Lebanon-Israel maritime deal marks historic moment for enemy neighbours

First such agreement since 1983 could eventually offer relief to energy markets and is a political boost for Beirut

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Tuesday's announcement of a maritime deal between Lebanon and Israel concludes nearly a decade of US-led efforts, cements a historic pact between two countries technically still at war and could eventually offer a much-needed boost to global energy supplies.

The deal, announced by Lebanese and Israeli leaders, resolves the long-running maritime dispute and control over what are thought to be highly productive oil and gasfields that straddle both sides of the border.

The agreement will delineate the maritime border between Lebanon and its southern neighbour for the first time since Israel was established in 1948. The two nations are bitter foes and have fought several conflicts, including via the militant group Hezbollah.

Former US presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump had attempted to resolve the dispute but negotiations collapsed in 2020.

This time, talks came to fruition after 15 months of shuttle diplomacy led by US envoy Amos Hochstein.

On Tuesday, US President Joe Biden called his Lebanese counterpart Michel Aoun and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, whose roles have been central in brokering the agreement.

Mr Aoun’s presidential term is set to end on October 31, and the agreement stands out as his biggest accomplishment while in office.

Lebanon submitted a handful of modifications to a US proposal that were then negotiated with Israel through Mr Hochstein and will be guaranteed by the UN once internal consultations in Beirut are finished.

Speaking on a call with reporters on Tuesday, a senior US official called the deal “a truly historic breakthrough” and stressed that Israel would have security protection guarantees on its shoreline.

“Israel has all the security mechanisms and infrastructure that they need in order to make sure that their shoreline and their country is protected,” the senior US official said.

The official said he was optimistic the deal would now go into implementation.

“The governments on both sides are aware of the political reality that they live in, and I have every expectation that this agreement is going to be signed and put into force.”

He said both Lebanese and Israeli leaders had confirmed to Mr Biden their readiness to move forward after this breakthrough, and to begin discussing implementation.

UAE welcomes deal

The UAE welcomed the agreement and expressed appreciation for US efforts to mediate the deal. It also said it hoped that this step would contribute to strengthening regional stability.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation praised efforts to reach the agreement, stressing that they represented a constructive and practical step to advance prosperity and development, as well as achieve the economic interests of both countries.

The ministry stressed the importance of the two countries' co-operation to enhance economic interests and bolster regional peace and security.

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Randa Slim, senior fellow and director of the Conflict Resolution and Track II Dialogues Programme at the Middle East Institute, pointed to the historic significance of the agreement.

“This is the first such agreement between Lebanon and Israel since the aborted May 17 agreement in 1983,” Ms Slim told The National.

The May 17 agreement was signed at the height of the Lebanese Civil War to end cross-border attacks on Israel but was revoked one year later by the Lebanese parliament.

But this one is different, said Ms Slim, in terms of its broad acceptance in Lebanon and the economic dimension of the deal.

“While many were alarmed by Hezbollah’s rhetoric and threat to use force against a disputed gas drilling platform in the Mediterranean Sea, the group is unlikely to waste its precision-guided missiles in a fight over hydrocarbon deposits,” Ms Slim said.

Hezbollah does not intend to block deal

Hezbollah communicated its position to its ally Mr Aoun, explaining that while it did not support the agreement, it had no intention to block it, several Lebanese officials told The National.

“Hezbollah did not want to be seen as the main obstacle to Lebanon benefitting economically from its offshore gas and oil deposits at a time when the party has not been able to offer a solution to the country’s economic woes,” Ms Slim said.

But she said the deal could prove to be controversial for the party, as it undermines Hezbollah’s resistance narrative of using force to settle disputes with Israel, and “reaffirms the role of state institutions in litigating issues of war and peace”.

The deal also highlights the “indispensable role of the United States as the mediator of choice between Israel and its Arab neighbours, in this case Lebanon,” Ms Slim argued.

On the hydrocarbon side, Lebanon watcher and energy expert Suhail Shatila saw overlapping benefits for Lebanon, Israel and the international community.

“For Lebanon, it is a significant push to bring back the momentum of the upstream oil and gas sector,” Mr Shatila told The National.

The deal is also “a positive signal to the international oil companies, national oil companies, to take part in the upcoming second licensing round set for December, for the remaining prospective blocks in the Lebanese offshore”, the expert said.

But Mr Shatila cautioned that expectations need to be checked as the probability of finding a discovery early on is low due to the high-risk nature of the offshore upstream oil and gas industry.

“If exploratory drilling commences soon [in Lebanon], the first molecule of gas is not expected before six to seven years following exploration, appraisal, development and production,” he said.

Globally, however, and as the international gas markets tighten, opening more exploration in the East Mediterranean is welcome news for Europeans as they try to offset the impact of the Ukraine war and wean themselves off Russian gas.

The border wall between Lebanon and Israel as seen from Marwahin, southern Lebanon. Reuters
Updated: October 12, 2022, 4:33 AM
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