image Photo: Reuters

Israel-Lebanon sea deal advances

The United States has presented a draft agreement to demarcate maritime borders between the two enemy states with a history of conflict.

By Erin Viner

US Special Envoy and Coordinator for International Energy Affairs Amos Hochstein submitted a new proposal over the weekend aimed at paving the way for offshore energy exploration and potential profit-sharing in a disputed Mediterranean gas prospect, while hopefully helping to defuse one potential source of conflict between Israel and the Iran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah terrorist organization.

Israel has already granted preliminary approval of the 10-page draft agreement.

“We are discussing the final details, so it is not yet possible to praise a done deal; however, as we have demanded from the start, the proposal safeguards Israel’s full security-diplomatic interests, as well as our economic interests,” announced Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid at the start of his weekly Cabinet session yesterday.

“For over a decade, Israel has been trying to reach this deal,” said Prime Minister Lapid, pointing out that it would lead to the strengthening of national security in the north of the country; while additionally, the offshore “Karish field will operate and produce natural gas. Money will flow into the state’s coffers and our energy independence will be secured. This deal strengthens Israel’s security and Israel’s economy.”

Washington has been trying to broker indirect demarcation talks between Beirut and Jerusalem in a process that began in 2000, to determine sovereignty over offshore oil and gas resources to pave the way for more exploration.

Israel proposed a 58:42 division in favor of Lebanon when negotiations were resumed last year, but an impasse was reached after Lebanon nearly tripled its claim by around 1,400 square km (540 square miles) over the initial Decree 6433 Lebanon submitted to the United Nations in 2011. The new Lebanese claim angles farther south, placing an 860-square kilometer triangle in the Mediterranean (amounting to about 2% of Israel’s economic waters) at stake, including the northern end of the Karish field which Jerusalem firmly maintains is part of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

A deal would represent a significant breakthrough between two states with a history of conflict.

Israeli Prime Minister Lapid also suggested the possible gas production by a company under a Lebanese license in the disputed Qana reserve, with Israel receiving a share of revenues.

“We have no opposition to an additional Lebanese gas field being developed, from which we would of course receive royalties due us,” he said. “Such a field would weaken Lebanese dependency on Iran, restrain Hezbollah and bring regional stability.”

Following completion of a legal review, the US-mediator’s proposal will be submitted to the Knesset for discussion and approval by Prime Minister Lapid, Alternate Premier Naftali Bennett and Defense Minister Benny Gantz in coordination with the Attorney General.

The centrist Lapid heads a caretaker government until the 1 November national elections. His challenger, ex-Premier and current Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu, has argued the Lebanese deal could benefit Hezbollah and accused Lapid of trying to evade parliamentary scrutiny.

In an apparent sign he could overturn the deal if re-elected, Netanyahu wrote on Twitter yesterday, “We will not be bound by this fait accompli.”

Defense Minister Gantz reiterated that any final agreement would be brought for review by the Israeli parliament – and called on Netanyahu to refrain from comments that “endanger the deal.”

After years of stop-start shuttle diplomacy, agreement seems closer than ever.

Lebanon has also reacted favorably to the draft.

The US Embassy in Beirut said Ambassador Dorothy Shea had met Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Najib Mikati “to provide the US proposal for a final agreement on the maritime boundary line.”

Berri, a Hezbollah ally and one of Lebanon’s most influential politicians, told the Asharq al-Awsat newspaper the draft of the final agreement was “positive,” according a statement circulated by his office. While the document “would require study before the final response to it is given,” the statement said Berri considers that it “meets in principle the Lebanese demands” – that exclude the sea deal from having any impact on land borders between the two neighboring countries.

Hezbollah leader Sheikh Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said during a speech on Saturday that the US proposal is “a very important step” and the coming days will be crucial.

The terror group waged a 2006 bitter war against the Jewish State, known as the Second Lebanon War. While the heavily armed Hezbollah has threatened to attack Israeli over any perceived exploration or extraction violations in the disputed waters, the Iranian-proxy has also previously promised to abide by whatever Beirut agrees to in the indirect talks amid Lebanon’s ever-escalating financial crisis.

“We support the Lebanese position, so that we safeguard our right to demarcate our maritime borders and invest in our gas,” senior Hezbollah official Mohammad Raad was cited as saying by Lebanon’s National News Agency.