Israel and the United States announce a naval deal with Lebanon, but questions remain

Jerusalem (AFP) – President Joe Biden said Tuesday that the United States had brokered a “historic breakthrough” between Israel and Lebanon that would end the dispute over their shared maritime border, pave the way for natural gas production and reduce the risks of war between the two countries. hostile countries.

The agreement, which comes after months of US-brokered talks, would mark a major breakthrough in relations between Israel and Lebanon, which have been officially at war since Israel’s founding in 1948. But the agreement still faces some obstacles, including legal and political challenges. in Israel.

Israel welcomed the deal even before Biden’s announcement. Lebanese leaders have not made any official announcement, but have indicated that they will agree to the agreement.

In Washington, Biden said Israel and Lebanon had agreed to a “formal end” of their maritime dispute. He said he had spoken to the leaders of the two countries and had told them they were ready to move forward.

Biden said the agreement “will provide for the development of energy fields for the benefit of both countries, paving the way for a more stable and prosperous region.” “It is now important for all parties to fulfill their obligations and act on implementation.”

Lebanon and Israel each claim about 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) of the Mediterranean. At stake are the rights to exploit undersea natural gas reserves. Lebanon hopes that gas exploration will help extricate its country from its escalating economic crisis. Israel also hopes to exploit gas reserves while easing tensions with its northern neighbor.

Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid described the deal as “a historic achievement that will enhance Israel’s security, inject billions into the Israeli economy and ensure the stability of our northern borders.”

Under the agreement, the disputed waters will be divided along a line that runs along the strategic Qana natural gas field.

Israeli officials involved in the negotiations said Lebanon would be allowed to produce gas from that field, but would pay a fee to Israel for any gas extracted from the Israeli side. Lebanon is working with French energy giant Total on preparations to explore the field, although actual production could take years.

Officials said the agreement would also leave an existing “buoy line” serving as the de facto border between the two countries.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing negotiations behind the scenes, said the deal would include US security guarantees, including assurances that none of the gas revenues would reach Hezbollah.

Several prominent Israeli security figures, both active and retired, praised the agreement as it may ease tensions with the Lebanese group Hezbollah, which has repeatedly threatened to strike Israel’s natural gas assets elsewhere in the Mediterranean.

With Lebanon now holding a stake in the region’s natural gas industry, experts believe the two sides will think twice before starting another war.

“This may help create and enhance mutual deterrence between Israel and Hezbollah,” said Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow at the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies. “This is a very positive thing for Israel.”

Israel and Hezbollah fought a month-long war in 2006, and Israel regards the heavily armed Iran-backed group as its most immediate military threat.

The deal will be presented to Israel’s caretaker government for approval this week ahead of the November 1 elections, when the country heads to the polls for the fifth time in less than four years.

An Israeli official said Lapid’s government is expected to approve the agreement in principle on Wednesday, while sending it to parliament for a two-week required review. After the review, the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the government’s strategy, said the government would give the final official approval. It remains unclear whether Parliament needs to approve the agreement, or just review it.

Approval is not guaranteed. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the caretaker government had no authority to sign such an important agreement and vowed to scrap the deal if re-elected. Lapid was accused on Tuesday of capitulating to threats from Hezbollah.

This is not a historical agreement. “It’s a historic capitulation,” Netanyahu said in a Facebook video.

The Kohelet Policy Forum, an influential conservative think tank, has filed an appeal with the Supreme Court in an attempt to block the deal.

But Yuval Shani, an expert on international law at the Israel Democracy Institute, another prominent think tank, said it was customary, but not mandatory, to seek Knesset approval for such agreements.

Peace agreements are usually brought to the Knesset, but this is not a peace agreement. “It’s a border and border agreement,” he said.

Senior US energy envoy Amos Hochstein, appointed by Washington a year ago to mediate the talks, submitted a revised proposal on the maritime border agreement to Lebanon on Monday evening, local media and officials reported.

There was no official response from Lebanon. However, President Michel Aoun’s office said that the latest version of the proposal “satisfies Lebanon, meets its demands and preserves its rights to its natural resources” and that it will hold consultations with officials before announcing it.

A senior official involved in the talks told The Associated Press that Aoun, Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri are all satisfied. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, was noncommittal in a speech late Tuesday. He praised his group’s resistance to Israel and insisted that Lebanon did not fear another war against Israel. But he said Hezbollah would “wait” for its position on the agreement. He had said earlier that the group would support the government’s position.

He said any agreement would require cooperation and unity among the divided Lebanese political leadership. “The coming hours are crucial,” he said.

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Associated Press reporter Eleanor Reich contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

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