The Israel–Lebanon Maritime Agreement
Israel and Lebanon, two long-time adversaries that are technically at war, recently reached an agreement on where to demarcate the maritime border between their countries. The compromise, mediated by the Biden administration mere weeks before Israeli elections, temporarily resolves the question of natural gas ownership in disputed waters off the Mediterranean coast.
Israel hopes the agreement, though not a formal peace pact, will stabilize its northern border, while Lebanon hopes the deal will generate revenue to support its struggling economy.
The long-running dispute originally involved 860 square kilometers (332 square miles) of waters between the southern boundary of the Lebanese claim, known as Line 23, and the northern boundary of the Israeli claim, known as Line 1. In late 2020, Lebanon, presumably at the behest of the Iranian terrorist proxy Hezbollah, demanded an additional 1,430 square kilometers (552 square miles) of waters south of Line 23, which extended the Lebanese claim to Line 29. Lebanon’s original Line 23 claim did not affect Israel; but its Line 29 claim did because it extended Lebanon’s territorial claim well into the northern half of the Karish natural gas field, which lies in Israeli waters. Predictably, Israel rejected Lebanon’s amended claim.
In June 2022, Israel announced it would begin developing the Karish field, which is believed to have at least 68 billion cubic meters (2.4 trillion cubic feet) of natural gas south of Line 29. Hezbollah threatened to attack Israel’s offshore gas infrastructure if the maritime dispute was not resolved by September. “Our eyes and missiles are locked on Karish,” said Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
In July, under U.S. mediation, Lebanon announced it would reverse its claim back to Line 23 if Israel ceded an additional 80 square kilometers (31 square miles) south of Line 23. The Israeli government conceded.
In the final deal, which does not address disputes over their shared land border, the two sides agreed that Lebanon would retain full rights over the Qana prospect, an unproven natural gas deposit located to the northeast of the Karish field, over which Israel would retain full rights. In addition, the deal grants Israel approximately 17 percent of the royalties of the part of the Qana field that extends into Israeli waters.
Lebanon’s top negotiator, Elias Bou Saab, described the deal as a “game-changer.” Yair Lapid, Israeli Prime Minister at the time, agreed. “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,” he said.
Not everyone is happy with the deal because it gives Qana entirely to Lebanon. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it “historic capitulation” to an enemy.
Commentator Alex Nachumson believes Hezbollah will understand Israel’s concession as proof that it can get its way in any dispute with Israel, including the terror group’s territorial claims on the Golan Heights within Israel’s sovereign borders. “Let there be no mistake, Israel’s concession will embolden Hezbollah, Iran, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and numerous other terrorist entities that are constantly probing for Israel’s weaknesses,” he wrote. “They will see the agreement as an Israeli defeat.”
Middle East analyst David Schenker said the agreement is a mixed bag. “The compromises Israel made demonstrate how far it will go to make peace with its Arab neighbors. It is an unprecedented positive step with Lebanon. Unfortunately, as long as Beirut remains a satrapy of Iran and dominated by its proxy, it’s unclear how any agreement—no matter how beneficial to Lebanon—will prevent the next Israel-Hezbollah war.”