The Maritime Border Agreement with Lebanon

By Major General (res.) Yaakov Amidror

The agreement with Lebanon over the maritime border has several implications and needs to be examined from different angles.

The agreement with Lebanon over the maritime border has several implications and needs to be examined from different angles.

First, it makes sense to look at the agreement from a financial perspective:

In terms of the exploration of gas by Israel, this is a good agreement, mainly because it allows Israel to immediately begin extracting gas from the Karish gas field, with the level of threat to the offshore rigs decreasing significantly. Israel will also be able to offer foreign companies the ability to continue searching for additional gas in its economic waters in a more favorable atmosphere. Nevertheless, the question is how committed Hezbollah will be to the agreement.

In contrast, Israel’s hopes of making a lot of money from the gas field north of the agreed line will probably be only partially realized. That is because the agreed demarcation line (known as the 23rd Line) greatly reduces the area to which Israel will be able to claim economic rights (about 17% of the reservoir area, depending on how the gas is dispersed).

It can be argued that without signing the agreement, there was nothing to divide at all (because no company would have done the drilling without an agreement), but this is the consolation for those who gave up that area in the negotiations and are trying to reduce their losses rhetorically.

Politically, it is important for Israel to conclude another agreement, even if not bilateral and quite limited, which settles a dispute with one of its neighbors with whom there are no political agreements. Now, at least there is one issue settled between the countries – a small step toward the recognition of Israel.

Moreover, an agreement that implies Hezbollah’s approval is a bitter pill for the organization to swallow. It still sees the elimination of Israel as a primary goal, yet here it is a partner, seemingly covertly, in an agreement with Jerusalem. This has symbolic importance.

From a security aspect, Israel’s position that the line of buoys amounts to some kind of international recognition is a correct emphasis, even though it is primarily a tactical security achievement: it creates a more comfortable space for the routine operations of the Israeli navy. Although the wording, in the end, does not define the line of buoys as an internationally recognized borderline, which is a source of discomfort, Israel can live with it, provided the navy will indeed be able to operate without any future challenges.

There is also a small concession over sovereign waters. This is different from a concession on economic waters that are not under the sovereignty of the state, and I leave it to the jurists to have their say. It seems that this issue revolves around violating a principle that is more important than the area ceded.

At the heart of the negotiations was a territorial dispute over where lies the boundary between the economic waters of Israel and Lebanon. From a strategic perspective therefore, on this essential point, the agreement is not good for Israel.

The agreed line is clear, and it shows a complete Israeli renunciation of the territorial line that Israel claimed for years with good justification. Israel’s arguments were no less valid than the Lebanese for Line 23, which will henceforth be the borderline recognized by Israel and the international community.

Such a complete concession can be perceived as a weakness. It seems to me that even objective observers, who accept that Israel had an economic interest in the agreement, would agree that the absolute concession embodies a fear of conflict with Hezbollah, a fear that does not add to Israel’s deterrence.

On the contrary – it will be important to see what interpretation Nasrallah gives to the absolute Israeli concession on this key issue. In case he sees Israel’s action as a capitulation due to fear of confrontation, Israel can expect further attempts at blackmail. If the concession is perceived as tactical – to speed up the negotiations because of Israel’s economic needs – then the damage of the Israeli concession will be smaller. At least publicly, it is clear that Hezbollah and Nasrallah are adopting the first interpretation.

Luckily, the Lebanese demanded two minor amendments at the end of the negotiations and allowed Israel to reject them at least rhetorically (in the wording regarding the line of buoys the Lebanese accepted part of their demand), thus saving a little of Israel’s dignity, although it is clear that these are minor issues in comparison with the absolute territorial concession on the water borderline.

The insistence that the matter of financial compensation be discussed directly between Israel and the oil company designated to explore north of Line 23, and that its conclusion be a condition for the utilization of the gas, is important economically. As noted, the economic benefits to Israel will be smaller because of the geographic concession.

Israel’s insistence on these two secondary issues was important for the outcome of the negotiations, whose conclusion is sending a bad message to the international community as well. What’s noteworthy is that Israel faces negotiations on maritime borders with the Palestinians and with the Cypriots, with whom there are similar disagreements over gas fields that mostly (or completely) belong to the other side.

It is impossible in such negotiations to ignore the position of the US, which in the later part of the negotiations was inclined to favor accepting the Lebanese position. It is not clear whether this was a result of an American decision to have Israel make concessions – in view of the failure of the US to influence Lebanon (actually Hezbollah) – or whether the US position reflected an Israeli decision to completely surrender for the sake of an agreement, ascribing great importance to the mere agreement.

It is important for Israel to conclude the negotiations in coordination with the US, especially in anticipation of future conflicts that may arise between Israel and Lebanon, especially at sea.

Let us now review the four issues that came up in the public debate.

The claim that the gas money will be used to enrich Hezbollah and facilitate it becoming stronger is only partially true. Yes, it is likely that in the context of Lebanese corruption, Hezbollah will also benefit from the profits of Lebanese gas when it starts flowing. But make no mistake: Hezbollah will get stronger not because of this money but because of Iran’s efforts, while the money from the gas will only marginally help Hezbollah run its business.

The claim that rigs on both sides guarantee peace is probably greatly exaggerated. If Hezbollah decides for whatever reason that it is time to start a conflict with Israel, the existence of a “Lebanese rig” will not stop it, just as the existence of Lebanese power plants did not stop it from using force against Israel. In any case, shooting at Israel is certainly not a justification for hitting a French rig in the waters of Lebanon. And even if Hezbollah fires at a rig in Israeli waters, it is clear to the decision-makers in Israel and Lebanon that Israel is a law-abiding Western country, while Hezbollah is a terrorist organization led by thugs, so it is not at all certain what Israel’s response will be. For these reasons, it seems that rigs on both sides of the border will contribute little to stability and peace, except perhaps reducing the risk of shooting at rigs at sea.

The third claim – that Lebanese gas will reduce Lebanon’s dependence on Iran, and therefore reduce Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon (and perhaps also bring about more stability in Lebanon), putting aside that the gas will only start flowing to Lebanon in five to 10 years – is without merit. Hezbollah is strong in Lebanon not because of its economic influence, although it is trying to increase it; Hezbollah is the strongest political force in Lebanon because it is the strongest military force in the country. No Lebanese organization, including the national Lebanese army, can stand up to it, and nobody wants to confront Hezbollah militarily. The arrival of Lebanese gas will not change this reality, and we should not deceive ourselves. We should remember that Lebanon was not stable even in the years when its economy flourished. Lebanon is not functioning not because of poverty but because of corruption, which will not decrease when there is more money to distribute to the various interested parties. Indeed, perhaps it will work the other way around.

The claim that Israel may have made great concessions but the American letters of guarantee are adequate political compensation stems from a lack of understanding. These guarantees are a flag to be waved for PR and nothing else. They are not even binding on this American administration, certainly not the next administration.

In conclusion: even if Israel had only achieved some of its demands for the demarcation of the disputed maritime area, but did not accept the full Lebanese territorial demand, it would have been a good agreement.

The complete Israeli concession on the territorial issue clouds the other achievements:

A. The immediate continuation of the exploration of Israeli gas, and relief in that it will allow more foreign companies to search for gas in the sea.

B. Financial compensation (smaller than expected and unspecified) from the Lebanese gas field.

C. Approval of the line of buoys (despite the ambiguity in the language of the agreement).

In light of this, it is important to see how Nasrallah interprets Israel’s fear of a conflict, because it is possible that he will think (as he says publicly) that it was the fear of confrontation with Hezbollah that led Israel to the full territorial concession, and he may believe that this situation opens the door for future pressure on Israel.

If that is his conclusion, the agreement will not contribute to stability – it may actually cause an escalation – and the short-term peace could be the basis for increased tension down the road.

It is possible that Nasrallah, as he sees it, was able to create a more difficult deterrent equation with Israel. That is the main strategic weakness in the agreement.

Still, when the draft agreement is final, it will be necessary to approve it despite its weaknesses.

An Israeli rejection of the US-negotiated agreement will damage Israel’s international legitimacy in future conflicts that are likely to arise with or without the agreements.

The Hezbollah opposition to Israel’s existence will not change, and the question of how we will become better prepared for the next conflict should guide us in the various decisions.

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