Beirut: Lebanon and Israel have reached a historic agreement demarcarting a disputed maritime border between them following years of US-mediated negotiations, Israeli prime minister said on Tuesday.
The agreement, which has to be formally approved in both countries, was hailed by leaders in Beirut and Jerusalem as a historic breakthrough. It is the first agreement on border demarcation between the two countries.
In Lebanon, President Michel Aoun said the terms of the final US proposal were satisfactory and he hoped the deal would be announced as soon as possible. Aoun tweeted that “the final version of the offer satisfies Lebanon, meets its demands and preserves its rights to its natural wealth.”
Israel Prime Minister Yair Lapid said: “This is a historic achievement that will strengthen Israel’s security, inject billions into Israel’s economy, and ensure the stability of our northern border.”
After fifteen months of talks held under UN auspices and mediated by American energy envoy Amos Hochstein, a draft agreement was finally presented to the Lebanese government on Monday night. Aoun’s office described it as “satisfactory” while the country’s top negotiator, Foreign Minister Elias Abousaab said that all of Lebanon’s conditions “have been met.” He did not go into detail.
A similar remark was made by Israel’s National Security Adviser Eyal Haluta.
The agreement is meant to resolve a territorial dispute in the eastern Mediterranean sea in an area where Lebanon aims to explore for natural gas. Israel is already producing natural gas at fields nearby.
It sets a border between Lebanese and Israeli waters for the first time and also establishes a mechanism for both countries to get royalties from an offshore gas field that straddles the boundary.
Officials hope the agreement will cool temperatures along the frontier, which have spiked in recent months.
The Institute for National Security Studies, a Tel Aviv University think tank, called the deal a “win-win situation.” “An agreement between Israel and Lebanon will mark a fundamental positive change in relations between the two countries ... and it may open the door to further changes in the future relationship between them,” it said in a report.
Lebanon’s failed claims to the Karish field
First to abuse the process was President Michel Aoun, who threw a stumbling block towards the talks back in mid-2021, saying that the disputed area was actually 2,290 square kilometers, rather than the universally accepted 860 square kilometers.
His expanded territorial claim, of course, was backed by his Hezbollah allies who marketed the new disputed area as 100 per cent Lebanese. It included the Karish field, an Israeli reservoir situated near the much larger Leviathan, Tamar, and Tanin fields. Together with Tanin, Karish holds an estimated 2-3 trillion cubic feet of gas — something that no Israeli government would ever surrender, especially not to Hezbollah.
On July 13, Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah threatened to strike at the Karish field, if Israel began drilling before an agreement was reached with Lebanon. He even sent drones over the disputed area, making a point as talks over Iran’s nuclear programme seemed on the verge of collapse in Vienna.
Nasrallah has since backed down on his claims to Karish, whether realising that it was in invitation to failure, or due to restraint from Tehran, which is facing its own nest of problems in recent weeks, due to snowballing demonstrations.
By making claim to Karish, Aoun wanted to making himself relevant to the talks, and come across as a problem-solver. He also wanted to make a point, that he was the man in-charge of negotiations and not Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who had initiated talks over Lebanon’s maritime borders in 2011. Aoun claimed that the talks fell under his jurisdiction, based on Article 52 of the Lebanese Constitution, but has since found himself increasingly left out of the process, both by the Americans, Berri, and ironically, Hezbollah.
He wanted to have the final say on the disputed area, which would have given him leverage with the US as he was trying to arrange the succession of his son-in-law and heir apparent, Gibran Bassil. Aoun wanted to make sure that Bassil would succeed him as president when his term ends on 31 October 2022, and tried trading the disputed territory in exchange for US endorsement for his son-in-law’s presidential bid.
Bassil has been under US sanctions since 2019, and both the Trump White House and that of Joe Biden refused to enter into any back-deal with the Lebanese President. Aoun asked the cabinet of then-Prime Minister Hassan Diab to sign a decree confirming the disputed territory at 2,290 square kilometers, which was supposed to be sent to the United Nations as Lebanon’s new terms of reference. The decree was signed by the cabinet and sent to Aoun for approval, carrying the number 6433. Since then, he has neither signed it nor aborted it.
He nevertheless seems to have lost hope in getting anything beyond 860 square kilometers, as Monday’s agreement specifically says that Karish is an Israeli gas field. It will remain in Israeli hands in returning for giving Lebanon a small gas ring called Qana. Over the weekend the Israeli government gave Energean approval to start testing the Karish pipeline, saying that full operation — despite Nasrallah’s threats —w ould begin within weeks. They had been originally scheduled for late September 2022.
Hezbollah’s lack of enthusiasm
Aoun’s suggestion nearly torpedoed the talks, leading the Israelis and Americans to say that Lebanon was un-interested in an agreement. And indeed, Hezbollah was not. They insisted that the talks came dangerously close to looking like normalisation with Israel, which goes against their founding charter. They had only agreed to the talks in October 2020, under the urging of Speaker Berri, who promised that they would be technical only, with no political strings attached.
Aoun tried giving them a political edge, suggesting that civilians are added to the negotiating team, including members of his own staff and former foreign ministers (which would have automatically allowed his son-in-law Gibran Bassil to become one of the negotiators).
Lebanon’s energy minister, Walid Fayad, who also attended the meeting, said that “logistical matters take time, but work will start immediately”.
TotalEnergies is part of a consortium of energy giants awarded a license to explore for gas in two of Lebanon’s 10 blocks, numbers 4 and 9.
One well drilled in Block 4 in 2020 by TotalEnergies, Eni and Novatek showed only traces but no commercially viable gas deposits.
Block 9, near the border with Israel, contains the so-called Qana field or Sidon reservoir, and will be a major zone for offshore exploration after a deal is finalised, according to Lebanese officials.
Lebanon will “get its full rights from the Qana field”, and Israel could receive compensation through Total, said Elias Bou Saab, Lebanon’s lead negotiator in the maritime border talks.
Aoun had also suggested that talking the matter to international arbitration at The Hague, which was also vetoed by Hezbollah, which said that arbitration spells out implicit and de facto recognition of the state of Israel. According to article 34 of the International Court of Justice, only states can raise their cases before an international tribunal, thus challenging Hezbollah’s long-held claim that Israel is an “entity” and not a state.
One suggestion was to return to the Hoff Line, which had been suggested back in 2012 by senior US diplomat Fred Hoff, giving Israel one third of the disputed 860 square kilometres and leaving the rest to Lebanon. Aoun refused the proposal, and so did Hezbollah.
Hezbollah media has nevertheless been marketing the deal since Monday, describing it as a breakthrough. No mention was made of abandoning Karish, but plenty of emphasis was added to Qana, which newspapers and websites described as a gain for Lebanon. They also claim that Lebanon made it clear that it would require no approval from Israel before it began drilling in Qana, nor would it have to share information on the drilling and extracting of gas.
The upcoming Israeli elections
Hezbollah was seemingly not in a hurry to reach a deal with the government of Yair Lapid, fearing that he might lose the upcoming Israeli elections, scheduled for November 1. If Benjamin Netanyahu returns to power, then he would probably renege on any agreement with Lebanon, just like President Donald Trump did with the Iranian nuclear agreement of 2015.
Netanyahu has already made criticism of the deal a crux of his campaigning, saying: “Yair Lapid shamefully surrendered to Nasrallah’s threats.” Netanyahu’s former energy minister, Yuval Steinitz, described the deal as “by definition a surrender to blackmail.”
In late September, Netanyahu came out with a video saying that the Lebanon deal would allow money to reach the coffers of Hezbollah, accusing Lapid of “encouraging terrorism.” Lapid described his predecessor’s comments as “irresponsible,” saying that had “harmed the Israeli government” with what he said. He described the talks with Lebanon as “very complex and advanced,” adding that Netanyahu did not know what he was talking about when coitizing the deal, given that he had not been briefed by Israeli intelligence on what was actually happening in the talks.
The deal would still require approval from the Knesset, at least two weeks before government approval.
In addition to abandoning claim to Karish, Lebanon seems to have dropped claims to a small safe zone that is owned and manned completely by Lebanese authorities. It would be near the shore at Naqoura, extending around five-kilometers out to the sea before it ties back to Line 23, which Israel has conceded to Lebanon.
In mid-September, however, Israel rejected the idea of a safe zone, saying that it would put the northmost city of Nahariya at the mercy of Hezbollah fire. They suggested placing the would-be safe zone under auspices of the United Nations, but that would require amending of Unifil’s current mandate, which applies to ground territory only and not to territorial waters.
As a result, both Lebanon and Israel have agreed to drop all mention of a safe zone in the final draft agreement.
Revenue from Qana
Israel has inserted a carefully worded clause, saying that the Qana field that Lebanon would get contains valuable natural resources, which cannot be abandoned for free. It is demanding co-sharing of gas revenue, once uncovered in the Qana field. Lebanon insists that it cannot pay money to the Israeli government, which it technically does not recognize. A last-minute agreement was reached with the French oil giant Total, which will handle drilling in Qana. Israel’s reimbursement will be from Total, and won’t be deducted from Lebanon’s gas or revenue.
To make that clause acceptable to the Israeli public, dailies have been aggressively saying that the amount of natural gas that can be extracted from Qana is far less than what many had originally predicted, saying that what they are giving up in Qana is less than what they would be getting in Karish.
The agreement involves sharing potential resources in the exclusive economic zones of both countries. Drilling had been repeatedly delayed over disagreement on who owns what in the waters of the Mediterranean. Since the talks began in mid-October 2020, each party has been trying to manipulate them to serve their political interests.
Lebanon and Israel never agreed to demarcate their border on land, keeping to a UN-enforced ceasefire “Blue Line” instead, and thus leaving their offshore exclusive economic zone disputed. The lack of a maritime border had not been a major issue until a decade ago, when a gas discovery bonanza began in the eastern Mediterranean, potentially reshaping the region’s economic future.
A gas find would be a major boon for Lebanon, which has been mired in financial crisis since 2019, and could fix Lebanon’s long-standing failure to produce adequate electricity for its population.
The Israeli security cabinet of select ministers will convene to discuss the agreement on Wednesday, followed by a special meeting of the government, the Israeli prime minister’s office said.
Israel has said gas production from Karish in the eastern Mediterranean will enable it to increase exports, including to Europe. Prices of the fuel have soared this year since Russia’s attacks on Ukraine. London-listed Energean Plc, set to operate Karish, said in May that gas flows could start this year.
1949: Lebanon and Israel conclude an armistice agreement under UN auspices.
1968: Israeli commandos destroyed a dozen passenger planes at Beirut airport, a response to an attack on an Israeli airliner by a Lebanon-based Palestinian group.
1978: Israel invades south Lebanon and sets up an occupation zone in an operation against Palestinian guerrillas.
1982: Israel invades all the way to Beirut. The Syrian army is ousted from Beirut and thousands of Palestinian fighters under Yasser Arafat are evacuated by sea after a bloody 10-week siege.
Israel’s ally and head of Christian militia Lebanese Forces, Bashir Gemayel, is elected president but killed before taking office. Hundreds of civilians in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila are massacred by Christian militiamen allowed in by Israeli troops.
Bashir’s brother, Amin Gemayel, becomes president.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards establish Hezbollah in Lebanon.
1983: The Gemayel government signs an accord with Israel. The terms include ending hostilities and mutual recognition of independence. But implementation hinges on a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. Damascus and its Lebanese allies reject the agreement, rendering it still-born.
1985: Israel establishes an occupation zone in southern Lebanon, about 15 km (nine miles) deep, after it pulled back from a line further north, controlling the area with a proxy force, the South Lebanon Army.
1996 With Hezbollah regularly attacking Israeli forces in the south and firing rockets into northern Israel, Israel mounts the 17-day “Operation Grapes of Wrath” offensive that kills more than 200 people in Lebanon, including 102 who die when Israel shells a UN base near the south Lebanon village of Qana.
2000: Israel withdraws from southern Lebanon, ending 22 years of occupation.
2006: In July, Hezbollah crosses the border into Israel, kidnaps two Israeli soldiers and kills others, sparking a five-week war.
While most of the conflict is fought on land, an Israeli navy vessel is damaged in a Hezbollah missile attack. At least 1,200 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and 158 Israelis, mostly soldiers, are killed.
2020: The United States revives indirect negotiations between Lebanon and Israel aimed at reaching an agreement on their disputed maritime boundary, with the aim of facilitating oil and gas exploration. Indirect US-mediated talks first began years earlier but never reached a conclusion.
2022: Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid says US mediation has clinched a deal with Lebanon demarcating the maritime boundary, calling it a historic agreement. Lebanese President Michel Aoun says the draft satisfies Lebanese demands and expresses hope a deal can be announced as soon as possible.