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  • Writer's pictureIlaria Bertocchini

Historic maritime agreement between Lebanon and Israel, but peace still far off

Updated: Oct 26, 2022

On October 11, 2022, the final approval of the draft of the agreement between Lebanon and Israel was announced and its signing should be done in the coming weeks. The agreement aims to define the maritime borders of these two countries, that are technically still at war. It is considered historic since it puts an end to a years-long debate over the 800 square kilometers of sea within which lie the disputed Karish and Qana gas fields. It had recently been feared that the issue could provoke a new conflict between the two countries, which have not fought on Lebanese territory for over 15 years and have formally been at war since 1948, the year the state of Israel was created.

What is the agreement about?

The text, on which an agreement was reached, only puts an end to the dispute over the maritime border, while the issue of the approximately 80 kilometers of land border, still patrolled by UN mission forces, remains unresolved. According to the terms of the text, the agreement establishes for the first time a boundary between the Lebanese and Israeli exclusive economic zones, i.e. the strips of sea where a country has the exclusive right to the economic exploitation of resources. It also introduces a mechanism by which both countries will be able to share the revenues from a gas field that crosses the border. The negotiations have been brokered for months by the United States, represented by envoy Amos Hochstein. The agreement is not yet valid until it is signed by both states. Lebanon will have to ratify the agreement by the end of the month, before Michel Aoun's presidential term expires, while in Israel, the select cabinet has already approved the text and expects final approval by the Knesset, hopefully before 1 November, the day of the national elections. Despite the final result not having passed yet, last Oct. 19, the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, began discussions of the agreement, before returning the text to the government for the final authorization.

What is its significance?

Although the agreement is far from a peace agreement between the two countries, its significance for the two countries and for the entire region should not be underestimated as reported in a New York Times analysis. It is also good news for Europe, as the continent seeks to diversify its energy sources. Indeed, Israel could offer itself as an exporter of gas from its complete control over the Karish area, at a time when European countries are trying to reduce their energy dependence on Russia. Moreover, as the Lebanese daily l'Orient Le Jour rightly highlighted, the agreement could be an important aid for the economy in Lebanon, which is currently facing a deep crisis. However, it will take years before Beirut can monetize the gas sale. The French company Total will have exploration rights to Qana gas field on behalf of Lebanon, and it will be the same multinational company that will pay Israel a percentage of the revenues from this project, whose location straddles the established border.

How was the agreement received by the respective countries?

Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid stated that the agreement respects all of Israel's security and economic principles by guaranteeing stability on the country's northern border. However, there were some criticisms, especially from Benjamin Netanyahu. The former Prime Minister, in view of the upcoming elections, has already declared that he will not respect the agreement should he gain power again. According to him, the agreement would in fact represent a surrender to Hezbollah's demands. Moreover, he said that Lapid, as interim prime minister, did not have the power to sign such an agreement.

On the Lebanese side, Michel Aoun declared himself satisfied with the agreement as, in his opinion, it welcomes Lebanon's demands while preserving its natural wealth. Even Hezbollah, the pro-Iranian outspoken militia, gave its approval to the agreement, even though it could have potentially rendered it ineffective. In fact, in June, Hezbollah had tried to attack an Israeli gas processing ship after Israel had started some exploratory activities in a field that Lebanon considered to be its own.

According to analysts, Hezbollah's reasons for not breaking off the negotiations are potentially related to an economic calculation: the Lebanese crisis is very serious, and the parallel subsidy system often offered by Hezbollah is not able to counterbalance the difficulties linked to this historical moment. Hezbollah probably did not object the agreement for political reasons, as today its main objective is to consolidate its position within Lebanon. Moreover, it has obtained the crucial green light from Tehran, which is currently caught up in the escalation of its own country's internal issues. However, it is emphasized that these political and economic calculations also came at a price for Hezbollah: the agreement meant nominally recognizing the sovereignty of the Israeli state.

Can the agreement be a first step towards peace?

There is much caution in saying that the agreement can be a path to peace. In fact, if it is true, as Lapid stated, that the maritime agreement avoids war with Hezbollah, it is also true that the latter gave its approval to the agreement only to pursue its own interests in Lebanon. The agreement is therefore not a path towards the normalisation of ties between the two countries, in fact it is unlikely to be followed even by a ceremony, as often happens in these circumstances. Illustrative is the fact that there is currently no direct contact between the Lebanese and Israeli representatives, who will always start negotiations with the mediation of a third party, in this case the US. The agreement also stipulates that the US will act as guarantor in the event that Hezbollah or any other actor tries to violate the agreement.

Another hypothetical scenario mentioned earlier that is worth dwelling on is the agreement being a factor that could establish Tel Aviv as a serious energy provider amongst the other fossil fuel giants. Karish, in fact, is only the latest in a series of gas fields that Israel is working on. Israel also controls the Leviathan field, the second largest gas field in the Mediterranean Sea, following the August 2015 discovery of the Zohr field off the coast of Egypt. In the early 2000s, the Israelis also discovered the smaller Tamar field, which came on stream in 2013. Israel, together with Cyprus and Greece, is building the Mediterranean gas pipeline EastMed, which should connect the Mediterranean fields - in particular Leviathan and the Cypriot Aphrodite - with Europe, one third by land and the rest by sea. It is a project that is coveted by the European Union, which has in fact decided to declare it of common interest and finance it with over 36 million euros.

Ilaria Bertocchini holds a master's degree in Government and Policies from LUISS and a master's degree in Politics of the Middle East from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. She is an independent author at Ishtar MENA Analytics reporting from Tunis, where she works for a consulting firm on cooperation and development projects with a focus on the MENA region.

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