LONDON: Ten years after the United States began mediation efforts, Lebanon and Israel have finally reached an agreement delineating their maritime border in what experts describe as a “historic” moment. However, some observers take a more cautious position.
“It’s at least 10 years behind schedule,” said Ambassador Frederic Hof, former director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, who served as a US mediator in 2012 under President Barack Obama. .
“We have to be careful at this stage. The ratification process is always long in Israel. There is a question whether after the November 1 elections the agreement would stand if there was a change of government,” he told Arab News.
“On the Lebanese side, there are some questions. The obvious question is: are there indeed any salable natural gas deposits under Lebanese waters? And, given that there will probably be no revenue for another five years, will the Lebanese political system undergo changes that would allow the Lebanese people to benefit from all this?
The dispute dates back to 2012, when the two countries failed to agree on the location of their common maritime border. Israel first pushed for Line 1 (see map), while Lebanon preferred Line 29.
Hof, who was the first US mediator named in the process, offered a line closer to the Israelis’ preferred option. Ultimately, however, the border that was agreed upon is Line 23, which is closer to Lebanon’s preferred border.
At the heart of the dispute are two offshore natural gas fields: the untapped Qana field in Lebanese territorial waters and the Karish field in Israeli territory. Disputed resource claims escalated in July when Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese militia, launched a drone attack on the Karish field. Israeli air defenses managed to shoot down the three drones before they reached their target. It is hoped that this week’s border agreement will prevent similar incidents.
According to leaked details of the deal, revenues from gas extracted from the Qana field will be shared between Lebanon and French energy company Total, and 17% of Total’s revenues will go to Israel. Israel will continue to have exclusive rights to the Karish field.
Although the agreement settles the question of the maritime border, it does not affect the still unrecognized land border between the two countries, the so-called Blue Line which was demarcated in 2000 and supervised by the United Nations Interim Force in Liban.
Reflecting on why a maritime border deal could not be reached 10 years ago when the process began, Hof said the then government of Najib Mikati – who is now prime minister by Lebanon – had already begun to “fall apart steadily”.
He added: “Now the decision-making process seems to be in the hands of the three presidents of Lebanon (the president, the prime minister and the speaker of parliament) and unless things change, which I don’t think they will, all three seem to agree that Lebanon has done well in this mediation.
Others, like Tony Badran, a researcher at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a Levant analyst for Tablet Magazine, told Arab News that “what has changed now is that the Biden administration has abandoned the framework previous division of the disputed area along a 55:45”. ratio, and successfully pressured a docile lame duck government to give in 100% to Hezbollah’s demands.
U.S. officials also view the maritime deal, brokered by Amos Hochstein, the Biden administration’s senior energy security adviser, as a diplomatic victory that will ultimately improve overall security and stability in the region.
“Ultimately, the United States managed to negotiate an agreement between Lebanon and Israel – two enemy countries – to conclude a maritime border agreement which it believes would stabilize the situation between the two countries and make it more difficult their displacement. to war,” Laury Haytayan, Middle East and North Africa director at the Natural Resource Governance Institute, told Arab News.
Indeed, she believes that Israel, which already enjoys ample energy supplies, correctly identified the security advantages offered by a deal that favored Lebanon’s territorial claims at the expense of Israeli economic interests.
“If Lebanon is stable and Lebanon focuses on its economy, they think they will be less interested in war” and, in turn, less dependent on Hezbollah and Iran, Haytayan added.
However, officials in Beirut likely had other concerns in mind. As Lebanon faces economic catastrophe, the caretaker government is eager to show that it is toying with the international community’s demands for reform in return for assistance.
Haytayan said Lebanon’s main goal was to put “a map in the hands of the political class to use to talk to the international community and to talk to the Americans for the first time, so that the Americans don’t continue the sanctions. “.
Since Lebanon’s economic collapse in 2019, which was compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and the devastating Beirut port explosion in August 2020, the United States has exerted sustained pressure on the Lebanese government to it attacks a culture of endemic corruption.
Among those placed under sanctions by the United States is the son-in-law of President Michel Aoun, Gebran Bassil, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and current leader of the Free Patriotic Movement.
Due to the reputation of the Lebanese elite for lining their pockets at the expense of public funds, citizens cannot help but be pessimistic about the prospect that the oil revenues resulting from the border agreement will be put to good use. wisely.
“I think the threat that the revenues will not be used for the benefit of the Lebanese people and for the reconstruction of Lebanon comes from the existence of a totally corrupt and totally incompetent political class in Lebanon, which enjoys the support and protection of Hezbollah,” Hoff said.
Although it will take at least five years before Lebanon sees any financial return from gas explorations, there are several short-term indirect gains, Haytayan said.
A public commitment given by Total to begin drilling operations in the Qana field could help convince more companies to invest in Lebanon, which would give the Lebanese government “additional cards to play with the negotiators, with the Fund monetary institution, the World Bank, the international community, the United States and the Europeans,” Haytayan said. “It would ease the pressure for reform that has been on them for three and a half years.”
US President Joe Biden called his Lebanese counterpart, Aoun, to congratulate Lebanon on the maritime deal.
“Everyone is happy that Lebanon has reached this agreement with Israel, so there is political energy injected into the survival (of the Lebanese political class),” Haytayan said.
The maritime border agreement is undoubtedly a major step forward. However, Hof doubts that this will lead to a normalization of relations between Israel and Lebanon in the near future. Instead, he sees the coming years as a test of the will to reform Lebanese politics and the will of the elite to put the needs of the public before their own.
“Five years is the estimate you see most often (for gas exploration),” Hof said. “This gives the Lebanese people five years to do their best to create a system that reflects the rule of law, accountability, transparency and to build a Lebanese state capable of using these God-given resources for the benefit of the Lebanese people.” .
As for Badra, he explained that the agreement has led to Hezbollah “clearly emerging as the main interlocutor of the Biden administration and of France in Lebanon – a recognition that it is the only party that matters and that dominates the Lebanon”.
“The Biden administration not only helped Hezbollah coerce Israel into caving under fire, but also, the deal itself cements France’s partnership with Hezbollah, as well as other potential foreign investment.”