Lebanon–Israel Maritime Deal
Does this turn a page in Israel-Lebanon relations?
Ten years after the United States began its mediation efforts, Lebanon and Israel have finally reached an agreement delineating their maritime border in what pundits are describing as a “historic” moment.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun announced his country’s acceptance of the text brokered by Amos Hochstein, the US Department of State’s energy envoy, saying “this indirect agreement responds to Lebanese demands and maintains all our rights.”
“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,” Israeli Premier Yair Lapid said.
At the heart of the dispute are two offshore natural gas fields: the untapped Qana field in Lebanon’s territorial waters and the Karish field in Israeli territory. The contested claims to the resources escalated in July when Hezbollah, the Lebanese Iran-backed militia, launched a drone attack on the Karish field. Israeli air defenses managed to shoot down all three drones before they reached their target.
The deal sets a border between Lebanese and Israeli waters for the first time, largely along a demarcation referred to as Line 23. Lebanon had previously been opposed to bringing Line 23 to negotiations as it would have meant ceding part of the Karish field to the Israelis, sharing the Qana gas field, and reducing the areas of Blocks 8 and 9 that belong to Lebanon.
Under the terms of the agreement, Israel retains full rights to develop the Karish field while Lebanon retains full rights in Qana – but with a caveat.
As Qana extends southward across Line 23, the deal allowed Israel to get a share of royalties through a side agreement with the Block 9 operator, the French company Total.
In the event of cross-border deposits being identified, the two parties agreed to mediate a solution through the United States. They also agreed not to submit new charts or coordinates to the UN in the future unless they have been agreed upon bilaterally.
Although the deal settles the maritime border issue, it does not affect the yet-to-be recognized land border between the two countries, the so-called Blue Line that was demarcated in 2000 and is supervised by the UN Interim Force in Lebanon.
The biggest loophole is that the deal did not specify an arrangement on profit distribution but deferred agreeing on what royalties Israel will get from the Qana field to a future date. The situation is made more complex by the nature of relations between Lebanon and Israel, which rules out a unitisation agreement between the two countries and even joint development of cross-border reservoirs because Lebanon considers it a form of normalization.
The Lebanon-Israel maritime agreement was inevitable. The alternative was a conflict no one could afford, and the ultimate prize is triggering a much-needed and long-delayed gas exploration process. Both sides reluctantly agreed to demarcate their maritime border under US pressure, but they are having a hard time selling it to their constituents and justifying signing a compromise with an arch-enemy for economic benefits.
Lebanon and Israel have remained foes, but the deal removes a significant point of friction that could have led to a new conflict. Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 and the two countries fought again in 2006.
Although Hezbollah, an Iran-backed political group, has a powerful sway over Lebanese politics, it hasn’t yet opposed the deal possibly because of the economic crisis weakening its ability to launch a war against Israel. Besides the unpredictability of Hezbollah action in this regard, there are many loopholes in the deal that may cause strife in the future. The deal is, therefore, not an indication that ties between the two foes are being “normalised” as has been the case for a number of Gulf countries.