On Tuesday evening, US President Joe Biden got on the phone with his Lebanese counterpart Michel Aoun to congratulate him conclusion of the maritime border agreement with Israel. Biden described the deal as a “historic breakthrough,” echoing a term used all day by Lebanese and Israeli officials.
After fifteen months of indirect talks, the two countries have finally concluded an agreement that gives Lebanon the right to drill for gas reserves in the Qana field, in exchange for abandoning its claim to the Karish field, which lies in Israeli waters.
The agreement comes ahead of two benchmark elections for both countries: presidential ones in Lebanon, which ought to take place before Aoun’s term ends on Oct. 31, and parliamentary ones in Israel, scheduled for November 1. Both Aoun and Israeli premier Yair Lapid were seemingly eager for a success story, whether to end their terms with a positive achievement or to justify their extension.
The Michel Aoun Factor
Aoun is under tremendous domestic pressure to leave Baabda Palace by midnight on Oct. 31, and yet he has made his departure conditional on finding a consensus president to replace him — something that remains unfulfilled.
A parliamentary session to elect a new president was held on Sep. 29, but it ended in failure. So will another session, scheduled for Thursday, October 13.
If no president is chosen between now and end of this month, Aoun won’t leave his seat to a vacuum. If that happens, demonstrations are expected, where many blame the president for the country’s economic collapse, topped with a massive 2020 explosion at the port of Beirut, which tore down half the city and killed over 200 people.
He is badly in need of a success story ahead of the upcoming confrontation, and the maritime agreement with Israel gives him just that.
Last year, with the help of his Hezbollah allies, Aoun had tried using the talks in order to pressure the Biden Administration either into either backing extension of his term, or supporting the presidential bid of his sanctioned son-in-law, Gibran Bassil.
Aoun and Hezbollah made flimsy claims to an expanded disputed area, saying that the waters in question were actually 2,290 square kilometres, rather than 860 square kilometres (thus making claim to the Karish gasfield). By now relinquishing his claim to Karish — without actually saying that — he has effectively backed down on his demands, realising that he won’t be getting anything from the US.
The Hezbollah Factor
A source close to Hezbollah was quoted on Tuesday saying that they too supported the agreement. Many see that support as directly related to what’s happening within Iran, as demonstrations over the death of Mahsa Amini enter their fourth week.
The Iranian leadership is simply too busy with what’s happening at home to pay serious attention to what’s happening in Lebanon. Hezbollah has also shown flexibility in the cabinet formation process underway in Lebanon since mid-May, saying that it has no conditions for Prime Minister Najib Mikati, and no quota of seats in any future government.
Hezbollah-backed media has been aggressively peddling Monday’s agreement to the group’s Shiite constituency, saying that Israel will have no say on when Lebanon’s drilling will start. Hezbollah-affiliated newspapers and websites have been underlining the importance of the Qana field that Lebanon just got, while dropping earlier reference to Karish. They made no mention of Hasan Nasrallah’s mid-July threat to strike at Karish if drilling there began before an agreement was finalised with Lebanon.
An earlier proposal to co-share revenue from the Qana field has been flatly rejected by Hezbollah. The French oil giant Total came to the rescue, saying that it will handle Israel’s reimbursement, without deducting it from Lebanon’s gas revenue.
A win-win situation
In short, the agreement is a win-win for both sides. By gaining access to Qana, Hezbollah can say that it defended Lebanon’s rights to its natural gas, given that the field has been accepted as Lebanese in its entirety. It can quietly distance itself from Nasrallah’s earlier threats, given that no drilling took place at Karish before the deal was concluded. No drilling means no war for Lebanon.
President Aoun gets his much-needed success story, which will come into handy in the last two weeks of his term. At a bare minimum, it gives Aoun the pretext needed to heighten his party’s grip on the Ministry of Energy, which is currently held by his protégé Walid Fayyad.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati has been trying to replace Fayyad with an independent, but that will become increasingly difficult now, with drilling just around the corner. Aoun will make a permanent claim to the portfolio of energy, just like the Amal Movement always gets the Ministry of Finance and the Future Movement used to get the Ministry of Interior.
Within Israel, Prime Minister Lapid needs to win 61 seats in the upcoming Knesset in order to stay in power. That will become easier with the maritime agreement, which is being shown in parts of the Israeli media as having protected Israel’s natural resources, while addressing its security concerns.
He is taking credit for drowning a proposal to create a 5-km safe zone near the shores of Naqoura, saying that it would have placed the Israeli city of Naharya at the mercy of Hezbollah fire. The deal hopes to silence the non-stop criticism of his prime rival and predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, who hopes to return to power after Nov. 1 and is focusing his campaign on lambasting Lapid for having “sold out” to Hezbollah.
The devil, however, always lies in the detail. For starters, the Israeli Knesset is required to approve the deal two weeks before it is ratified by government.
That barely gives Israeli lawmakers enough time ahead of the November elections. Hezbollah might actually try to postpone any official ratification in Beirut until after the Israeli elections, fearing that if Netanyahu comes to power, then he might back out on the agreement.
Rhetoric aside, practical problems remain. Lebanon doesn’t know exactly the amount of gas that Qana holds, nor the cost of its extraction. Provided that it can come up with the money, how will it export it? To justify abandoning Qana to the Lebanese, sections of Israeli media has been saying that it contains less gas than what everybody had originally expected.
With a deal in place, for the moment, all sides are celebrating.
— Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also author of Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.