Israel announces ‘historic’ maritime border agreement with Lebanon

Israel announced on Tuesday morning that it had reached a “historic” agreement with Lebanon over the maritime border between the two countries in gas-rich Mediterranean waters.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid said the deal would “strengthen Israel’s security, inject billions into Israel’s economy, and ensure the stability of our northern border.”

The premier will convene the security cabinet on Wednesday, followed by a special meeting of the full cabinet to approve the agreement, the Foreign Ministry said.

The Israeli announcement came minutes after Lebanese President Michel Aoun tweeted that “the final version of the offer satisfies Lebanon, meets its demands and preserves its rights to its natural wealth.”

Hezbollah, the powerful Shiite terrorist group that has threatened Israel over natural gas extraction, agreed to the terms of the deal and considers the negotiations over, Reuters reported.

The successful completion of the deal comes in the wake of intense efforts by US mediator Amos Hochstein in recent days to bridge the gap between the two sides.

On Tuesday morning, Israel received a draft of the agreement, and determined that it meets its economic, security, and legal demands.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid addresses the state ceremony for 1973’s Yom Kippur War fallen, at Mount Herzl military cemetery on October 6, 2022. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

“All our demands were met, the changes that we asked for were corrected. We protected Israel’s security interests and are on our way to an historic agreement,” Eyal Hulata, the national security adviser and the lead negotiator at the talks, said in a statement.

His comments came after Lebanon received the updated draft of the US-brokered maritime agreement with Israel, which Beirut’s top negotiator said satisfied its previous concerns and could imminently lead to a “historic deal.”

“If everything goes well, Amos Hochstein’s efforts could imminently lead to a historic deal,” Bou Saab told Reuters, referring to the Biden administration’s energy envoy, who has led the negotiations between Jerusalem and Beirut for the past 15 months.

Hochstein submitted last week what at the time was described as a final proposal aimed at settling a dispute over control of a series of gas fields off the coast of Israel and Lebanon — two countries officially at war and with no recognized maritime boundary between them.

A deal would put to bed a long-running dispute over some 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) of the Mediterranean Sea, covering the Karish and the Qana gas fields.

National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata speaks at the annual conference of the Institute for Counter-Terrorism Policy (ICT) at Reichman University in Herzliya on September 15, 2022. (Gilad Kavalerchik)

While details of the agreement have not been formally publicized, officials said that last week’s proposal granted Jerusalem international recognition of its buoy-marked boundary five kilometers (3.1 miles) off the coast of the northern town of Rosh Hanikra, which Israel established in 2000 after withdrawing from southern Lebanon. After that, Israel’s border will follow the southern edge of the disputed area known as Line 23.

Lebanon will enjoy the economic benefits of the area north of Line 23, including the Qana gas field, although a senior Israeli official briefing reporters on the deal said that Jerusalem will receive compensation for giving up rights to Qana, a portion of which will lie in what the agreement recognizes as Israeli waters.

While Jerusalem indicated openness to last week’s proposal, it was swiftly rejected by Lebanon, which reportedly has reservations over officially recognizing the buoy-marked boundary established by Israel. Lapid’s office subsequently made it clear that it would not back off from this demand.

Map showing Israel-Lebanon maritime border claims. (AFP News Agency)

Lebanon is also said to have opposed the previous draft’s requirement for Israel to receive a share of the revenues from potential gas produced at Qana.

Saab — the Lebanese negotiator — did not reveal the details of Hochstein’s latest amendments to the proposed maritime border, but it is believed to be related to both the buoy-boundary and the Qana gas field.

Last Thursday, Hebrew media reported that the director of the Israel Energy Ministry told ministers at a cabinet meeting that estimates on how much natural gas could be extracted from Qana — the reservoir at the center of a maritime dispute — were far less than initially thought.

Lebanese protesters on a motorboat carry their national flag as they sail in front of an Israeli Navy vessel during a demonstration backing Lebanon’s claims to disputed maritime oil and gas fields, near the southern border town of Naqoura, Lebanon, September 4, 2022. (AP /Mohammed Zaatari)

The revelation appeared to be an attempt by the ministry director to convince wary ministers to get on board with the US-brokered maritime agreement by emphasizing that Israel will only be compromising on a reservoir that may offer a very limited profit while receiving international recognition control over other reservoirs in the Mediterranean that are far more profitable.

After a phone call with Hochstein on Sunday, Aoun expressed optimism on Monday about finalizing a deal “within days.”

“The negotiations went a long way and the gaps were closed over the last week,” he said.

In this Thursday, October 20, 2016, file photo, Christian leader Michel Aoun speaks to journalists after former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri endorsed him for Lebanese president, in Beirut, Lebanon. Lebanon’s parliament has elected Michel Aoun, a former army commander and strong ally of Hezbollah, as president, ending a more than two-year vacuum in the country’s top post. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)

On Saturday, Israel’s security establishment gave Energean a green light to start testing the Karish pipeline, with full operations slated to begin within weeks. Israel has insisted that it will not wait for a deal, but has only allowed Energean to take preliminary steps thus far.

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has repeatedly threatened that his group will strike Israel if it begins gas exploration at Karish before a maritime agreement is reached. In more recent rounds of talks, Lebanon began claiming ownership of Karish in addition to Qana. The demand has been largely dismissed, with Israel insisting that its control over Karish is non-negotiable.

Israel and Lebanon never agreed to demarcate their border on land either, keeping to a UN-enforced ceasefire “Blue Line” instead, and thus leaving their offshore exclusive economic zone disputed. The lack of a maritime border had not been a major issue until a decade ago, when a gas discovery bonanza began in the eastern Mediterranean, potentially reshaping the region’s economic future.

Successive US administrations have sought to broker a maritime agreement, with Hochstein leading the talks during the Obama administration as well. The effort was picked up several years later when Donald Trump was president but made little progress.

AFP contributed to this report.

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