Interview'I'm not sure that Israel is more secure after this deal'

Former US envoy who worked on maritime deal claims Lebanon got 100% of its demands

Trump-era official David Schenker suggests agreement lacks mechanism to ensure funds Beirut acquires from subsequent gas exploration won’t reach Hezbollah

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Lebanese President Michel Aoun, right, meets with David Schenker, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, at the presidential palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, September 10, 2019. (Dalati Nohra via AP)
Lebanese President Michel Aoun, right, meets with David Schenker, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, at the presidential palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, September 10, 2019. (Dalati Nohra via AP)

The former US envoy tasked with settling a maritime dispute between Israel and Lebanon expressed significant skepticism on Monday regarding the compromise proposed by his successor, claiming that Beirut will be receiving “100 percent” of its demands if the deal goes through.

Over the weekend, the Biden administration’s energy envoy Amos Hochstein presented what is believed to be a final proposal aimed at addressing competing claims over offshore gas fields in the Mediterranean Sea. The proposal has been welcomed by both sides, and even the country’s Hezbollah terror group appeared to drop its former vehement opposition to a deal.

But in an interview with The Times of Israel, Hochstein’s predecessor David Schenker expressed several reservations about the brewing agreement to end the 860-square kilometer-dispute. The former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs argued that the deal would allow for Lebanon’s maritime border to extend to the very same point it had demanded early on in the talks.

Schenker also voiced skepticism as to whether the resolution will better secure Israel from threats posed by Hezbollah, as Prime Minister Yair Lapid maintained earlier this week. The former US envoy — who has returned to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy since serving in the Trump administration — posited that the proposal also does not ensure that the funds Lebanon will be able to acquire from impending oil and gas production won’t end up in Hezbollah’s pockets.

Full details of the agreement have not been made public, but diplomats familiar with the matter say that it will recognize the buoy-marked border that Israel established roughly five kilometers off of the coast of the northern kibbutz of Rosh Hanikra. After that, the border will follow the southern edge of the disputed area known as Line 23.

Lebanon will enjoy the economic benefits of the area north of Line 23, including the Qana gas field, though a senior Israeli official briefing reporters on the deal said Sunday that Jerusalem will receive compensation for giving up rights to Qana, a portion of which will lie in what the agreement recognizes as Israeli waters.

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

A Line 23 border gives Israel far less nautical territory than its longstanding Line 1 border demand, which it registered with the United Nations in 2011.

Line 23 also goes further in Lebanon’s favor than the compromise known as the Hoff Line — named after the US diplomat who proposed it toward the end of the Obama administration — offering Lebanon rights to roughly 60% of the disputed territory.

While the Lebanese government unilaterally adopted Line 23 as the border in 2011, Schenker said Beirut had arrived at the negotiating table during his time as envoy with a “strictly maximalist” demand of Line 29, which would have given it even more nautical territory. The proposal led to the collapse of the talks after just two sessions, the Trump envoy said.

Schenker surmised that the Israeli government’s interest shifted under Lapid, who, he believes, unlike former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu places a higher premium on securing international recognition of its buoy buffer zone than on the percentage of territory in the disputed region it is able to retain. Moreover, the Lapid government apparently feels that allowing the dispute to drag on — particularly amid escalating threats from Hezbollah that it would respond if Israel began drilling at Karish — was not in the country’s interest, the Trump envoy speculated.

“It seems that the government of Israel, such as it is, has made a determination that it’s a priority to come to an agreement with Lebanon about the economic zone, even if this is heavily in Lebanon’s favor,” Schenker said. “Israel received something that its defense establishment believes is beneficial — in terms of the buffer zone extending further out — but in terms of the economic zone waters, Lebanon entered the negotiations with Line 23, and it got Line 23.”

Energean’s floating production system (FPSO) at the Karish gas field in the Mediterranean Sea. (Energean)

“So when I say that Lebanon got 100% of what it asked for, I think that’s borne out by the facts.”

The senior Israeli official briefing reporters on Sunday rejected such a critique, however, pointing to Lebanon’s latest demand for a Line 29 border, which ultimately was not accepted.

Lapid himself averred on Monday that “Israel will receive 100% of our security needs, as defined by the security community,” via the deal.

For his part, Schenker recognized that the current Israeli government saw benefit in removing one source of contention on its northern border, but warned that there are no guarantees that “Israeli natural gas platforms will be excluded from the area of conflict… in any future conflagration with Hezbollah” as a result of the this deal.

Hezbollah terror group leader Hassan Nasrallah in a live television address, October 1, 2022 (Twitter video screenshot)

“Nor does it improve necessarily the prospects for an agreement on the Blue Line,” he added, referring to talks over a land border between Israel and Lebanon. “I’m skeptical about how much more secure Israel is after this agreement.”

Schenker suggested that there are “critiques from the right that are legitimate regarding whether Line 23 was the best Israel could do in this negotiation — and whether this will somehow benefit Hezbollah.”

Recalling Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s threat this summer that Israeli gas exploration at Karish would be met with a military response, the former Trump aide said the terror group may come out of this agreement emboldened and thinking that its tactics worked in Lebanon’s favor.

Indeed, Israel had announced that it would begin its operations at Karish in September but has held off on doing so to date, although Lapid said last month that gas extraction at Karish would begin soon with or without a final deal.

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)

Schenker noted that the bulk of his skepticism regarding the deal stems from his claim that the deal does not ensure the funds Lebanon receives as a result of the gas exploration will stay out of Hezbollah’s coffers.

“There is no sovereign wealth fund in Lebanon [to ensure that] this money will not disappear into the abyss of corruption that has characterized all state revenues and the banking sector in Lebanon’s recent history,” he said.

The former Trump envoy insisted that his position has nothing to do with leftover resentment and that he respects the Israeli government’s judgment.

“This is not about sour grapes,” he said. “Israel is a sovereign state that makes its own decisions and has shown that it is the best decider of what is in its own security interest.”

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