Greater Middle East (bbabo.net), - The epic with the delimitation of the maritime borders between Lebanon and Israel is coming to an end. The two leaders have reached a US-brokered consensus that would allow both nations to develop gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean, potentially ending a years-long dispute.
The agreement itself could be signed as early as next week. Lebanon and Israel are keen to strike a deal after years of fruitless negotiations.
The essence of the disputeThe subject of disagreement between the two countries is a sea area rich in oil and gas with a total area of 860 square kilometers. It includes 2% of the exclusive economic zone of Israel and 3% of Lebanon. The parties have been negotiating the demarcation of borders in the disputed water area for many years, which have not yet been successful.
Complicating matters is the fact that Lebanon and Israel are still technically at war and officially have no diplomatic ties. However, this does not prevent the parties from trying to find common ground. Since 2020 alone, at least five sessions of indirect negotiations on the disputed territories have been held, supported by the UN and mediated by the United States.
In the ongoing negotiations, Washington is once again acting as a mediator. This time, Amos Hochstein, senior adviser for energy security at the US State Department, has been appointed negotiator. The new draft agreement was not made public, but the Lebanese and Israelis have positively assessed it. According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the project took into account the wishes of Beirut, and Lebanon will get most of the disputed sea area, but Israel will get its own gas rig in Karish. Lebanon will also be able to install its own drilling rig in the Qana zone, which belongs to both sides. However, Israel will be guaranteed a portion of the revenue from the gas produced from Caen by France's Total Energies.
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Readiness of the partiesThe state of negotiations that started last week remained vague until the last moment. Various points of view about the prospects for concluding a deal appeared in expert discussions. Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid clarified by tweeting on Tuesday that Israel had reached a historic agreement with Lebanon to demarcate maritime borders. According to him, the draft agreement "fully complies with Israeli principles in the field of security and economy."
"This is a historic achievement that will bolster Israel's security, bring billions into the country's economy and bring stability to the northern border," the prime minister said in a statement.
Now the draft agreement will be submitted for consideration by a narrow cabinet on security issues, after which it will be submitted for government approval at an extraordinary meeting.
Following Lapid, Lebanese officials gave their comments. Baabda Presidential Palace issued an official statement:
"The final proposal satisfies Lebanon, meets its requirements and preserves its rights to natural resources."
Lebanese Interim Prime Minister Najib Mikati praised the merits of all parties involved in the deal:
“I would like to thank the Lebanese team that contributed to the study of this agreement, as well as the US administration and the French President, in particular, for the fact that they agreed with Total, and it was decided to start the exploration phases immediately after the final agreement.
The United States also did not stand aside. According to a White House statement, President Biden on Tuesday called Lapid and Michel Aoun to congratulate Lapid and Michel Aoun, "who reaffirmed both governments' willingness to move forward with this agreement." The American leader hailed the deal as a "historic breakthrough in the Middle East."
The al-Araby TV channel, citing official sources, reported that an agreement on demarcation of the borders could be signed as early as October 20 in al-Naqoura, where the headquarters of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon is located.
Obstacles on the wayMeanwhile, the long-awaited deal has not only supporters, but also opponents. In both countries, hawks, the most radical part of the political establishment, are condemning. In Lebanon, this is Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, and in Israel, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Both politicians are trying to sabotage the deal as much as possible.
Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz even ordered the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to put troops on the border with Lebanon on alert. Israeli intelligence agencies admit that Hezbollah may attack the Karish tower. At the same time, Netanyahu and his allies are waging a disinformation campaign aimed at putting political pressure on Prime Minister Lapid not to sign the deal before November's Knesset elections.There are also different perceptions of what is happening in the public opinion of the two countries. This is especially true for expert assessments. According to Oudi Belangi, an orientalist and professor of the Middle East at Bar-Ilan University, "Lapid slipped the Israelis a pig in a poke." The expert came to this position due to the lack of transparency of the negotiation process.
“We don't know anything about the agreement. There was no transparency throughout the entire negotiation process,” he said.
According to Belangi, the Israeli government has deprived its society of the opportunity to soberly assess and analyze all the pros and cons of a future agreement.
“This is the wrong move. There was no evidence that we could show to those who negotiated that in ten years we could come to an agreement, and we did not, because there were things on which we did not agree to compromise, and here, within half a year, all the problematic points were sewn up, and we are moving towards what is being defined as a historic agreement. When there is no transparency, it's hard to say that you can happily welcome the finished product. This is a question that will accompany us until the details of the agreement are disclosed, but then it will be too late and we, as the public, will not be able to criticize it, because it will already be signed,” the expert believes.
Belanga also expressed dissatisfaction that Hezbollah and Iran could be among the possible beneficiaries of the future deal.
“We are negotiating with the Lebanese government. Hezbollah is watching from the sidelines what may be defined as a watchdog for Lebanon's interests. Lebanon is immersed in the serious problems of a severe government crisis that has been going on for several years. The term of office of the president is coming to an end - this is a man who is about to turn ninety. The war with Syria has dragged conflicts into Lebanon, where there is an acute economic crisis and the collapse of the Lebanese pound, there are problems with water, electricity and diseases spreading there. For the Lebanese government, this is an agreement that they can present as an achievement, after which they can start revitalizing public life in the country. As for Hezbollah, it does not sign the agreement, but the profits and economic achievements of the agreement will reach both Hezbollah and Iran, and in the absence of transparency of the agreement, we do not know who controls the funds and where they will go, ”summed up the expert .
Lebanon is also ambivalent about the deal. The part of society that supports radical politics and rejects the normalization of relations with Israel has a negative attitude towards a possible agreement. However, pragmatists believe that an agreement with the Jewish state can bring economic dividends to the “land of cedars”. The Lebanese expert Walid al-Bilal agrees with this assessment.
“We are all very hopeful that this will improve the situation. The problem is that the Lebanese government does not have the resources to develop its deposits, so negotiations are underway with the French oil and gas company Total, which will deal with them. Moreover, nothing is ready at our fields yet, so it is not known how long we will have to wait for the economic situation to improve. This can happen in a year, three or maybe even five years, and then, if everyone does not plunder politicians, ”he believes.
Domestic political uncertaintyIn addition to the existing supporters and opponents of the deal, there are still problems hindering the conclusion of an agreement. It is worth recalling that both states are entering a period of domestic political uncertainty. If Lebanese presidential elections have already begun, then in Israel the voting for the election of a new parliament is scheduled for November 1. Lebanese President Michel Aoun, who under the Lebanese constitution is the only official authorized to sign such an agreement, ends his term on 31 October. A successor has not yet been appointed because none of the candidates managed to get a majority of votes in the first round.
As for Israel, according to the state electoral system, even after the results of the parliamentary elections, it may take several weeks formation of a new government, which can also significantly delay the deal. Moreover, the government is required by law to submit a deal to the Knesset two weeks before it is approved. With the new elections less than three weeks away and the government lacking a parliamentary majority, approving an agreement will be a daunting task.
Israeli expert Eugene Kontorovich, director of international law for the Kohelet political forum, stated that it is imperative that the agreement be approved in the Knesset. In addition, he criticized the Israeli government for trying to make a deal under pressure from Hezbollah.
“It turns out that Hezbollah tramples on Israeli democracy,” the expert said.A different assessment of the situation was expressed by Yuval Shani, an expert on international law at the Israel Institute of Democracy. In his opinion, parliamentary approval is a common but optional practice for such agreements.
“Peace agreements are usually sent to the Knesset, but this is not a peace agreement, but an agreement on the delimitation of the border,” the expert explained.
It is worth adding an important detail: even if Lebanon and Israel sign an agreement, they will not do it directly, but each side personally with the United States. In fact, there will be two documents at once, but in reality they will mean an agreement between neighboring states.
In any case, years of fruitless negotiations between the parties have brought their results - the two countries, technically at war, are as close as possible to an agreement. Allows us to say that the sandy soil of the Middle East normalization can also bear fruit.