Israel announces maritime deal with Lebanon, but doubts remain

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s prime minister said Tuesday the country had reached a “historic agreement” with neighboring Lebanon on their shared maritime border after months of U.S.-brokered negotiations.

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s prime minister said Tuesday the country had reached a “historic agreement” with neighboring Lebanon on their shared maritime border after months of U.S.-brokered negotiations.

The deal would mark a major breakthrough in relations with the two countries, which have been officially at war since the establishment of Israel in 1948. But the deal still faces some hurdles, including major legal and political challenges in Israel. There was no immediate confirmation from Lebanon that an agreement had been reached.

At stake are the rights to exploit the underwater natural gas reserves in the areas of the eastern Mediterranean that the two countries – which do not have diplomatic relations – claim.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid called the deal a “historic achievement that will bolster Israel’s security, inject billions into Israel’s economy and provide stability to our northern border.”

The agreement should allow additional production of natural gas in the Mediterranean. Lebanon hopes gas exploration will help pull the country out of its spiraling economic crisis.

Lebanon and Israel both claim some 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) of Mediterranean Sea. Under the agreement, these waters would be divided along a line straddling a strategic natural gas field.

According to a senior Israeli official, Lebanon would be allowed to produce gas from this field, called “Qana”, but would pay royalties to Israel for any gas produced on the Israeli side. Lebanon is working with French energy giant Total on preparations for exploring the field.

The deal would also leave in place an existing “buoy line” that serves as the de facto border between the two countries, the official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was talking about behind-the-scenes negotiations.

Many security figures, active and retired, hailed the deal because it could reduce tensions with the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which has repeatedly threatened to hit Israeli gas assets in the Mediterranean. With Lebanon now having a stake in the region’s natural gas industry, experts believe the sides will think twice before opening another war.

The two sides fought a month-long war in 2006, and Israel views the heavily armed Hezbollah as its most immediate military threat.

“This could help create and strengthen mutual deterrence between Israel and Hezbollah,” said Yoel Guzansky, senior researcher at the Israel Institute for National Security Studies. “It’s a very positive thing for Israel.”

An Israeli official said the deal would be presented to Israel’s Security Cabinet, then to the full cabinet on Wednesday, and would be presented to parliament for a 14-day review. After the review, the Cabinet would meet again to give its final and formal approval, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss government policy.

The process will take place less than three weeks before Israel goes to the polls on November 1 for the fifth time in less than four years.

Approval is not guaranteed. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has claimed Lapid lacks the authority to sign a deal and has pledged to rescind what he calls a “shameful deal” if re-elected.

The Kohelet Policy Forum, an influential conservative think tank, has already filed a lawsuit with the Supreme Court in an attempt to block the deal.

Eugene Kontorovich, director of the international law forum, said the deal requires parliamentary approval. He accused the government of trying to hastily strike a deal under pressure from Hezbollah. “It means Hezbollah is now trumping Israeli democracy,” he said.

Senior US energy envoy Amos Hochstein, whom Washington appointed a year ago to mediate the talks, presented a modified maritime border deal proposal to Lebanon’s chief negotiator, Vice President Elias Bou Saab late Monday evening, according to local media and officials.

President Michel Aoun’s office said the latest version of the proposal “satisfies Lebanon, meets its demands and preserves its rights over its natural resources”, and will hold consultations with officials before making an announcement.

Ilan Ben Zion, Associated Press

Carol N. Valencia