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'Israel negotiated hard on security and got what it wanted'

Downplaying concessions, US envoy tells Israelis deal with Lebanon keeps them safer

Amos Hochstein dismisses Netanyahu’s criticisms as campaign rhetoric, says fact that two enemy countries managed to reach agreement on maritime border ‘enormously significant’

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent

US Envoy for Energy Affairs Amos Hochstein, waves to journalists at Beirut Rafik Hariri international airport after he briefed them about his meetings with the Lebanese officials, in Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, Sept. 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
US Envoy for Energy Affairs Amos Hochstein, waves to journalists at Beirut Rafik Hariri international airport after he briefed them about his meetings with the Lebanese officials, in Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, Sept. 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration’s energy envoy on Thursday insisted that the maritime deal he brokered between Israel and Lebanon will ensure the Jewish state’s security, pushing back against claims that Jerusalem had caved to terrorist threats.

Amos Hochstein described the landmark pact, which will delineate a maritime border and divide offshore gas reserves between the warring countries, as a “win-win” in a pair of primetime interviews on Israel’s two largest TV news networks.

“Israel negotiated very hard on security arrangements closer to the shore, and it got what it wanted,” he told Channel 12 news.

He said the latest round of talks succeeded, after 11 years of mostly fruitless diplomatic efforts, once he “decided to change the equation,” recognizing that each country has separate goals in their maritime dispute that aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.

The deal gives Israel exclusive rights to the Karish field, but cedes the Qana field it had also sought, though Jerusalem will get a share of the revenue from potential gas riches pulled out of the seabed under a Lebanese lease.

“What does Israel really want at the end of the day? It wants to have its share of economics. That’s true,” Hochstein told Channel 13.

“But it really wants security and stability in the Mediterranean Sea. Because Israel’s dependency on the Mediterranean Sea is a result of its massive success in developing so much natural gas,” Hochstein added.

Lebanese protesters on a motorboat carry their national flag as they sail in front of an Israeli Navy vessel during a demonstration backing Lebanon’s claims to disputed maritime oil and gas fields, near the southern border town of Naqoura, Lebanon, September 4, 2022. (AP/Mohammed Zaatari)

Both Israel and Lebanon’s governments backed the final text this week, but opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu has said that he will not be bound by it if he manages to retake power after elections on November 1, branding the deal as a “surrender” by Israel to threats from the Hezbollah terror group.

Hochstein dismissed Netanyahu’s rhetoric as political posturing for the sake of winning votes.

“There’s always a lot of heated rhetoric in political campaigns, especially as you get closer to the election,” Hochstein said, indicating that Netanyahu had not been opposed to an agreement along similar parameters.

“I think that the overwhelming interest of the Israeli national security establishment, of this government and of previous governments is that they have all wanted an arrangement along these lines,” he said.

The mediator noted that Lebanon had also made concessions in the agreement, indicating that Beirut had not wanted to formally recognize the buoy boundary that Israel unilaterally established in 2000 extending roughly five kilometers off the coast of Rosh Hanikra, but agreed to do so in a “legally binding way,” turning the boundary into a border.

“The most important part — the first five kilometers — is what matters for security. Not where you are 30 kilometers out at sea. It gives Israel the ability to control up to that line and to have visibility. That is an enormous amount of security for Israel,” he said.

Map showing Israel-Lebanon maritime border claims. (AFP News Agency)

“Knowing that from the Karish [gas] field all the way down south there will not be the threat of missiles,” provides Israel with security as well, Hochstein argued during the Channel 12 interview. “So Israel gets stability and security.”

His comments largely echoed that of Israel’s leadership. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Yair Lapid said the agreement would “strengthen Israel’s security, inject billions into Israel’s economy, and ensure the stability of our northern border.”

Hochstein claimed that Israeli concessions on the Qana field, which straddles the countries’ exclusive economic zones but will be controlled by Lebanon, were insignificant.

“Israel did not give up any gas, did not give up any resources. The gas field in question on the boundary inside the disputed waters has never been drilled. We don’t even know if there is gas there,” he said.

The agreement calls for Israel to be compensated for gas produced from Qana on its side of the boundary, which will make up 17% of the total revenues.

As for Lebanon, Hochstein said the deal offered it “just a little bit of money to stop the decline and the collapse and the absolute devastation to the Lebanese economy and start turning things around.”

“This is the first step of hope,” he continued, arguing that it is in Israel’s interest for Lebanon to prosper economically.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid flies over the Karish gas field on July 19, 2022. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Asked what guarantees Israel received that gas revenues do not end up bolstering Iran-backed terror group Hezbollah, which is a player in Lebanon’s nascent government, Hochstein noted only that any revenue was years away and the main beneficiary would be the Lebanese people.

“The gas will go into power plants in order to make sure that a country that is suffering from less than two hours of electricity per day can finally start reviving its economy and give hope to its people,” Hochstein said.

The US envoy acknowledged that there have been proposals that were more favorable to either side, but they are not relevant because they only led to dead ends in previous negotiations under the Obama and Trump administrations.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun, right, meets with US Envoy for Energy Affairs Amos Hochstein, at the presidential palace, in Beirut, Lebanon, September 9, 2022. (Dalati Nohra, Lebanon’s official government photographer, via AP)

In both interviews, the Biden envoy was pressed as to whether it would be better to wait to finalize the deal until after the Israeli elections, given its proximity to the vote.

Hochstein argued that it would’ve been ideal to reach the agreement earlier but the talks were held “without any relationship to political timelines.”

“We’ve finally gotten to an opportunity. [And] if you wait for the right moment of the political calendar, there’s no guarantee that this opportunity comes back and presents itself,” he said.

“The urgency is about when there is a meeting of the minds… between enemy states… you take that opportunity in order to provide Israel security guarantees and to ensure the stability and security for Israel and the economic hope and opportunity for Lebanon,” Hochstein added.

Netanyahu and others have claimed that Lapid’s government, which has no Knesset majority, does not have the mandate to approve such a far-reaching compromise, but the notion has been rebuffed by Israel’s attorney general and the High Court.

Earlier on Thursday, Lebanese President Michel Aoun announced that Beirut had formally accepted the US-brokered agreement, but emphasized that “no normalization with Israel took place.”

He also maintained that the “indirect agreement responds to Lebanese demands and maintains all our rights.”

Lebanese President Michel Aoun gives a speech on the maritime border agreement with Israel in the presidential palace, in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, October 13, 2022. (Dalati Nohra via AP)

Nonetheless, Hochstein depicted the agreement as a landmark breakthrough that “ends a period of conflict” between the enemies.

“Lebanon has always said it would never have any agreements with Israel, and Israel was never able, since the founding of the state, to have an agreement with Lebanon on any issue — definitely not on setting boundaries,” he said. “When those are the parameters, and that’s the context, I think this deal has an enormous amount of significance.”

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