Lebanon's Gebran Bassil says Ukraine war and gas demand speeded up Israel border deal

The US-sanctioned MP says it would be 'crazy' if caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati does not form a new government before the end of President Michel Aoun's term

Lebanese legislator Gebran Bassil said not forming a Cabinet would lead to 'constitutional chaos'. AP
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The war in Ukraine and rising global demand for natural gas helped to speed up a US-mediated maritime border deal between Lebanon and Israel, a prominent Lebanese legislator allied with the militant Hezbollah group has said.

The agreement is expected to bring stability to the eastern Mediterranean.

Gebran Bassil, who is under US sanctions, also said on Monday that “it would be a crazy act” if caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati did not form a new government before President Michel Aoun's six-year term ends on October 31.

Disagreements between Mr Aoun and Mr Mikati have delayed the formation of a new Cabinet since May 15, following parliamentary elections. Since then, the government has been in a caretaker capacity.

Parliament failed during two sessions in recent weeks to elect a president and it is highly unlikely that a new head of state will be voted into the country’s top job before Mr Aoun’s term ends, leaving the country without a president.

Mr Bassil is Aoun’s son-in-law and heads the Christian nationalist Free Patriotic Movement founded by the president, and has yet to endorse a candidate. He leads a 21-member bloc in the 128-member Parliament.

Despite media reports, Mr Bassil does not see himself as a candidate.

“We do not need, in addition to our financial and economic crisis, a political crisis that splits the people on how to deal with the government,” Mr Bassil said about the possibility of the government taking over once Mr Aoun leaves office.

Not forming a Cabinet will lead to “constitutional chaos”, he said.

“We will not accept that such a government runs the country. This is a Cabinet that did not win a vote of confidence and lacks constitutional legitimacy,” Mr Bassil said.

Israel and Lebanon both have accepted the US-mediated sea border deal after months of negotiations and a signing ceremony is expected along the two countries’ border by the end of the month.

“Although this agreement is not a normalisation process with Israel, but it helps us, you know, to restore more stability in the region where we need to attract the investors,” Mr Bassil said.

Lebanon is in the grip of its worst economic and financial crisis in its modern history.

In July, the Israeli military shot down three unarmed drones over the Karish gasfield. The drones belonged to Lebanon's Iran-backed Hezbollah group.

At the time, Lebanon said the downing of the drones was in a disputed area.

Hezbollah’s leader also issued warnings to Israel over the maritime dispute and said “any arm” that reached out to steal Lebanon’s wealth would “be cut off”.

“I think that the equation established with the strength or the force of Hezbollah and the threat to use it is what helped,” Mr Bassil said about the heavily armed group that fought Israel in 2006.

Lebanon hopes that demarcating maritime borders will pave the way for gas exploration that will help to lift it out of its crippling economic crisis, while Israel wants to exploit gas reserves and hopes the deal will reduce the risk of war with Hezbollah.

Mr Bassil, a former energy minister, said the deal with Israel should lead to Lebanon launching negotiations with Syria to solve the dispute of more than 900 square kilometres between the two countries, as well as reviewing Beirut’s maritime borders with Cyprus.

“It is the gas era and Lebanon should not be outside of it,” Mr Bassil said.

Growing demand for gas around the world, triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, helped to seal the deal, he said.

“We had the guarantees, clearly, from the US and also from France and Total that once this is done … Total as block operator will restart its petroleum activities offshore Lebanon,” Mr Bassil said.

He was referring to French oil company TotalEnergies, which hopes to start drilling in block number 9 along the border once the agreement is signed.

In 2017, Lebanon approved licences for an international consortium including TotalEnergies, Italy’s ENI and Russia’s Novatek to move forward with offshore oil and gas development for two of 10 blocks in the Mediterranean Sea.

Novatek recently withdrew and officials, including Energy Minister Walid Fayad, have said that Qatar is interested in filling that gap.

Mr Bassil, who also served as foreign and telecoms minister in the past, said he was put under US sanctions in 2020 because of his alliance with Hezbollah, which is designated a terrorist organisation by Washington.

The US government designation, under the 2012 Magnitsky Act, said Mr Bassil was “at the forefront of corruption” in Lebanon, was involved in the “misappropriation of state assets” and “the expropriation of private assets for personal gain”.

Mr Bassil said he was appealing the case in the US and had contacted the Treasury Department to demand that details of his file be made public.

Updated: October 18, 2022, 5:31 AM
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