The Profit and Price of the Agreement on the Maritime Border Between Israel and Lebanon

Article by: the Alma Center Staff

In about a week, Israel and Lebanon will sign letters with the validity of a binding agreement that will regulate the issue of the maritime border and the waters of the exclusive economic zone. This is a solution to an economic problem that will enable economic achievements for both sides – while Israel has given up and accepted the Lebanese position almost fully, this concession will allow both sides to postpone war and extract natural gas. The Israeli concession is not only a concession of maritime waters; it’s also a waiver of capital since a significant part of the Lebanese Qana gas rendezvous is located in the original disputed area (between line 1 and line 23), and there is no distribution of profits from it.  

In addition, it is very important to clarify: there is no political agreement here – it is not a peace treaty or a normalization agreement between the countries. It is clear to all parties that behind the president of Lebanon, who is committed to the agreement, stands the Hezbollah organization, which does not recognize and does not intend to recognize the existence of the State of Israel. Therefore, this Israeli concession also has a price – Israel lost in the psychological war allowing Nasrallah – who threatened war on Israel if it produced gas before the agreement was signed – to market the agreement as an achievement as if “Hezbollah’s UAVs and missiles brought the gas to Lebanon.”

What are the details of the agreement?

In the first 5 kilometers of the coastline, the status quo of the buoy line[1] will be maintained. This line was unilaterally marked by Israel after the withdrawal in 2000 in accordance with operational and security considerations. It is consistent with Israel’s position on the border line as submitted to the UN in 2010. This is an important achievement because it prevents linkage to a future land demarcation line. Although this is not recognized by the parties as an international borderline marking, a very important clause in the agreement states that:

The Parties agree that this Agreement, including as described in Section 1(B), establishes a permanent and equitable resolution of their maritime dispute.

While B1 refers to the preservation of the status quo of the buoy line. This is a response to an Israeli security interest that enables the continuation of the Israeli navy’s activity as it has so far existed north of line 23 and up to the buoy line.

From the first 5 kilometers from the coastline to 12 nautical miles is the beginning of the EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone): this line will be fully compatible with the Lebanese position. Israel will entrust its consent to this to the UN – this is an area between 100m and 300m of sea, depending on the width of the angle. There is currently no security activity by the Israeli navy in this area, and the Israeli security establishment has clarified that it prefers to mark this area over remaining in dispute. In addition, there is currently no evidence of the presence of gas in this particular area.

2 Above: The Israeli buoy line is marked with numbers, and the 23 line is marked in red, on which the border of the EEZ will be marked in accordance with the Lebanese position accepted by Israel.

The EEZ area – from 12 nautical miles to the EEZ border with Cyprus – also here, Israel conceded, accepting the Lebanese line – line 23. In fact, Israel gave up about 800 kilometers and most of the disputed territory. This area has a gas reservoir, the northern part of which is inside Lebanon and the southern part of which is inside Israeli territory. However, it is not clear what its commercial feasibility is since no exploration was carried out in the reservoir. According to the agreement, Israel will be compensated over the part of the reservoir located in its territory (17% of the reservoir area, south of line 23). However, the amount of compensation will be determined between it and the relevant commercial company after it is clear what the reservoir output is.

The agreement does not mention Line 29, the line crossing the Israeli gas reservoir, which Lebanon presented as a new position after finding gas in that area.  On the contrary, according to the agreement, Israel’s economic rights south of line 23 will be preserved.

For the residents of northern Israel, who were threatened with war, it is clear that the completion of the negotiations at this time is a vital interest of Israel in the short term, but the question is, of course, what does it mean in the long term.

The agreement will help increase the chances that international companies will operate in Israel concerning the current gas reservoirs and additional gas reservoirs that will be discovered later. It also contributes to relations between Israel and the United States, as the Biden administration has invested much effort in reaching this agreement. In addition, a situation in which Energean employees would be harmed or threatened by a terrorist organization due to work being carried out on an Israeli gas reservoir is a dangerous precedent for the Israeli energy industry.

In addition, the internal situation in Lebanon is very unstable, the Lebanese president who was in charge of the maritime negotiations with Israel is supposed to be replaced in the coming weeks, and it was clear in the Israeli security establishment that, even in light of Hezbollah’s threats of war, “failure to sign the agreement in the very near future could lead to serious consequences for Israel’s national security.”[2]

The Western strategic concept considers that economics promotes stability and stability promotes security. Thus, if Lebanon has something to lose – a gas rig – there will be a deterrence equation here that will preserve the Israeli rigs.

But in contrast to the above, concessions come with a price in the Middle East.

Although Israel’s concession is mainly about sea waters, and it is not even clear how much money Israel will lose, the message to Hezbollah is that Israel has surrendered, that Israel is weak, and that Israel is willing to pay the price to avoid a confrontation. On its social media, Hezbollah already uses the words of the critics of the agreement inside Israel, quoting them in posts it distributed: “Hezbollah has brought Israel to its knees and surrendered to its demands.”

Nasrallah himself made it clear in a speech this week that “we all know that the enemy fears war more than the Lebanese fear it.” He takes the credit for the agreement and clarifies that “the goal from the outset was to make the enemy understand that the resistance [Hezbollah] is serious in what it says.”

Therefore, the agreement is a dangerous precedent that could increase Hezbollah’s appetite and cause it to exert pressure on any other issue that remains open between Israel and Lebanon: First, on the maritime border, despite the agreement, since it is not a borderline that was completely agreed between the two sides, there is an opening in the future for continued claims, especially in an area where Israel has security interests from the coastline to 12 nautical miles. Second, on the land border, there are quite a few open issues: Lebanese reservations about the blue line marked by the UN after the withdrawal, the Shebaa Farms, and the village of Ghajar– so let’s not be surprised if one or all of these will be Hezbollah’s next campaign that continues to threaten Israel with war.

Where will the money go?

There are already reports in many media outlets about suspicious Qatari involvement and about ties between the French company and Iran. We do not know how to verify or deny these reports and their implications on the current deal, but it is clear that when the money from the gas comes in, it will contribute to Hezbollah’s force buildup, and it is not certain that it will help the much-needed building of the Lebanese state. The Lebanese government cannot make any political decision without Hezbollah’s consent; this must be remembered.

The bottom line is that the agreement has no strategic change in relations between Israel and Lebanon. This is an agreement with a Lebanese state whose institutions have limited functioning capabilities. Israel has only bought quiet for an unknown time. Residents of the north who see Hezbollah’s deployment along the border understand that the potential for escalation has increased greatly in the past year, regardless of what happens in the negotiations on the maritime border. The confrontation with Israel is an inherent part of Hezbollah’s existence, and the account is still open because Hezbollah promised revenge for killing its two operatives in Damascus and Metula.

So what do we do? We drill!

Israel’s role now is to ensure that the international system understands Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon and operates to reduce and weaken it. Otherwise, the only beneficiary of this agreement will be Hezbollah and not Lebanon or Israel. Moreover, the other side did not receive the Israeli message that Israel would produce the gas in its territory regardless of the agreement. This important message must continue to be conveyed in words and deeds. Israel would do well to encourage Energean to start drilling in the weeks remaining until the signing. This will be an excellent message to Hezbollah, which, even if it reacts, will be perceived as having sabotaged the already closed agreement and could bring a lot of money to Lebanon.

[1] “Until such time this area is delimited, the Parties agree that the status quo near the shore, including along and as defined by the current buoy line, remains the same, notwithstanding the differing legal positions of the Parties in this area, which remains undelimited”.

[2] From the legal opinion of the Israeli Ministry of Justice, October 11, 2022

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