Israel has reached ‘historic’ maritime border deal with Lebanon, says PM Lapid

Lebanon and Israel have reached a historic agreement demarcating a disputed maritime border between them, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said on Tuesday.

While limited in scope, a deal would mark a significant compromise between the states with a history of war, opening the way for offshore energy exploration and easing a source of recent tensions between them.

“This is a historic achievement that will strengthen Israel’s security, inject billions into Israel’s economy, and ensure the stability of our northern border,” Lapid said in a statement.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun said earlier that the terms of the final draft received from US envoy Amos Hochstein satisfied Lebanon and he hoped the deal would be announced as soon as possible.

The agreement between the neighbouring countries, which remain technically at war, could mark a major step towards unlocking offshore gas production for both countries.

Hochstein submitted an initial set of proposed final terms to Israel and Lebanon earlier this month.

Israel welcomed Hochstein’s first draft, but Lebanon sought amendments. Israel said it planned to reject the Lebanese changes.

Negotiations continued over recent days and Israel said Hochstein’s latest draft had brought a deal within reach.

“All our demands were met, the changes that we asked for were corrected,” Israel’s national security adviser and lead negotiator at the talks, Eyal Hulata, said in a statement.

“We protected Israel’s security interests and are on our way to a historic agreement,” he added.

A Lebanese source with knowledge of the negotiations told AFP that the latest US draft “includes most of Lebanon’s demands, or positions, and fulfils them”.

Hochstein sent his proposal to Lebanon’s chief negotiator, Deputy Speaker Elias Bou Saab, late Monday and top officials were set to discuss them on Tuesday, added the source, who requested anonymity while discussing the negotiations.

The countries reopened negotiations on their maritime border in 2020, but the process has faced repeated roadblocks.

A major source of friction was the Karish gas field, which Israel insisted fell entirely within its waters and was not a subject of negotiation.

Lebanon reportedly claimed part of the field and Hezbollah, the powerful Iran-backed Shiite group that holds huge sway in Lebanon, threatened attacks if Israel began production at Karish.

Israel has said production would begin at Karish as soon as possible, regardless of Lebanon’s demands.

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On Sunday, London-listed firm Energean began testing the pipeline linking Karish to the Israeli coast, a key step before production can begin.

Under the terms of the US draft leaked to the press, all of Karish would fall under Israeli control, while Qana, another potential gas field, would be divided but its exploitation would be under Lebanon’s control.

A map created by the Lebanese army and shown by several local media outlets shows the various different lines proposed and claimed in the Israel-Lebanon maritime border dispute.
A map created by the Lebanese army and shown by several local media outlets shows the various different lines proposed and claimed in the Israel-Lebanon maritime border dispute. © Lebanese army

French company Total would be licensed to search for gas in the Qana field, and Israel would receive a share of future revenues.

Lapid has said his government is committed to exporting more gas to Europe to help replace Russian deliveries hit by the war in Ukraine.

But Israel’s November 1 general election has overshadowed the recent phases of the negotiations.

Right-wing opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, charged that Lapid had “capitulated” to Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which plays a leading role in the country’s politics, by moving forward with an agreement.

It is not clear if Netanyahu, who remains determined to reclaim the premiership he held from 2009-2021, has seen the deal’s proposed terms.

But he has nevertheless vowed that the hawkish government he hopes to form next month with his far-right and religious allies will not be bound by any agreement with Lebanon.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)