Israeli-Lebanese Maritime Deal Marks a Milestone, With Limitations

by -20 Views

JERUSALEM — Israel and Lebanon, neighboring countries still technically at war, signed an American-brokered agreement on Thursday demarcating a joint maritime border and regulating their rights to gas reserves at sea. The move came amid a bitter debate in Israel over the terms of the deal and its chances of reducing — or, conversely, fanning — future conflict.

The leaders of Lebanon and Israel signed the deal separately in restrained ceremonies in their respective countries, which have no formal diplomatic relations. The occasion provided a rare moment of harmony, based in shared interest, but it also showed a sense of the limitations of the breakthrough.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid of Israel, presented the deal on Thursday as a political achievement, saying, “It is not every day that an enemy country recognizes the State of Israel, in a written agreement, in view of the international community.” The chief Lebanese negotiator, Elias Bou Saab, similarly hailed the agreement as the beginning of “a new era.”

But the Lebanese government has also emphasized that the deal, reached earlier this month after more than a decade of negotiations, does not signal normalization of relations with Israel and is far less momentous than the agreements that established full diplomatic ties between Israel and three Arab states in 2020, or Israel’s earlier peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan.

In Israel, the maritime deal has been portrayed variously as a historic achievement that will enhance regional prosperity and stability — or as a shameful capitulation to threats by Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese organization that fought a devastating, monthlong war with Israel in 2006 that killed more than 1,500 people, most of them Lebanese.

Hezbollah had vowed to disrupt any Israeli efforts to drill at an underwater gas field, Karish, near the long-disputed border between the two countries, before a deal was sealed. Earlier this year, the Israeli military shot down several drones that Hezbollah had sent as a warning toward a rig at the Karish site, fueling fears of a wider escalation if negotiations broke down.

“The state of Israel won today — in security, economically, diplomatically, and in energy,” Mr. Lapid said on Thursday at the start of a special cabinet meeting to ratify the agreement.

Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, indicated on Thursday that his group was standing down over the gas issue. Now that the maritime deal had been finalized, he said in a televised address, “the resistance’s mission is accomplished and all exceptional measures taken by Hezbollah are now over.” A spokesman for Hezbollah said that meant its forces, which had been temporarily put on full alert, were no longer preparing for an imminent war.

The agreement, mediated by a U.S. envoy, Amos Hochstein, sets a maritime border between the territorial waters of the two countries and delineates their exclusive economic zones in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The deal allocates drilling rights to Lebanon at one contested gas field, Qana, which straddles the two economic zones, and confirms Israeli control of the Karish field on the Israeli side to the south.

Israel has maintained control of its existing security line stretching three nautical miles off the coast and has compromised in accepting the Lebanese position regarding a nine-nautical-mile stretch deeper into the sea.

U.S. Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken praised the deal in a statement, saying that it “meaningfully demonstrates the U.S. vision for a more secure, integrated, and prosperous Middle East.” Lower-level delegations from the two sides filed the agreement hours after its signing at the headquarters of the U.N. peacekeeping force in Naqoura, on the Lebanese side of the border.

Supporters of the deal argue that it removes the threat of immediate conflict with Hezbollah over the gas reserves and could potentially reduce Lebanon’s dependence on Iranian oil.

Mr. Lapid announced on Thursday that gas production had begun the day before from the Karish platform, and that Israel will receive 17 percent of any future profits from the Lebanese Qana field. The royalties are to be paid by the French company prospecting there.

The deal was struck just days before a new Israeli election — set for Nov. 1, and the country’s fifth in under four years — and the debate in Israel over the agreement has been highly politicized, with opponents of Mr. Lapid’s transitional government questioning the motives and timing.

Benjamin Netanyahu — Israel’s former, and longest-serving, prime minister — is running against Mr. Lapid in a determined bid to return to office. He has vehemently denounced the deal, presenting it as “a historic surrender” to Hezbollah. He initially threatened not to honor the agreement if he returns to power.

“Lebanon got 100 percent, Israel got 0,” Mr. Netanyahu claimed, asserting that Mr. Lapid had caved in to demands that he had long refused.

Mr. Netanyahu has tamped down his criticism somewhat, however, since opinion polls showed that many Israelis support the agreement.

Independent Israeli experts have generally described the deal as a yielding to the Lebanese position — but one that also comes with advantages.

“This agreement is a concession if you look at that from the Israeli point of view,” said Sarit Zehavi, a former officer in the military intelligence corps, describing it as handing a “moral and psychological victory” to Hezbollah.

But it buys Israel time, she said, adding, “I am not sure this agreement will prevent war, but I am pretty sure it helps to postpone the next conflict.”

Yaakov Amidror, a former general and national security adviser of Israel under Mr. Netanyahu, said there was “no question that Israel had capitulated” on where the boundary should be. But at least in the short term, he said, “Israel gets the quiet it needs to extract gas from Karish.”

The main conflict between Israel and Hezbollah was never about gas, Mr. Amidror noted, but about Hezbollah’s ideology, arms buildup and pro-Iranian agenda.

Hezbollah came into being after Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which was followed by an 18-year Israeli occupation of parts of southern Lebanon. The group is now considered the strongest military force in Lebanon.

While the maritime gas deal may be good for Israel economically, it could prove to be a bad one strategically, according to Mr. Amidror, now a fellow of the conservative-leaning Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and the Washington-based Jewish Institute for National Security of America.

The question, he said, was how Mr. Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, was reading the situation.

If Mr. Nasrallah takes away from the deal an understanding that the Israelis gave into his threats and are not ready to confront Hezbollah, Mr. Amidror said, “that could even accelerate the timetable for the next conflict.”

Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, and Edward Wong from Washington.


No More Posts Available.

No more pages to load.