now, the discussion surrounding Qana is purely theoretical since no detailed geological surveys of the field have been conducted, and it isn’t even known whether it contains any gas. But until the borders are demarcated, no international company would begin exploring for gas in any part of Lebanon’s territory.
The owners of the Lebanese field are the Lebanese government, the French energy firm Total, the Italian company Eni and Russia’s Novatek. The three companies set up a consortium to produce Lebanese gas and have conducted geological surveys in other parts of Lebanon’s economic zone.
Prime Minister Yair Lapid is slated to meet with French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday, and Macron will ask him to help get the negotiations across the finish line. Macron views himself as the custodian of Lebanon’s economic rehabilitation, and Total’s interests are also close to his heart.
The problem is that time is pressing, because the more time passes, the more the threat of conflict increases.
And even if the sides reach an agreement on demarcating the borders, Lebanon would have to pass legislation ratifying the boundaries and inform the UN Security Council that it has accepted them. Without these procedural steps, which ensure international legal recognition of the border, no company would invest in exploration and drilling.
An order confirming the northern Line 23 as the Lebanese border has already been drafted and is waiting on the Lebanese president’s desk to be signed. But it doesn’t include the demand for ownership of the Qana field, and this gives Hezbollah room to maneuver.
With Saturday’s drone launch, it has made it clear that if Lebanon decides to forgo the Qana field, it would spark the kind of reaction from Hezbollah that may very well destroy the negotiations and any prospect for an agreement.
In the process, Hezbollah has achieved two of its goals. It has expanded the balance of deterrence against Israel into the economic realm, rather than making do with deterrence on security issues, as it had done up to then.
It also reminded Lebanon’s politicians, particularly President Michel Aoun, that they would be wise not to disregard Hezbollah's demands in ongoing talks on forming a new government. Those discussions also appear to have played a role in the timing of the drone launch.