The real victors of an Israel-Lebanon deal

A pact that resolves a territorial dispute and access to gas wealth required a shift in Lebanon toward a governance of equality and rights.

People walk near the Lebanese border as Israeli navy boats patrol the Mediterranean Sea.

Technically, Lebanon is still at war with Israel. And its most powerful political force, the Iran-backed Shiite militia called Hezbollah, still regards Israel as a sworn enemy. Yet on Tuesday, Lebanon and Israel agreed to an American-brokered deal that resolves a dispute over their boundary in the eastern Mediterranean and the natural gas under the seabed. The deal makes history in many ways, not least in Hezbollah’s indirect recognition of Israel but even more in the blow to its violent attempts to impose Iran-style rule by clerics.

The real victors in the agreement are Lebanese youths who, during mass protests in 2019, demanded an end to the use of religion in politics and a focus on secular democracy that treats citizens as individuals, not as mere members of a demographic group. Their demands also included a reform of Lebanon’s shattered economy – including the tapping of offshore petroleum.

In elections last May, this pro-democracy shift led to Hezbollah and its political allies losing their majority in Parliament and an increase in independent, reform-minded activists. As one protester put it, “The people are one – Shia, Sunni, Christian, they’re all one here.”

Most of all, young Lebanese no longer see Israel as a threat but instead oppose Hezbollah’s attempts to create a theocracy like that in Iran – where weeks of mass protests have challenged the regime’s brutally enforced rule by unelected clerics. In Iraq, too, young people protested in 2019 against Iran’s influence, resulting in pro-Iranian parties losing their majority in a parliamentary election last year.

Iran’s protests began in mid-September with the death of a young woman in police custody after she was arrested in Tehran for improper head covering. They have spread to many cities but also shifted toward demands of equality. On Tuesday, for example, Iran’s main medical association issued a statement signed by some 800 doctors that proclaimed “the people as the real owners of the country.”

In Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran, people cherish freedom of conscience and democratic rule of law, not a theocracy that denies such rights. Lebanon had many reasons to settle its territorial dispute with Israel – for petroleum wealth and economic stability. Yet its ability to even cut the deal required a push for good governance from the Lebanese. That push began with their claim to liberty, not limited liberties granted from on high.

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