Abbas Ibrahim: Lebanon-Israel Maritime Border Deal Reached in Shadow of Hezbollah Threats

The U.S.-mediated Lebanon-Israel maritime border agreement was hailed as a diplomatic accomplishment upon its signing two years ago. In each of the three countries, officials declared that their national objectives had been accomplished, and that a regional war had been narrowly avoided.  Some pro Lebanon analysts even hailed the agreement as a major victory over Hezbollah, which they claimed has recognized  Israel’s existence. Falsely, they claimed, Lebanon had made concessions by “allowing” Israel to retain the whole Karish field, and by dropping its maximalist demand for Line 29. But the former was already Israel’s to begin with, and Lebanon never officially adopted Line 29 as signifying the maximum extent of its maritime boundary.

Indeed, all of the accomplishments of this deal have proven illusory. No regional war was averted in signing the deal, as Hezbollah has not been in a position to engage in a war with Israel for almost four years. In fact, it has assiduously avoided direct confrontation with the Jewish state during that time. It is unlikely the group would have launched a major war over blocs of hydrocarbon deposits with an expected maximum value of $6 billion over the span of fifteen years.

Nor did this entail any recognition of Israel by either Lebanon or Hezbollah, however interested parties attempt to spin it. The Lebanese delegation refused to negotiate directly with the Israelis, and the two parties signed separate documents. Despite Israeli insistence at the time, Lebanese officials stressed that it emphatically did not constitute recognition of Israel by Lebanon.

As far as Hezbollah was concerned, the deal did not constitute a recognition of Israel’s right to exist, let alone that it possesses borders to be respected. In fact, the group’s Secretary-General, Hassan Nasrallah, emphasized that point in his speech the next day wherein he stressed that Israel still retained “2.5 sq. kilometers” of Lebanese waters, an “area which Lebanon considers occupied.” In other words, the deal didn’t even deprive Hezbollah of a casus belli.

The reality is that this deal was reached by the government of an outgoing acting Israeli prime minister, Yair Lapid, amid an election cycle against a resurgent Benjamin Netanyahu. Lapid was desperate to produce a foreign policy accomplishment to rival Netanyahu’s signing of the Abraham Accords. Hence inflating the importance of this deal beyond all deserved proportion.

Lapid’s messaging was helped along by a U.S. administration that has proven itself, on the one hand, dogmatically beholden to the notion that the United States must “save” Lebanon, and all too eager to cut deals detrimental to American interests with Iran and its proxies.

On April 03, 2023, Months after the deal was signed, General Abbas Ibrahim --  Lebanon’s General Security Director General and the United States’ main Lebanese interlocutor during the negotiations – gave an interview, in which he detailed the degree to which Hezbollah’s threats influenced Washington’s decision-making during negotiations.

In the interview, Ibrahim claims U.S. envoy Amos Hochstein was swayed into accepting Lebanon’s terms for the deal by Hezbollah threatening to drag the region into a major war if negotiations failed, and then buzzing Israel’s Karish gas field with drones. Hochstein failed to detect that Hezbollah’s threat was a bluff, and that its alleged show of force was little more than one of the group’s typical theatrical stunts.

If the interview is to be believed, it presents three critical, albeit disconcerting, takeaways. First,  a U.S. official caved into empty threats of war from one of America’s biggest terrorist adversaries and, in turn, led a U.S. ally to make undeserved concessions to avert those threats from materializing. Second, Hezbollah and the Lebanese state worked in tandem, and coordinated stances and actions, during the maritime border negotiation process. The Lebanese state set the terms, and Hezbollah acted as the muscle and reinforcement. The final takeaway is that a high-ranking Lebanese official, whom many Americans consider an honest broker, spoke on behalf of Hezbollah as if the terror group was due equal status to the Lebanese state.

Ibrahim gave the interview to An-Nahar, and it was reproduced in Hezbollah’s newspaper Al-Ahed.  The translation follows:

General Abbas Ibrahim Reveals Secrets of Southern Border Demarcation: I Delivered to Hochstein a Striking Message from Nasrallah

There are several truths and details regarding the issue of the southern maritime border, and several secrets surrounding it, that cannot be revealed all at once. Because some of them may taint the achievement, and because what has been written can be understood immediately – because what is understood is that since the General Director of General Security General Abbas Ibrahim took over the entire [maritime border demarcation] file, since the American mediator Amos Hochstein took over [responsibility for mediating], and far from the public spotlight when the [matter] changed from [demarcating] the land border to the maritime border, meant that the decision had been taken to either solve the issue or go to confrontation. For he [Ibrahim] is the one who possessed boldness that astonished both the Lebanese and American political echelon, and was highly appreciated by Hezbollah’s leadership, because he conducted negotiations without gloves and without pulling punches – and he erased himself when he went to inform the American side, and through them the Israelis, a message that others would not dare to carry, related to [presenting them] with very limited options between either war or a solution. And he got what he wanted.

In this conversation, the “Negotiations General” reveals some of the truths and secrets connected to the process of demarcating the land [border] first, and the maritime [border] later.

*What is the story of General Abbas Ibrahim on the launch of the negotiation process that led to the demarcation of the southern maritime border?

Let me begin with the basis of negotiations, and how the idea of negotiating over the land first came about and then moved on to the maritime [border], because there is a connection between both demarcations. The idea of negotiations initially was an Israeli suggestion. It was conveyed by General Michael Berry who was the commander of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) at the time, when he visited me in my office in 2017, and told me: “I have an offer from the Israelis, who spoke to me and told me they want me to speak with the Director General of the General Security General Abbas Ibrahim personally, and we are ready to demarcate the land border, because after the Israeli withdrawal [in May 2000] we were left with the Blue Line, the technical fence, and the international boundary – in other words, three lines along the maritime border.” We had reservations about 13 locations which we hadn’t accepted at the time, and the Israelis had a desire to end this demarcation and have a new international boundary draw. I answered that this would require a political decision, and that I would inform him of the atmosphere of what I would find out, and this is what happened. I conducted a tour of Lebanese leadership [i.e. the governmental leadership and leadership of individual political factions, which would include Hezbollah] and I received their blessing and approval. We formed an delegation, and so the process of demarcating the land border began at that time – based on our acute desire to regain our land, particularly the 13 points where we had reservations, and gain our complete land rights.

*How did the negotiation process proceed?

We began negotiations after forming a delegation that included officers from the Lebanese Army and Lebanese General Security. The [delegation] would go to Naqoura and meet the Israeli enemy in indirect meetings, as was the norm during the tripartite meetings with the Army [hosted by UNIFIL] – so, according to that same arrangement. We were able to solve 7 points upon which we had reservations from a total of 13 points. I saw at that point that if matters proceeded in this manner, we would reach a point where we would finalize the land border demarcation – but the truth is that our main problem was in the maritime border demarcation. We knew of the wealth [of natural resources] available in the waters, and we reached point of “B1” in the Ras al-Naqoura area. This point was of great interest to the [Israeli] enemy for both security and tourism reason (like the existing tunnel and resorts). When we reached this point, the enemy tried to conduct a land swap – and I personally directed refused, and called for freezing land border demarcation [talks] and suggested we switch to maritime border demarcation.

*Did the European delegate return and what messages did he carry with him from the Israeli side?

The emissary of the European country left and returned after a short while saying the Israelis were ready to negotiate the demarcation of the maritime border, but he said he was worried about two things:

First: the lack of unity in the political position, and as a result political gaps that could put an end to any understanding.

Second: Hezbollah’s position regarding negotiations, and what its reaction would be if we reached an agreement.

From this starting point, the Israelis thought that I was maneuvering and buying time until the Lebanese situation healed and coalesced at the political level. My response was that if I had been maneuvering, I would not have demanded Line 23. There is a decision from the Lebanese state and Decree No. 6433 deposited with the United Nations by the Lebanese state. This decree represents [what we consider to be] our full rights. Were I a manipulator, I would have demanded Haifa’s water or Line 29,[1]or I would have said that we are not ready to negotiate. The envoy replied that he would return again.

*Did the Europeans end their involvement at this point?

After that, secret meetings occurred between me and the ambassador of this country in Beirut. But what moved matters along was the appointment of a new American envoy, Amos Hochstein, to complete the negotiations to demarcate the maritime borders. At this point, the American administration had changed [from the Trump administration to the Biden administration].

*But during the Trump administrations, it’s said there was pressure – is this true? Is there evidence?

Of course. One of the political officials called me at the time and told me that the American administration was offering the remaining six points of the land border (and we were in a state close to bankruptcy at that time) $500 million for demarcating each point, and that we would receive $3 billion immediately. I answered that even had the offer been $300 billion dollars – and this was my stance which was also the stance of the Lebanese state – that I would refuse to continue with the matter of the land border if the maritime borders were not demarcated. You, politicians, go see what you can do. [Because] the issue of border demarcation has nothing to do with gas deposits, but with sovereignty, and to us this is more important than natural resources. The Hochstein was appointed.  In October 2021, a mutual friend of mine and Hochstein’s visited me. He told me that Hochstein would resolve the issue and that there was a sincere American will to resolve the issue. He also told me that Hochstein would like to meet with me outside Lebanon, either in France, or in Doha, or in whatever place I would specify in the world. My answer was as long as there was a sincere will for a solution, the location of the meeting was immaterial. It happened that I was among the [Lebanese] delegation participating in the Arab Sports Summit on November 29, 2021 in Doha. So Hochstein called me and asked to meet in Doha since I would be there. And we met in Doha.

*What came of the meeting with Hochstein in Doha?

The next day, on December 1, 2021, I met Mr. Amos Hochstein in a hotel for breakfast in the morning, and he showed me the first “zigzag” map. It started out as straight and cut off part of the Qana field by about 20%, then it continued zigzag until it finally reached the Hof Line. I answered that the breakfast was very good, but the map was bad, and this map was unacceptable. I said I would I accept a zigzag map after the Qana field, meaning give me the entire Qana field and then start zigzagging. As long as the principle of zigzag is on the table, give me the entire field of Qana, then make the line straight or zigzag, there is no difference. But [I said], “I inform you in the name of the Lebanese State, I want an area of 860 square kilometers in full, with not a single centimeter missing from it. He said he would try to arrange for us to meet again, and the meeting ended on that basis. I then returned to Beirut.

*After that, Hochstein renewed his negotiation efforts between Lebanon and Israel, so what was the content of the message that you conveyed to him from Hezbollah’s leadership?

Hochstein returned on June 13, 2022. He told me his visit was meant to hear the Lebanese position more than that he was coming to make a new offer. He wanted to hear our position. So I told him I would begin, told him that the following day he would meet President Aoun, who will show him a map. From that point on, [he should consider] this map to be the result of the unified Lebanese position. So that he will not be surprised, I told him that the map had been produced two years prior and included all of Line 23, but that they [i.e. the Americans] haven’t budged. It should be noted that in prior meetings, Hochstein had always focused on Hezbollah. In this meeting, I felt matters were starting to get complicated. I had with me a message from his eminence Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah to Hochstein, in the presence of U.S. Ambassador [to Lebanon] Dorothy Shea. I told him that the letter was from Hezbollah’s leadership, in response to his constant questions about Hezbollah’s position, and that the letter was from sayyed Hassan Nasrallah personally. [The letter] stated that Hezbollah doesn’t want to get involved, and does not believe in any of these borders [translator note: because, based on other statements from the group, it doesn’t recognize Israel’s existence or right to exist]. But it stands behind the Lebanese state, and if the Lebanese state demands Line 29, then Hezbollah will support that, and if the Lebanese state asks for Line 23, then the group would support that as well. So the matter should be clear once and for all that the Lebanese state was the party responsible for determining which line – and Hezbollah would stand behind it to support it in accomplishing its goal. [The message also stated] that the Greek ship “Energean” had to leave, and we didn’t want to hear whether it was north or south of Line 29. This ship had to leave the Karish field entirely, and any resumption of its activities would be confronted, even if this would mean war. No gas from Lebanon and no gas from Karish. And if matters developed, then no gas [would be extracted] from Lebanon or the entire Palestinian [i.e. Israeli] coast. And let this matter be known.

The atmosphere of the meeting immediately changed, and I told Mr. Hochstein, “you have yet to hear the most important thing. You’ve heard what’s important, and now you must hear what’s even more important. I’ll say this very clearly -- the war plans [by Hezbollah] are ready, and I’m telling you this now. If Israel wants a war, we are ready for it. We don’t want a war, but we will not expose our resources or sovereignty to blackmail. The area north and south of Line 29 will become legitimate targets for us, and we will prevent Israel from working in [its] oil fields. Israel must know that our losses will be great, but for Israel this will be an existential war, and it is unknown if the entire region will descend into war as well. You, Mr. Hochstein, are responsible [now] for war or peace in the region.” The last thing I noted was that he wouldn’t hear these words from any other Lebanese official, and I convey it to you with all boldness as it appeared in the letter – and you must take everything I said very seriously.

*After this development, you visited the UNIFIL command. What was the purpose of your visit?

On July 2, 2022, I was visiting the NFIL commander who informed me during the visit that he was uncomfortable about what was happening on the ground. He said he saw abnormal movements that suggested a preparation for some military action. He asked me to help him understand what was going on, so I promised to help him and inform him of what I would determine was happening. But I told him, “I want to tell you the region is on the brink of war.” He was astonished and surprised by what I said, and the visit ended.

*The first concrete message conveying escalation was the launch of [Hezbollah’s] drones over Karish. Was there any contact with you?

I was at home at night, and saw media outlets reporting on Hezbollah’s drones over Karish and the Greek ship. Meanwhile, I received a phone call from Hochstein and he told me that he was not feeling well, so I replied that I was in good condition. “How are you ok? Did you not know what happened in the south?” [Hochstein asked]. I answered him: Mr. Amos, I warned you and told you these words you will not hear [from anyone else], that they are serious words, and that I am transmitting the message. But you were unmoved. He said that Ambassador Shea met with the Lebanese heads of government told them  a message that she will tell convey to you [as well] next Monday. I told him in response that from now until that Monday he would have to find a solution [to prevent war] and that I was not responsible [for what would happen]. Immediately after that, I received a call from U.S. Ambassador Dorothy Shea regarding the conversation with Hochstein. Hochstein then called me a second time to inform me that this war would destroy Lebanon. I responded that I had already told him when conveying the message that this war would destroy Lebanon, Israel, and half the region. He said, “what do you mean?” I said I want a response to the message [from Hezbollah] otherwise I cannot talk to Hezbollah. He responded that the Qana field is now all yours [translator’s note: thus acceding to all of Lebanon’s demands] and you can cross Line 23 in order to conduct investments, extraction, and development activities. So I said, “now I have something to tell them.” So I called [Hezbollah Liaison and Coordination Unit head and official responsible for Hezbollah’s coordination with the international community and with Lebanese security agencies] hajj Wafiq Safa and told him of the [American] response. [Safa] told me to inform Hochstein that the messaged sufficed for us [i.e. Hezbollah] to either halt or continue any military activity at that time.

*What about Hochstein’s visit after the drones?

On July 13, 2022, Hochstein visited me, blaming me. I responded that I had told him previously [what would happen] and that he shouldn’t be influenced by media appearances or analyses , and that we should continue negotiations. I reminded him that I had been very serious with him, and I know precisely who got involved. At that time, there was [another] American mediator, who was present throughout the whole period of negotiations, who would smooth out issues that would arise between me and the Israelis. He told me that in the coming visit, Hochstein would present me with a very important file. During the visit and after the reproach, I asked Hochstein for the file he was carrying to me from the Israelis. He was shocked and began to obfuscate. I told him that we’re going to war. After some time had passed, he asked to meet with me alone. That is what happened. He pulled out a new map and showed it to me. I expressed my approval of it immediately, then confirmed my approval.

*What of the final offer, and the consequences of Hezbollah’s message?

Finally, Hochstein sent me the final offer. We met at the Presidential Palace [in Baabda]. We changed a few world in English. And that was it. And Hochstein got the time that he needed.