Lebanon and Israel make 'major progress' on maritime border deal

President Aoun says details being studied in the interest of his country's 'rights and sovereignty'

Amos Hochstein speaks to the press after meeting Lebanese officials in Beirut to address the maritime border dispute with Israel. EPA
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Negotiations on a potential maritime border deal between Lebanon and Israel have made a “major progress”, President Michel Aoun said on Wednesday.

He added that technical details are being studied in order to ensure the “interest of Lebanon, its rights and sovereignty”.

“Israel wants access to certain co-ordinates for security purposes,” a source close to the negotiations told The National on Wednesday.

The official Lebanese response regarding the latest maritime border co-ordinates sent by Israel via US mediator Amos Hochstein would become known “within 24 hours”, the official had said a day earlier. On Wednesday, he said the co-ordinates were still being studied.

The next step for Lebanon would be to request a formal document from US mediator Amos Hochstein stating the details and conditions of a maritime agreement.

Whether those details will be agreed upon by the two countries remains to be seen.

The details of Mr Hochstein’s visit to Lebanon last week remain murky, as indirect talks continue.

The mediator last week said the two sides had made “good progress” but that “more work needs to be done” to reach an agreement.

The source said: “Hochstein has brought us the co-ordinates for what is being called ‘the maritime blue line’.”

This echoed comments made previously by Elias Bou Saab, the Deputy Speaker of Parliament, who announced on Sunday Israel was preparing to send the data to Lebanon.

“The co-ordinates are now being referred to the army’s technical team, which will mark them on maps and inspect them”, to ensure they meet Lebanon’s requirements, the source said. “And, of course, there will be a study by the Lebanese team assisting the president with these negotiations.”

After careful assessment, the team will form its position on the co-ordinates “within 24 hours”, the source said.

The calculations would not constitute an official maritime border, the source said, but would mark the location of floating buoys in the sea to warn boats in the area.

Devil in the detail

Little detail of the agreement is known. Negotiators have carefully guarded the specifics of any potential deal, making cryptic comments in the press. Since June, much speculation has circulated.

The deal is 95 per cent complete, caretaker Foreign Minister Abdullah Bou Habib told local newspaper Annahar last week, indicating progress and building hopes that negotiations will end soon.

Mr Bou Habib said both countries had a mutual interest in reaching a deal before the end of next month, when President Aoun’s term ends and the Israeli Knesset elections begin, potentially introducing new political interests which could impede progress.

But some experts worry the remaining details could prove challenging, with doubts an agreement can be reached.

Mr Bou Habib on Monday said the US mediator had made “new proposals which I cannot disclose”.

“Progress has been made, but we haven't reached the end yet,” he said.

The maritime deal is widely expected to give Lebanon control of the Qana gasfield in exchange for giving up its claim to the Karish gasfield, from which Israel plans to begin producing.

Qana lies just beyond Line 23, which Lebanon officially claims as its maritime border.

“Now they’re discussing practicalities and finalising the deal,” energy policy expert Laury Haytayan told The National. “So these are final practical questions that weren't raised from the beginning.

“They’re trying to figure out the point between the land and the sea where they will draw the maritime border.”

The starting point for demarcation has yet to be settled, an issue that requires agreement to establish a maritime blue line.

Ms Haytayan said the problem could prove a major sticking point between Lebanon and Israel. She said that “even if 95 per cent of the deal is done, that could be a big spoiler”.

Despite official claims of positive progress in the talks, tension between Lebanon and Israel has grown in recent months, escalating since the arrival of an Israeli-contracted gas production vessel at the disputed border in June.

Israel had previously said gas extraction from a field on the disputed border would begin in September, causing the Iran-backed Hezbollah group to intensify its rhetoric.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in July threatened Israel with war. He warned that if disagreement over the maritime border prevented Lebanon extracting hydrocarbons, no other country would be allowed to do so.

Israel has also made intimidating comments.

Army commander-in-chief Aviv Kohavi last week said the calmness on the border issue was “more deceptive than ever”, an allusion to the positive facade officials from both sides have presented throughout the talks.

“The state of Lebanon and Hezbollah will bear the consequences if the state of Israel's sovereignty is harmed,” he said.

Marc Ayoub, an energy researcher at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, said the situation could be disrupted if by next month the Israeli-contracted Energean vessel begins gas production in the Karish field before any deal is finalised.

“But no one wants to reach that point,” he said — not Israel, which stands to benefit from the global demand for hydrocarbons caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; not the US, which hopes to find a partial alternative to Russian fuel in Israel; and not Lebanon, which hinges its hopes of emerging from a financial collapse on the discovery of hydrocarbons in its own waters.

Armed conflict would be a worst-case scenario, Mr Ayoub said.

“In a sense, October will be a decisive month but the chances are [negotiators] are just pushing the can down the road,” he said.

He said that even if a full deal was not reached by the end of next month, it was more likely that, in an effort to avoid conflict, Lebanon and Israel could settle on some terms and agree to address the remaining points later.

Updated: September 14, 2022, 5:54 PM