Israel and Lebanon agree historic maritime border deal

JERUSALEM — Israeli and Lebanese leaders appear to have agreed to a US-brokered deal that will allow the two countries to exploit gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean, potentially ending a decades-long dispute over their maritime border, easing growing military tensions and providing desperately needed support. source of income for the collapsing Lebanese economy.

The agreement, which must be formally approved in both countries, was hailed by leaders in Beirut and Jerusalem as a historic breakthrough. This is the first agreement on the demarcation of borders between the two nations.

“This is a historic achievement that will bolster Israel’s security, inject billions into the Israeli economy and ensure the stability of our northern border,” Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said in a statement on Tuesday.

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Lebanese leaders have yet to make an official announcement on the deal, but President Michel Aoun said in a tweet on Tuesday that “the final version of the offer is satisfactory for Lebanon and meets its demands and preserves its rights to its natural resources”.

“If everything goes well, [Washington’s] efforts could lead to a landmark deal imminently,” Elias Bou Saab, Lebanon’s chief negotiator on the issue and deputy speaker of parliament, told Reuters after receiving the text of the agreement from US officials on Tuesday.

Officials hope the deal, if finalized, will calm the escalating tensions along the border. Hezbollah, the Iran-allied militant group that controls southern Lebanon, has threatened to attack a new offshore gas facility Israel is preparing for production in what Lebanon claims are disputed waters. The group has launched drones towards the gas field more than once, including three unmanned aircraft which were shot down by Israel in early July.

Faced with threats of Hezbollah strikes if Israel starts pumping natural gas from the Karish field, Defense Minister Benny Gantz put troops on high alert after maritime border talks ran into disputes last minute last week.

Hezbollah, which together with its allies holds the largest bloc in parliament, had no immediate comment on the draft agreement. A media official for the group told the Washington Post that Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah is likely to speak about the deal in a speech scheduled for Tuesday. “Today we are going to find out,” the official said.

The deal would only define the maritime border between sworn enemies, not the 50-mile land border that remains in dispute after multiple wars and continues to be patrolled by a United Nations monitoring force after more than four decades.

The maritime border has proved equally controversial in recent years, particularly after the discovery of gas deposits in the seabed inside the 330 square mile region. Israel, which has already developed gas fields in nearby waters, suspended a line of buoys three miles from a rocky cliff near the UN headquarters. Beirut condemned this decision as a unilateral provocation.

Resolving the dispute — which has gained in urgency as the risk of conflict has grown and the free fall of the Lebanese economy has become more critical — has been a regional priority for the Biden administration. The president’s special envoy, Amos Hochstein, has brokered talks over the past year in an effort to give countries fair access to the region.

The deal comes as gas discoveries reshape the energy map of the Mediterranean, just as Europe seeks alternative sources in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Gas diplomacy could also thaw Israel’s strained relations with Turkey, for example, as the two countries seek to revive long-abandoned plans for a gas pipeline through Turkey to Europe.

Details of the deal were not made public on Tuesday. But reports on its broad terms last week suggest it clarifies the lines of exclusive economic zones for the two countries. Lebanon would have access to promising fields in previously disputed waters; Israel would be free to start exploiting the Karish well with Lebanon’s consent.

Lebanese officials said the final deal would not have them in a direct partnership with Israel, and it was unclear how royalties would be distributed over the one area, the Cana field, which lies partly in the waters. Israelis.

Lebanon in 2017 issued licenses to move forward with offshore oil and gas development for two of the 10 Mediterranean blocs, including Qana, and officials moved quickly to push the process forward.

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati met Tuesday morning with Energy Minister Walid Fayyad and a delegation from the French oil giant Total. Fayyad expressed hope that the deal will benefit Lebanon and grant it its “rights and full share in the field of Qana without sharing it with anyone”, according to state media. He also stressed the need to start exploration and development as soon as possible, which often takes years.

“Logistical issues take time, but work will start immediately,” he said.

Lebanese leaders and the public hope the deal will pave the way for gas exploration and bring much-needed revenue to the country, which has been hit by a sharp economic decline and banking crisis that has ravaged the local currency and left a large remote part of the country. of work.

In a place once an oasis of opulence, people sifting through trash cans for food is now a common sight in the capital Beirut. The World Food Program said in a report last month that around 33% of Lebanese now lack minimum food supplies.

Access to gas fields could mean export revenue and energy sources for a country where electricity is now an expensive luxury and where some Lebanese have begun to join Syrians and other migrants in perilous boat trips to Europe.

Israel hopes access to the gas fields will help pull Lebanon from the brink of collapse and reduce the risk of another war.

“Such a field would weaken Lebanon’s dependence on Iran, limit Hezbollah and bring regional stability,” Lapid told his cabinet earlier this month.

In Israel, which has no diplomatic relations with Lebanon, it was unclear what steps the government needed to take to ratify the agreement. Legal experts have said the deal could go through simply with the approval of the current cabinet, most of whom have shown enthusiasm for a project they say benefits both countries. They pushed back against some right-wing lawmakers, including former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who criticized the government for its “surrender” to Hezbollah.

But Israel is holding national elections in less than a month, and some officials, including acting prime minister Naftali Bennett, have said in the past that such a big deal would have to go through the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

Bennett, as Lapid’s partner in government, still holds an effective cabinet veto. His office said Tuesday it would make a decision on the deal after reading the draft and consulting with security officials.

Dadouch reported from Beirut.

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