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SPECIAL 'Line by line' Hezbollah shows pragmatic side in Lebanese-Israeli deal

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  • Hezbollah endorsed the deal, while pragmatism saw ideology as leverage
  • US clinches an important reconciliation between Israel and Lebanon
  • Offshore gas will provide Lebanon with much-needed remittances

BEIRUT, October 18 (Reuters) – Powerful Hezbollah scrutinized the final draft line-by-line and gave an important sign of acceptance before the Lebanese government approved a US-mediated agreement with Israel that resolved a decades-old maritime border dispute.

Marked by Washington as a terrorist group and a sworn enemy of Israel, Iran-backed Hezbollah was certainly nowhere near the negotiating room during the US shuttle diplomacy that cemented the landmark deal last week.

But according to sources familiar with Hezbollah’s thinking, a Lebanese official and a Western source familiar with the process, the heavily armed group was briefed on the details and expressed their views, even though it threatened military action, even if Lebanon’s interests were not secured. .

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An unprecedented compromise between hostile states, the agreement paves the way for offshore energy research and neutralizes a potential source of conflict between Israel and Hezbollah.

Observers say the deal is far more important to Hezbollah’s pragmatism, pointing to the shifting priorities of a group formed four decades ago by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to fight Israel.

“The Hezbollah leadership studied the agreement line-by-line before reaching it,” said one source familiar with the group’s thinking.

After spending much of the last decade deploying fighters and military expertise in the Middle East to assist Iran’s allies, particularly Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah’s focus is today in Lebanon, a country in deep crisis.

More involved than ever in state affairs, Hezbollah has said offshore oil and gas is the only way for Lebanon to emerge from a devastating financial collapse that has hit all Lebanese hard, including its large Shiite constituency.

While Hezbollah says it’s not afraid of war with Israel, the group also says it’s not looking for a formidable enemy who carried out major invasions of Lebanon in 1978 and 1982.

Lebanon has taken years to rebuild since the last war in 2006 – much of the bill has been paid by Gulf Arabs who have since fled Beirut due to Hezbollah’s dominance. And while Tehran’s support has remained strong, Western sanctions have squeezed the amount of cash Iran can send to the group.

‘HAVOC’ OR PRAGMATISM

An energy discovery offshore – though not by itself sufficient to solve Lebanon’s deep economic problems – would be a huge boon, providing much-needed hard currency and possibly easing the crippling blackouts one day.

Two Hezbollah lawmakers told Reuters the group was open to the idea of ​​a deal as a way to ease some of Lebanon’s economic woes.

“They had to deal with it pragmatically, not ideologically,” said Sami Atallah, director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, describing Hezbollah’s role as critical. “They knew they had the power to wreak havoc if they wanted to – but that could come at a very high cost.”

According to the Lebanese official and a Western source familiar with the process, the US recommendations were conveyed to the Hezbollah leadership by senior Lebanese security official Abbas Ibrahim, who also met with US envoy Amos Hochstein.

A Western source said that Hezbollah at one point conveyed its disappointment with the slow progress of talks to Hochstein through Ibrahim.

When asked about Hezbollah’s role, Mohamed Afif, head of Hezbollah’s media office, said the state was conducting the negotiations and “we stood behind it”. “Our concern was that Lebanon was securing its rights over its resources,” he said.

Reuters was unable to immediately reach Ibrahim’s office for comment. The US State Department did not respond to questions sent by email because of Hochstein’s contacts with Ibrahim.

A senior US administration official said the talks were conducted with Lebanon’s sovereign leadership and did not include talks with Hezbollah.

The urgency of Hochstein’s mission increased in June when an Israeli gas rig arrived ashore to survey the Karish field—waters Lebanon claims but Israel says is in its exclusive economic zone.

On July 2, Hezbollah sent three unarmed drones flying over the Karish field. They were captured by the Israeli army.

Hezbollah claimed it was a show of force, and its allies in Lebanon accused the group’s military stance of compromising Israel – a claim that was completely rejected by Israel.

A US official told Reuters that Hezbollah “nearly killed the deal with its provocative rhetoric and war-threatening actions”. “No party can or should claim victory.”

PEACE IS STILL AWAY AWAY

Hezbollah gave the green light to controversial details.

These included an implicit nod to the arrangements that would result in Israel earning a slice of revenue from the perspective of Qana, which it thought was all in Lebanon’s waters but Israel said it was partially in its own waters.

For a diplomatic workaround, France – determined to explore on behalf of Lebanon – should make TotalEnergies a separate deal with Israel and receive a portion of royalties with Israel, and Lebanese will not be allowed to take any of the royalties, Gebran Bassil, a politician who closely followed the talks, told Reuters. He said it required him to skip an inclusion. .

A spokesperson for TotalEnergies said they had no comment.

Three French diplomatic sources said French officials had spoken to Hezbollah representatives about the overall agreement.

France’s foreign ministry said France was actively contributing to the agreement “by passing messages between the different parties, especially with the American mediator”.

Although the stars have come together to make this deal happen, peace remains a distant prospect between states where Hezbollah’s influence is deeply entrenched in Beirut and which is at odds on many issues.

But more than 16 years since the last war, the benefits from any gas production could help thwart another. “When the pipes fall into the water, the war goes far,” said a source familiar with Hezbollah’s thinking.

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additional reporting by John Irish and Benjamin Mallet in Paris; and Editing by Tom Perry, Editing by William Maclean

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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