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Israel, Lebanon reach historic sea deal

Officials in Jerusalem and Beirut have separately announced a landmark agreement to demarcate their adjacent maritime border – averting a potential war

By Jonathan Hessen and Erin Viner

While somewhat limited in scope, a deal would mark a significant compromise between states with a history of war and hostility, opening the way for offshore energy exploration and easing a source of recent tensions.

 “This is a historic achievement that will strengthen Israel’s security, inject billions into Israel’s economy, and ensure the stability of our northern border,” Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said in a statement. “The draft agreement meets all the security and economic principles laid out by Israel,” he revealed.

Welcoming the agreement, Defense Minister Benny Gantz  said that “Israel is keen on having its neighbor Lebanon be stable and prosperous and the agreement which we are advancing is just and good for both sides.”

He stressed that, “In recent months, the Defense Establishment accompanied closely the negotiations on the maritime border in the north from a security perspective. We stood firm with determination to ensure that the agreement would ensure Israel’s security interests. We did not and will not relinquish one millimeter of security. The agreement continues despite threats by the terror organization Hezbollah, which tried to sabotage the process and not because of it (Iranian directives). We will continue to stand firm on our security needs in any scenario to ensure security for the citizens of Israel. We will ensure that the agreement fulfills also Israel’s economic rights, and we will present the agreement to the public in a transparent, clear and candid as the law requires.”

In Lebanon, President Michel Aoun said the terms of the final US proposal were satisfactory.

“The effort that was put during the past week was for both sides to consider that each obtained the guarantees they wanted and took what they wanted in a fair agreement. For us, the file is completed,” stated Lebanese Deputy Parliament Speaker and Chief Negotiator Elias Bou Saab.

“The atmosphere is very positive towards the work done by the US mediator and the US administration – because I can really say today that we have reached a deal that satisfies both sides, and everyone knows how difficult it is to have such a solution,” said Bou Saab, underscoring that the latest draft “takes into consideration all of Lebanon’s requirements and we believe that the other side should feel the same.”

The deal was also said to have been approved by the heavily armed, Iran-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah, which until recently has threatened to attack Israeli gas facilities, according to two officials.

One senior Lebanese government official and one official close to Hezbollah said the militia had “agreed” to the terms of the deal and considered negotiations “over.” The terror group has, however, has yet to formally comment.

The development follows years of upheaval and diplomatic efforts by the United States to mediate indirect talks between the two warring states, in a process that began in 2000. Revival of talks aimed at reaching a settlement in 2021 stalled, and the matter was further complicated when Beirut not only expanded its claim by around 1,400 square km (540 square miles) over the initial Decree 6433 Lebanon submitted to the United Nations in 2011, but also failed to respond to an undisclosed proposal by a US envoy earlier this year to restart the talks.

Both national leaders received congratulatory calls from US President Joe Biden.

During his conversation with Prime Minister Lapid, the US leader said, “You are making history.” The President then thanked the entire Israeli team that took part in the talks and expressed his appreciation for their trust and confidence.

The leaders discussed the importance of the agreement, which will ensure Israel’s security on its northern border and strengthen the Israeli and Lebanese economies. Prime Minister Lapid thanked President Biden for his leadership and for America’s mediation of the maritime negotiations between Lebanon and the Israeli negotiating teams, particularly for the “intensive and effective work” of US Special Envoy and Coordinator for International Energy Affairs Amos Hochstein.

Additionally, Prime Minister Lapid thanked the American team, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa at the National Security Council Brett McGurk.

President Biden went on to emphasize his commitment to Israel’s security and regional stability and said that his ability to work with Prime Minister Lapid to reach this agreement “is a testament to the strong and unbreakable bond between the two leaders themselves and between Israel and the United States,” said an Israeli governmental statement. The two leaders also affirmed their intention to remain in close and regular contact.

During his call to his Lebanese counterpart, President Biden offered reassurance that Washington stands by Beirut as it strives to rebuild its devastated economy through possible gas wealth, said Aoun’s office.

The agreement is meant to resolve a territorial dispute in the eastern Mediterranean Sea in an area where Lebanon aims to explore for natural gas, establishing a border between Lebanese and Israeli waters for the first time.

The deal does not address the sensitive land frontier between the two countries, which are in a formal state of war. Aoun previously stressed that an agreement would not signify a “partnership” with Israel – which Lebanon refuses to recognize and regards as an enemy.  Lebanon’s Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati said last week that efforts to achieve maritime delineation in the Mediterranean is a way to avoid “a sure-fire war in the region.”

While Israel has long been engaged production and export of natural gas, efforts by cash-strapped Lebanon to do the same have been obstructed by deep-rooted political corruption and dysfunction. Successful gas exploration would be a major breakthrough for the Arab Republic, which has been experiencing a devastating economic crisis that has plunged most of the country into poverty since the 2019 collapse of the financial system under colossal state debts in 2019.

The new agreement will create a mechanism for both sides to receive royalties derived from exploration by the French multinational TotalEnergies SE integrated energy and petroleum company of an offshore gas field that straddles the boundary.

After meeting with a TotalEnergies senior delegation team in Beirut yesterday with Energy Minister Walid Fayyad in Beirut yesterday, Lebanon’s caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati announced that exploration is expected to get underway in the near future.

Now that the negotiations have concluded, both governments need to approve the sea deal. Israeli Prime Minister Lapid has convened his Security Cabinet, followed by a special government meeting, to review it before it will be presented for approval by the Knesset. Lebanon’s President, Premier and Parliamentary Speaker are expected to greenlight the proposal without sending it to parliament; where opposition factions have criticized it for having made ‘too many concessions.’