JERUSALEM — Israel and Lebanon are expected to sign on to a Washington-mediated maritime border deal at a ceremony in Israel as early as Thursday, after the country's highest court turned down a petition by right-leaning groups to block the pact.
The agreement, brokered with help from U.S. State Department energy advisor Amos Hochstein, comes as Israel is on the eve of elections, turning the historic move into a highly political issue here. Israel and Lebanon do not have normalized relations, and the militant group Hezbollah plays a key role in both Lebanese politics and security matters. Israel and Hezbollah fought a war in 2006 and as recently as early October Israel was preparing for potential military escalation in the north by Hezbollah.
Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said the maritime deal is important for the country. "That the agreement was completed close to the elections was not desirable – but necessary. This is a good and correct agreement that has positive security, political and economic implications for the entire region."
Israel's former prime minister, Naftali Bennett, who is also the current alternate prime minister, has also backed the deal. "Not all that is good for Lebanon is bad for Israel. There are instances where it is possible both sides benefit. I saw value in reaching a deal; but not at any price, and certainly not under threat. Now, we have reached a deal under different circumstances and through a different path than planned. Still, under the current circumstances, it is right to approve," he said earlier this month.
The maritime deal is meant to calm tensions along Israel's northern border and reduce threats to the gas fields and gas rigs off the coast. This is especially true for the new Karish gas project where Energean is supposed to begin production this year. A number of major natural gas fields have been found off the coast of Israel in the last decade, and Israel has signed deals with Egypt to export gas. The two countries have also sought to boost sales to Europe, as the continent grapples with energy shortages while cutting Russia out of its supplier mix. Meanwhile, Israel, Cyprus and Greece plan to partner on an East-Med pipeline project while Israel and Turkey have reconciled their relations in the last year, potentially opening up other energy deals.
Orna Mizrahi, a senior analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, described the pending Israel-Lebanon agreement as an "important milestone in the relations between the two countries, which have been in an active and ongoing conflict for decades."
Mizrahi spent 26 years in the armed forces and 12 years at the Israel National Security Council (NSC) in the prime minister's office. In the army she served as an intelligence analyst in the Military Intelligence Research Division and as a senior officer in the Strategic Planning Division.
"The agreement has advantages for both parties and was made possible thanks to the convergence of their interests and their willingness to compromise in the current limited window of opportunity," she wrote in a recent article. Mizrahi asserts that the deal "signifies Lebanon's recognition of Israel's existence," adding: "The approval of this agreement by the Lebanese leadership proves that Hezbollah is not omnipotent in Lebanon," as the militant group had opposed any formal dealings whatsoever with Israel.
The maritime deal essentially cements claims off the coast of Israel and Lebanon based on sorting out disputed lines of control. Lebanon is not a naval power, unlike Israel, and has not tried to patrol inside its claims or explore for gas within areas it calls its own. Israel claimed a line based on what is known as line 1 extending from 5 km off the coast and extending to the exclusive economic zones of the countries, whereas Lebanon filed a claim at what is known as line 23, and later expanded that claim to line 29 which cuts through the Karish field Israel has discovered.
Another prospective field, named Qana, extends south of line 23, mostly on Lebanon's side. An earlier compromise line, called the Hof line, has been discarded in favor of a deal along line 23, encompassing most of the 1,430 square kilometers of disputed water territory that Lebanon claimed.
In essence, Israel has given in to most Lebanese demands, rather than keeping to a compromise somewhere between line 1 and 23. Lebanon had expanded its claims from 23 to 29 to encompass the Karish field, setting up a potential collision course if Israel moves to extract gas from that field. The deal makes it so Israel can extract gas there, however, and if the Qana prospect is ever developed then Lebanon may owe Israel compensation.
Israel has been expanding its naval capabilities in recent years with an eye toward protecting natural resources on the sea floor. The country received its fourth advanced German-made Sa'ar 6 corvette in September 2021. Israel is outfitting these vessels with the latest radar and defenses, including the naval version of Iron Dome. These ships were designed to bolster Israel's defenses around the exclusive economic zones off the coast, with threats perceived mainly as coming from Iran and Hezbollah.
David Schenker, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and former assistance secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs, says that Israel compromised a lot to get to the deal and it's not clear if the deal makes the country safer. He points out that Hezbollah has portrayed the deal as a victory. "Hezbollah might understand this and reasonably understand that Israel is so concerned about an escalation that they blinked, that Israel was deterred from pumping gas from a non-disputed economic zone," he says.
Hezbollah has threatened Israel at sea in the past. Israeli naval ship Hanit was damaged in 2006 by a Hezbollah anti-ship missile. The militant group's drones have now become a threat to the gas rigs after Israel shot down three Hezbollah drones in July of this year. Iran, which has supplied Russia with drones, also provides Hezbollah drone technology.
There are other concerns around the maritime deal and disputes about whether it will lead to more security and peace in the Eastern Mediterranean. The question remains which companies or countries will begin exploring off the coast of Lebanon near the new border. It's not clear how Lebanon will manage the potential profits from discoveries, as the country is ensnared in seemingly endless financial problems. "There is no sovereign wealth fund in Lebanon, so how will these revenues be disbursed; it's not clear the Lebanese people will benefit substantially from them, this is among the most corrupt countries in the world; there is no governance for how the revenues are spent," notes Schenker.
Iranian pro-government media have said the deal represents a victory for Lebanon, Hezbollah and the "resistance" that Iran champions in the region. "By taking back its oil and gas wealth from the occupying Zionist regime in the Mediterranean Sea, due to the decisive positions of Hezbollah [leader] Hassan Nasrallah, Lebanon made the American-Zionist axis no longer able to continue looting Lebanon's energy resources for export to America and Europe," Iran's Tasnim News said on Oct 24.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.