Winners and losers in the Lebanese-Israeli maritime agreement?

The US-brokered maritime boundary demarcation agreement between Lebanon and Israel in October establishes legal borders between the two countries for the first time, largely along a demarcation called Line 23.

So who emerged victorious from this longstanding and geopolitically controversial dispute? The answer largely depends on who you’re asking, which side of the border, and even then it’s not straightforward.

For the Lebanese who believe the issue has been resolved in their favor, they are unaware of the share of profit lost by abandoning their original maritime claim (Linen 29), which was clearly backed by international law. These maritime ambitions could have been fully realized if previous Lebanese governments had not floundered in negotiations and if this administration had remained true to its positions.

Issam Khalifa, professor of history at the Lebanese University and expert in cartography and border delimitation shares this appreciation. According to Khalifa, citing documented international borders and historical agreements (Boulaye-Newcamp, for example), line 29 is actually the border of Lebanon’s exclusive economic zone, not line 23, which caused Lebanon to lose 1,430 square kilometers of its territorial waters.

The only language Israel understands

The view of other Lebanese, especially those in the political orbit of the resistance group Hezbollah, is that this maritime deal brings Lebanon more than Israel expected, and that Hezbollah’s threats are responsible for the coercion of Tel Aviv to limit its usual land grabbing ambitions (Line 1) and reluctantly accept Line 23.

This view appears to be based on political realism rather than a strict interpretation of Lebanon’s legal border rights, as the country is in the midst of an unprecedented economic collapse, coupled with rising social unrest. Indeed, the argument goes, the country needs to start exploring and extracting gas as soon as possible to help kick-start its financial recovery.

For still others in Lebanon, the agreement, in itself, is worrying in that it could be the prelude to an incipient form of normalization in relations with the occupation state.

On the Israeli side, those who claim to have achieved the most favorable outcome are also ignoring the additional potential gains possible without threats from Hezbollah, forcing Tel Aviv to retreat to avoid a war for which it has no appetite.

Although Israel has always sought to bolster its economic interests in any maritime deal with Lebanon, instead it now touts the “security” benefits of the deal. Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid made the distinction when he said “the Lebanon deal meets our security needs”, a view confirmed by opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who rejected the agreement and considered it a surrender to Hezbollah.

Israeli Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, leader of the Jewish Home party, also acknowledged that threats from Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah were a motivation for signing the agreement with Lebanon.

Lines drawn in water

While Tel Aviv’s motives were driven by security concerns, Beirut’s interests in the maritime deal were primarily economic.

Following the deal, Lapid said Israel would receive 17% of potential revenues from the Qana gas field from TotalEnergies – the French company responsible for exploring and extracting the gas – while Lebanon would apparently retain ownership. of all of Cana.

But as explained by Professor Qassem Ghorayeb of the American University of Beirut, a specialist in border demarcation. The cradle“The agreement clearly speaks of rights for Lebanon and a right for Israel in the potential field of Qana. It is not understood in the agreement, in a clear way, that all the potential field of Qana is for Lebanon.

Ghorayeb, who has previously warned of “pitfalls” and “concessions” in any US-brokered deal with Israel, tweeted that “even the start of development in the field (Qana) by the operator ( TotalEnergies), requires the approval of the enemy (Israel).”

The facts are as follows: Lebanon conceded the precious line 29 and settled for line 23 on the condition that it retain full ownership of the Qana gas field – a field which has not yet been explored and whose the southern part extends beyond line 23. Lebanon, it should be noted, is fully entitled to claim line 29 – a much more advantageous boundary – in accordance with article 121 of the international law of the sea .

This is confirmed by judgments of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the most recent of which dates from 2021 on the border dispute between Kenya and Somalia, a situation practically identical to the dispute between Lebanon and Israel.

A decade of deception

However, Lebanon’s economic collapse, which the World Bank last year ranked as one of the three worst economic crises in modern history, makes the need to extract its own natural resources all the more urgent.

This is why many Lebanese have urged their government to show greater flexibility in the negotiations – despite the fact that the United States, with its historical alliance and its bias towards Israel, acted as mediators. in these talks.

During a decade of negotiations with American mediation, Israel had refused to recognize line 23, set on another wider line to the north (the Hof line).

Taking advantage of a mistake made by Lebanon and Cyprus when they signed an agreement delimiting their own maritime borders in 2007, Israel unilaterally adopted this temporary point with Lebanon. Thus, Line 1, which Lebanon opposed, was born, and a disputed area of ​​860 square kilometers was established between Lines 1 and 23. This meant that Lebanon began its negotiations with Israel from a weaker position.

Israel’s readiness to settle the dispute

Israel’s unprecedented rush to finalize a long-delayed deal and concede Line 23 is not only due to its desire to position itself as a gas hub for energy-vulnerable Europe, but above all, in order to avert a war threatened by Hezbollah.

The Lebanese resistance group has threatened military retaliation if Tel Aviv starts extracting gas from the disputed Karish gas field before a deal with Beirut is finalized.

On July 2, Hezbollah sent three drones over the Karish field to prove the seriousness of its threats. The drones were sent to achieve several objectives: to test Israel’s military reaction, capabilities and response time, to stop the work of foreign contractors and to demonstrate that the Lebanese resistance was ready to use force.

The drone event is likely what prompted Israeli strategic planners to prioritize “security gains” over economic gains in the subsequent deal.

Where is Lebanon’s victory?

Lebanon is a country where corruption runs rampant in its institutions and its officials are accused of looting public money. Because of this notoriety, many wonder if the extraction of these resources will make a difference in the economy and the life of the average Lebanese.

The current crisis in the country is marked by a shortage of dollars with which to import essential goods. Lebanon lacks domestic industry – manufacturing, agriculture, the full spectrum – and has few means of survival except through this oft-repeated government “vision” that extracting and selling gas can save the state.

What worries many Lebanese instead is whether these national funds will be used to inject life into the state economy, or will instead end up in the pockets of the corrupt ruling classes.

For starters, no one really knows about the wealth of extractable gas that lies beneath the Mediterranean Sea. Hezbollah’s Nasrallah, in a recent speech, put it at between $200 billion and $500 billion.

The numbers are huge of course, but Diana Kaissi of the NGO Lebanon Oil and Gas Initiative, says The cradle“In the best case scenario, 16 trillion cubic feet of gas should be discovered. Lebanon’s profits in this case could reach six billion dollars, spread over 15 years.

This huge discrepancy illustrates the difficulty of obtaining realistic figures in Lebanon. But there are even discrepancies in industry estimates on how long it will take to monetize the extracted gas.

Various national media reports claim that Lebanon needs five to seven years to start exporting gas and collecting revenue, which portends dark days for the country.

If accurate, can this time frame be compressed, especially given the urgent global need for gas supplies caused by the war in Ukraine?

Rudy Baroudi, an energy consultant, estimates that Lebanon “can start producing oil and gas within three years if commercial reservoirs are found within a year”.

But to attract energy companies and benefit from potential exploration, Lebanon urgently needs prior reforms. “Lebanon is not a good investment unless the government implements reforms that provide the basic safeguards international businesses need to operate in a lower-risk environment,” Baroudi said. The cradle.

“Without the rule of law, Lebanon is like a jungle,” he adds. “He is in absolute chaos judicially and financially, and in terms of the absence of regulatory authorities.”

Reforms needed before revenue

In order to provide Lebanon with urgent financial support, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) demands the immediate implementation of reforms in several sectors as part of a comprehensive recovery plan, which the Lebanese government has delayed for three years.

The country’s economic crisis is accompanied by a political paralysis that has prevented the formation of a government for months, and now risks that Lebanon will enter a presidential vacuum. This can be avoided if a political settlement is found to elect a president to succeed President Michel Aoun, whose term expires at the end of October.

Rather than debating who benefits most from the maritime deal with Israel, for Lebanon far more important questions remain – including how to extract its gas in an accelerated time frame and how best to manage the wealth generated from future exports. of gas, with justified justification. fears that it will end up in the pockets of the corrupt.

But in Lebanon, where the system is based on sectarian quotas and the buying of loyalty with government jobs and public money, it is difficult to predict whether its citizens will be able to enjoy a gas bonanza unless the necessary reforms are implemented first. Therefore, even a “victory” in the maritime agreement can result in a “loss” on the ground.

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