Lebanon says gas exploration will take time as Israel backs 'urgent' maritime agreement

Lebanese negotiators have signalled their support for the deal, but have yet to formally approve it

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Preparations for oil and gas exploration in Lebanon would take months, officials in Beirut said on Wednesday, as Israeli ministers said an official agreement on the US-mediated draft maritime deal should be reached with “urgency”.

Lebanese officials have said they are satisfied with the deal, although they have yet to formally approve it.

“There is importance and urgency to reaching a maritime deal between Israel and Lebanon at this time,” the government said after a meeting of Israel's most senior ministers.

"The security cabinet ministers voiced support for the government moving ahead with the processes for approving the deal."

Prime Minister Yair Lapid said his government had approved the deal by a large majority and insisted the that "this agreement staves off the possibility of a military clash with Hezbollah".

Mr Lapid was referring to the Iran-backed armed group and political party that has much influence in Lebanon and is an arch-foe of Israel.

"If we went out to battle, we would deal them a heavy blow. That being said, if it is possible to prevent war, it is the job of a responsible government to do so."

Mr Lapid has been criticised in Israel by his main challenger Benjamin Netanyahu over the deal. Mr Netanyahu has said the draft agreement could end up benefitting Hezbollah.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said on Tuesday night that “when the President declares the official Lebanese position, then it will be mission accomplished. Until then we must remain alert”.

It is expected to be sent to the full Cabinet and then to the Knesset for a two-week review before an Israeli parliamentary election on November 1.

A deal paves the way for both countries, which technically remain in a state of war, to conduct gas exploration in the Mediterranean while easing a potential source of tension.

According to a draft of the deal leaked to Israeli media, it will constitute a “permanent maritime boundary” and “conclude a permanent and equitable resolution” to the dispute.

The National could not verify the copy circulated in Israel was the final text.

The deal will come into place when Beirut and Tel Aviv send letters to Washington expressing their approval. The US will then issue a notice to both officially announcing the deal is in force.

It will not resolve a dispute over the land border, with a highly controversial line of buoys extending from that contested point remaining as the status quo for now.

Under the terms of the agreement, it appears a prospective gasfield called Qana would be under Lebanon's control.

It is expected that French company Total will be licensed to search for gas and Israel would receive a share of future profits.

Mr Lapid said that under the agreed terms, Israel "will receive approximately 17 per cent of the revenues from the Lebanese gasfield, the Qana-Sidon field, if and when they will open it."

Lebanon's caretaker energy minister Walid Fayyad said it would take months to prepare for gas exploration at Qana once the deal was enacted.

According to the deal, Israel and the firm operating at Qana “are separately engaging in discussions to determine the scope of Israel’s economic rights in the” prospect field.

“Israel will be remunerated by the [operator] for its rights to any potential deposits in the prospect.”

Lebanese officials have insisted that any deal does not constitute a working relationship with Israel.

The draft deal stipulates that “Lebanon is not responsible for, or party to, any arrangement between the [operator] and Israel”.

“Any arrangement between the [operator] and Israel shall not affect Lebanon’s agreement with the [operator] and the full share of its economic rights in the prospect,” it says.

The deal could still face some obstacles, including legal and political challenges in Israel, while Lebanese President Michel Aoun is set to stand down at the end of this month and Lebanon's Parliament has failed to agree on his successor.

Updated: October 12, 2022, 7:45 PM
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