BEIRUT: Israeli and Lebanese leaders signed a landmark US-brokered agreement on their maritime boundary on Thursday, marking a diplomatic departure from decades of hostility and opening the way to offshore energy exploration.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun signed a letter approving the deal in Baada, followed by Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s signature in Jerusalem, with a handover ceremony of less-senior delegations set to take place at the UN peacekeeping base in Naqoura along the border.
US President Joe Biden hailed as “historic” the agreement that comes as Western powers clamour to open up new gas production and reduce vulnerability to supply cuts from Russia.
“Both parties took the final steps to bring the agreement into force and submitted the final paperwork to the United Nations in the presence of the United States,” Biden said in a statement
The deal comes as Lebanon hopes to extract itself from what the World Bank calls one of the worst economic crises in modern world history, and as Lapid seeks to lock in a major achievement days ahead of a general election on November 1.
The exchange of letters was held in the southern Lebanese town of Naqura, in the presence of US mediator Amos Hochstein and the United Nations’s special coordinator for Lebanon Joanna Wronecka.
Before signing it, Lapid had claimed on Thursday morning that Lebanon’s intention to ink the deal amounted to a de-facto recognition of the Jewish state.
“It is not every day that an enemy state recognises the State of Israel, in a written agreement, in front of the entire international community,” he said, shortly before signing it in cabinet.
Aoun denied Lapid’s assertion, countering that “demarcating the southern maritime border is technical work that has no political implications”.
Lapid hailed the deal as a “tremendous achievement” and Lebanese negotiator Elias Bou Saab said it marked the beginning of “a new era” between the two sides, which nevertheless remain technically at war.
The accord removes one source of potential conflict between Israel and Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah and could help alleviate Lebanon’s economic crisis.
After meeting Lebanon’s speaker of parliament Nabih Berri, Amos Hochstein, the US envoy who mediated the negotiation, told reporters he expects the agreement to hold even amid changes in leadership in both countries.
Hochstein referred to both upcoming elections in Israel on Nov. 1 and the end of Aoun’s term on October 31, saying the accord should be kept up “regardless of who is elected very soon as next president of Lebanon”.
An offshore energy discovery - while not enough on its own to resolve Lebanon’s deep economic problems - would be a major boon, providing badly needed hard currency and possibly one day easing crippling blackouts.
While Lebanon and Israel have both voiced satisfaction with having settled a dispute peacefully, prospects for a wider diplomatic breakthrough appear remote.
“We have heard about the Abraham Accords. Today there is a new era. It could be the Amos Hochstein accord,” Saab said, referring to the 2020 US-brokered normalisation of ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
Lapid said: “It is not every day that an enemy country recognises the state of Israel, in a written agreement, in view of the international community,” Lapid told his cabinet in broadcast remarks.
Aoun however has insisted that a deal will lead to a normalisation of ties between the two states.
Amos said he expects the agreement to hold even amid changes in leadership in both countries. Hochstein referred to both upcoming elections in Israel on November 1 and the end of Lebanese President Michel Aoun's term on October31, saying the agreement should be kept up "regardless of who is elected very soon as next president of
The agreement opens the way for offshore energy exploration and removes one source of potential conflict between Israel and Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah and could help alleviate Lebanon's economic crisis.
Speaking from the presidential palace, negotiator Elias Bu Saab said the agreement marked the beginning of "a new era" and that the letter would be submitted to US officials at Lebanon's southernmost border point of Naqoura later on Thursday.
Hailed by all three parties as a historic achievement, the deal was signed separately in Jerusalem by Lapid following his cabinet's approval.
Asked what happens in case of a violation by either of the sides, which remain technically at war, Hochstein said the US would remain a guarantor to help resolve any disputes.
"If one side violates the deal, both sides lose," Hochstein told reporters.
An offshore energy discovery - while not enough on its own to resolve Lebanon's deep economic problems - would be a major boon, providing badly needed hard currency and possibly one day easing crippling blackouts.
Lebanon and Israel have no diplomatic relations and are technically still at war. While the deal is unlikely to herald significantly closer political ties, it's a boost for the US, which has lobbied for years for the two sides to settle on a maritime boundary.
The dispute delayed exploration work in the eastern Mediterranean and escalated tensions.
US President Joe Biden said this month that an agreement would "set the stage for a more stable and prosperous region, and harness vital new energy resources for the world."
Drilling to start
Now that the countries have agreed a maritime border, a TotalEnergies SE-led consortium will be able to start drilling in the Qana prospect, most of which lies in Lebanese territory. If gas is produced, both countries would be entitled to payments.
Gas production from Qana is far from certain. Since no exploration wells have been drilled, the presence and quality of resources is unknown.
According to an agreement signed with the Lebanese government in 2018, Total and Eni SpA are committed to drilling just one well in Block 9, where the Kana prospect is located. If results are unfavorable, they may abandon it.
Gas production has started at the Karish field on the Israeli side of the border, field developer Energean said on Wednesday.
Hezbollah and Israel fought a 34-day war in 2006. The two still, from time to time, exchange fire along the border.