The Middle East needs a Lebanon-Israel maritime agreement

A deal to end a decades-long dispute would bring important material and diplomatic benefits

An Israeli soldier at the Rosh Hanikra border crossing between Lebanon and Israel. AFP
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It can be easy to forget the Lebanon and Israel are still officially in a state of war. Thankfully, the days of the most terrible military violence are largely behind them. Today, it is mostly rhetoric between the two sides and a series of stalemates that serve as reminders of the conflict.

However, an important and symbolic one might soon be solved. On Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said his country had reached a “historic deal” with Lebanon regarding a longstanding maritime boundary dispute. In a slightly less definite manner, Lebanon's President Michel Aoun said he hoped to announce a final agreement “as soon as possible”, but Elias Bou Saab, Lebanon's lead negotiator in the recent talks, which were moderated by the US, said that a “solution that satisfies both parties” had been reached.

A deal would lead to two main practical resolutions. The first would be finally agreeing on the course of a disputed 5-kilometre maritime border, which has not been set since Israel was established in 1948. The second would be to solidify the terms of Israel's share of future profits from the disputed Karish gas field, which could flow very quickly after a deal.

It is not just the practical results of a deal that would be significant. Getting one would serve as an important precedent of both countries coming together diplomatically after bitter decades stretching back well into the 20th century. Lebanon has been and still is home to plenty of political actors more than happy to refer to Israel in the most aggressive and violent of terms. Hassan Nasrallah, the head of militant Lebanese group Hezbollah has for example said that his group has enough missiles to send Israel "back to the Stone Age".

Former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has criticised the deal heavily, saying it is effectively Israel signing its strategic resources over to an enemy. He is one of Israel's most pivotal politicians, if not the most.

As inevitable turbulence hits, both sides must keep faith in a deal. If they are able to put aside differences, tangible commercial benefits will very quickly ensue. Lebanese caretaker Energy Minister Walid Fayyad said on Tuesday that French company TotalEnergies would begin the process of exploring for gas in Lebanese waters as soon as an agreement happens. That is crucial for Lebanon, whose rapid economic and social decline continues apace.

There is still the possibility of the process being derailed. Mr Aoun's term of office ends on October 31 and the following day Israel heads to the polls for the fifth time in less than four years. It is very hard to predict the makeup of its new government, but many on the ascendant right will not be happy about an agreement. There are also legal questions over whether a transitional government can sign deals of such magnitude in an election period. More generally, on the Lebanese side, Mr Aoun appears keen to stress that that a deal would not signify a “partnership” with Israel, which Lebanon still does not recognise as a country.

However, strong words like these can be viewed both ways. That such differences can be put aside is a sign that Lebanon wants, perhaps most of all needs, a deal. Lebanese people want more pragmatism in their politics and the region needs more co-operation, particularly between Israel and neighbouring Arab states. An important side note is that the US was heavily involved in talks, a welcome example of American leadership during a period in which Washington has faced criticism for distraction when it comes to the Middle East.

Many more points of agreement will need to be found before Lebanon and Israel find peace. But the first step is often the hardest, and that is why the next few days could hold one of the most positive stories to have come from the region this year.

Published: October 12, 2022, 3:00 AM