Lebanon and Israel agree on a flawed but necessary maritime deal
The Lebanon-Israel maritime agreement was inevitable. The alternative was a conflict no one could afford, and the ultimate prize is triggering a much-needed and long-delayed gas exploration process.
Both sides reluctantly agreed to demarcate their maritime border under US pressure, but they are having a hard time selling it to their constituents and justifying signing a compromise with an arch-enemy for economic benefits.
Gas in the Eastern Mediterranean has changed the calculations of Israel and Hezbollah; however, this maritime border deal does not guarantee preventing another round of conflict in the long run.
While the nature of the maritime deal is unique as the first border demarcation agreement between two enemy sides in a state of war since 1948, it is not unprecedented. Both sides have previously negotiated agreements to end conflict and took part in the Border Control Group of the 1996 Israeli-Lebanese Ceasefire Understanding, which was brokered by US President Bill Clinton’s administration.
"Both sides reluctantly agreed to demarcate their maritime border under US pressure, but they are having a hard time selling it to their constituents and justifying signing a compromise with an arch-enemy"
The recent maritime deal, however, was motivated by the economic benefits of gas exploration as well as the need to secure conflict prevention. While American and Israeli officials called it a “maritime agreement”, Lebanese President Michel Aoun described it as an “indirect agreement” and Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah hinted it might be considered an “understanding”, to prevent any connotation of normalisation.
Both sides are also ambivalent about what to make of it. Alternate Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said that “the agreement is not a historic diplomatic victory, but it is not a terrible surrender either”.
Nasrallah, meanwhile, praised the unity and performance of Lebanese officials during the negotiations while noting that “some have accused us of wasting rights and waiving lines, and we have nothing to do with the demarcation, and if you ask me where our sea is, I will tell you that our sea extends to Gaza”.
Moreover, US President Joe Biden said in a statement released by the White House that Lebanon and Israel “have agreed to formally end their maritime boundary dispute and establish a permanent maritime boundary between them”, which is technically inaccurate since the easternmost point of the maritime border line remains unresolved pending a land border demarcation agreement between both sides.
After a decade of attempts to resolve this maritime dispute a series of factors recently allowed this breakthrough to emerge.
The first was an urgency to begin gas drilling without provoking confrontation or giving the impression of being the weaker side that caved under pressure. On the 5th of June, the Energean Power FPSO gas platform arrived at its set location in the Karish field and was expected to begin drilling on behalf of the Israeli government on the 1st of September.
This triggered a sudden shift in the Lebanese official position to avoid any further escalation followed by Hezbollah flying unarmed drones over the Karish gas field in the first week of July. Lebanese officials showed a united front and improved their negotiating posture by mandating deputy parliament speaker Elias Abu Saab to lead the talks due to his ties to the Biden administration.
More importantly, he is close to both President Aoun and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, hence closing the rivalry gap between the two allies of Hezbollah who are the most influential on this issue.
Second, demarcating the maritime border with Israel nearly became a US precondition for Lebanon to start gas exploration and unlock foreign aid to address an unprecedented economic crisis. The Lebanese negotiation tactic had to move beyond the vicious cycle of who gets what percentage of the disputed 860 square kilometres.
"There is an economic benefit on both sides. Israel needs to extract gas to reduce its energy dependence, and Lebanon is in a severe economic crisis and needs this agreement to open the door to foreign aid and investment"
There was also a realisation that this approach might ultimately mean sharing technical coordination or profits with Israel, which could be considered a form of normalisation that is firmly vetoed by Hezbollah. Subsequently, in the summer Lebanon proposed that Israel could acquire the Karish field in exchange for Lebanon retaining full rights over the Qana field, which became the core of the maritime deal.
While the offer relieved Lebanon of any potential normalisation pitfalls, this equation poses an economic risk because the potential for gas reserves is already proven in Karish and is yet to be assessed in the Qana field. Moreover, to fully give up any rights over the Qana field, Israel is expected to receive a financial settlement from Total, the French company that operates Lebanon’s gas block 9.
This settlement is estimated at 17% of the revenues of this field. Lebanon stipulated that it has nothing to do with this settlement and that the revenues coming out of it should come from the profits of Total rather than the revenues of Lebanon based on its 2017 agreement with the French energy company.
Lebanon needs years before the gas can be extracted, and therefore the conclusion of this financial settlement may take time. The Qana gas field may open the door to contradictory interpretations and future complications.
Third, the timing of the deal also comes during a subtle US-Iranian rapprochement in both Lebanon and Iraq. It is difficult to understand this shift in Hezbollah’s position without taking into consideration the confidence-building measures that Washington and Tehran seem to be taking, not only on the maritime deal but also allowing an Iranian fuel donation to Lebanon and most importantly the election of Abdul Latif Rashid as Iraqi President on 13 October.
Fourth, the constitutional deadlines in both Lebanon and Israel were crucial for the Biden administration to push this deal through. President Aoun’s mandate concludes on 31 October and what is expected to follow is a protracted presidential vacuum that could have derailed the maritime border talks.
Also, Israel has a legislative election on 1 November, which could oust the current government and potentially lead to the return of Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister. Since the current Israeli government is friendlier with the Biden administration and it was deemed risky to wait until after the Knesset election, Prime Minister Yair Lapid push through the Israeli divide to conclude a deal, which led on 3 October to the resignation of the chief Israeli negotiator on the maritime border with Lebanon, Uday Adiri.
The demarcation of the Lebanese-Israeli border, both land and maritime, will remain a matter of dispute. Israel established “the buoy line” in the Mediterranean Sea after its withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000 around five kilometres from Ras Naqoura as an assumed maritime border.
The agreement perpetuates this line as a fait accompli but does not legitimise or recognise it. In the event of tensions between Israel and Hezbollah, this matter may return to the fore. Israeli gunboats violated Lebanese territorial waters several times on 16 October in an area located off Ras al-Naqoura near the blue line or the assumed land borders between Lebanon and Israel that was demarcated by the United Nations.
"The agreement is limited in scope and does not have a mechanism for implementation or to resolve any conflict that emerges beyond the goodwill of the concerned parties and the guarantees of the Biden administration"
Hence, both land and maritime borders between Lebanon and Israel are neither recognised internationally nor by both sides. This is not a typical agreement to delineate maritime borders in terms of international law.
The agreement is limited in scope and does not have a mechanism for implementation or to resolve any conflict that emerges beyond the goodwill of the concerned parties and the guarantees of the Biden administration. Hezbollah did not sign it and is not a party to it, and therefore it can say at some point that it is not directly involved in it.
Two factors, however, can inherently sustain the stability of this agreement, at least in the medium term. First is the reluctance of Israel and Hezbollah to enter into an open confrontation, and thus this maritime demarcation agreement constitutes an extension of the disengagement between the two sides that was established after the July 2006 war.
Second, there is an economic benefit on both sides. Israel needs to extract gas to reduce its energy dependence, and Lebanon is in a severe economic crisis and needs this agreement to open the door to foreign aid and investment. While the deal is flawed, it is a crucial milestone in establishing the rules of engagement in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Joe Macaron is an independent consultant and research analyst primarily focusing on US strategy, conflict analysis, and international relations in the Middle East. His previous roles include the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point and the Colin Powell Center for Policy Studies.
A former journalist, he also advised the International Monetary Fund on public engagement in the Middle East and served in different capacities in the United Nations system. He contributes his analysis widely to international print, online, and broadcast media.
Follow him on Twitter: @macaronjoe