Lebanon and Israel have officially approved a US-brokered deal that for the first time establishes their maritime border even though the two countries have no diplomatic relations and remain technically at war.
Months of indirect talks mediated by Amos Hochstein, the US envoy for energy affairs, resulted on Thursday in an unprecedented compromise between the neighbouring states, opening the possibility of energy explorations in 860sq km (330 square miles) of the Mediterranean Sea that is home to offshore gasfields.
If the Israeli side is to be believed, there is more to the deal than just a border agreement, but the Lebanese side has been quick to deny that.
- Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s office said the deal was a “political achievement” for the country because “it is not every day that an enemy state recognises the State of Israel, in a written agreement, in front of the entire international community”.
- Lebanese President Michel Aoun denied that anything essential had changed in relations with Israel. “Demarcating the southern maritime border is technical work that has no political implications,” he countered.
- He insisted the accord did not constitute a peace agreement and said the deal was purely “technical” and would have “no political dimensions or impacts that contradict Lebanon’s foreign policy”.
- Beirut has sought to strike a balance between solving a decade-long dispute that prevented it from tapping into its offshore energy resources and avoiding any semblance of “normalisation” with Israel.
- Israel and Lebanon have technically been at war for decades although the last major conflict was the 2006 Lebanon War. Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 during the latter’s civil war and occupied Lebanese territory until 2000.
- The method by which the deal was negotiated and signed highlights the absence of any formal ties between Israel and Lebanon. The agreement came in the form of a separate exchange of letters between the United States and Lebanon and between the US and Israel as well as letters from Lebanon and Israel to the United Nations marking their maritime coordinates.
- Both Aoun and Lapid approved a final US letter in the morning and sent it to a Lebanese border town, Naqoura, where delegations signed the agreement in separate rooms.
What does the maritime border deal say?
- The agreement does not include any formal recognition of Israel and is not equivalent to a peace deal.
- It sets a border between Lebanese and Israeli waters for the first time, largely along a line of demarcation referred to as Line 23.
- By tracing the line from the sea rather than land, the agreement avoids addressing the unresolved land border issue, which is much more complicated and lacks the urgency of the energy issue.
- Under the terms of the deal, Israel receives full rights to explore the Karish field, which is estimated to have natural gas reserves of 68 billion cubic metres (2.4 trillion cubic feet).
- Lebanon receives full rights in the nearby Qana field, but it agreed to allow Israel a share of the royalties through a side agreement with the French company TotalEnergies for the section of the field that extends beyond the agreed maritime border.
- Critics of the deal have said it does little to address the issue of profit distribution. It defers agreeing on what royalties Israel will get from the Qana field to a future date.
Is a deal to normalise relations on the cards?
- Upon announcing Lebanon’s preliminary approval of the US-brokered text this month, Aoun said the agreement would make conflict between Israel and Lebanon’s Iran-backed group Hezbollah less likely.
- “Lebanon did not concede a single square kilometre to Israel,” Aoun said and insisted that “no normalisation with Israel took place”.
- Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said that the Lebanese government had made sure that no steps were taken that “even smelled of normalisation”.
- Beirut is unlikely to follow Gulf Arab countries in officially normalising relations with Israel, observers say.
- Mohanad Hage Ali, an analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut, said the deal falls “within a grey area”. “It’s not a deal that marks normalisation with Israel, it’s not a deal that entails the recognition of the state of Israel by Lebanon,” Hage Ali said. “It’s a deal that allows both countries to move forward in terms of gas exploration.”
- But the analyst said he believes the agreement set a precedent that “will lead to more debate about what can be resolved through negotiations and what role Hezbollah can play in Lebanese politics in the next phase”.
- Millions of Palestinian refugees live in Lebanon, and many segments of Lebanese society continue to express strong support for the Palestinian cause along with opposition to Israel.