Leaked text of Lebanon-Israel maritime deal underscores its ambiguity

US-brokered agreement doesn’t create an internationally recognized border between the two countries and leaves ‘plenty of room for friction,’ experts say

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Yair Lapid convenes his  security cabinet to discuss the Israel-Lebanon maritime border agreement, October 12, 2022. (Amos Ben Gershom/ GPO)
Prime Minister Yair Lapid convenes his security cabinet to discuss the Israel-Lebanon maritime border agreement, October 12, 2022. (Amos Ben Gershom/ GPO)

On Wednesday, as Israel moved the maritime border deal with Lebanon through its approval process, the leaked text of the agreement circulated online, shedding light on some of its more controversial elements and he issues that it fails to solve permanently.

While both countries asserted that it preserves their interests, crucially, the wording of the deal does not create an internationally recognized border between the two countries, argued Asher Kaufman, an expert on border dynamics between Israel and Lebanon at Notre Dame University.

“There is a very clear process for making a maritime boundary internationally recognized,” Kaufman said during a phone conversation with The Times of Israel, “and this agreement did not follow this process.”

“The two countries would have to sign an agreement that is sanctioned internationally, and that specifies that they agree on their shared boundary, and I did not read this text as being as such,” he said.

Even though it does not create a maritime border close to the coast, Israeli officials presented the international recognition of Israel’s “buoy line” as a major achievement in the deal. Israel established the five-kilometer maritime line in 2000, after withdrawing from southern Lebanon.

“Anchoring it [in international law] will allow us to treat it as the border of our territorial waters,” said a senior Israeli official last week.

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

However, the text itself does not give any permanence or new recognition to the buoy line. Instead, it states that Israel and Lebanon “agree that the status quo near the shore, including along and as defined by the current buoy line, remains the same.”

“Like the Blue Line, it’s not an internationally recognized boundary between Israel and Lebanon,”  Kaufman said, referring to the UN-enforced demarcation line from June 2000.

The Kohelet Policy Forum’s Eugene Kontorovich said that the language in the text is “just stating the obvious.”

“And of course, the status quo can change — and Lebanon makes no commitment to not change it,” he pointed out.

As expected, the text also stresses that the maritime agreement will be concluded “without prejudice to the status of the land boundary.”

Israel has lived without a mutually recognized land border with Lebanon since 1949, instead demarcating an armistice line with its northern neighbor. It took advantage of ambiguity in that line to include key terrain features on the Israeli side of the Blue Line after the withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000.

A picture taken from the Israeli side of the Blue Line that separates Israel and Lebanon shows a United Nations peacekeeping force UNIFIL monitoring post, amid clashes in the border area, on July 27, 2020. (Jalaa MAREY / AFP)

Also as expected, the text stressed that Lebanon is “not responsible for, or party to,” a future arrangement between Israel and French Total Energies multinational energy corporation, over compensation for Israel for giving up rights to the Qana gas field, some of which lies in Israeli waters.

The agreement does not mention the French energy company by name.

Israel also agreed to allow vessels working the Lebanese portion of Qana to cross the boundary line if needed.

The agreement seems to support Israel’s desire to have a signing ceremony with representatives of both countries present, something Beirut would much prefer to avoid.

“It is the understanding of the United States, that the Parties intend to meet in the near future at Naqoura under the hosting of the staff of UNSCOL in a meeting facilitated by the United States,” reads the text, using the acronym for the Office of the United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon.

French UN peacekeepers walk on a road that leads to a United Nations Interim Force In Lebanon position, in the southern coastal border Lebanese-Israeli town of Naqoura, on June 6, 2022. The Lebanese government invited a US envoy mediating between Lebanon and Israel over their disputed maritime border to return to Beirut to work out an agreement amid rising tensions along the border. (AP Photo/Mohammed Zaatari)

There are likely other agreements and guarantees between the US and the two sides that have not been made public.

Regardless, stressed Efraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, “there is plenty of room for friction in the deal.

“And Hezbollah always finds creative excuses to create friction,” he added.

Maritime boundary disputes, which are common, are generally adjudicated based on the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which Lebanon is a party but Israel and the US are not. Regardless, Israel uses the UNCLOS principles as the basis for its maritime claims. The convention does not prescribe one mandated means of determining boundaries between overlapping claims to territorial waters, and Lebanon and Israel both relied on it while coming up with vastly differing claims over where the boundary line between the two countries lies. Lebanon and Israel made conflicting claims in 2008 and in 2011, respectively, with hundreds of square kilometers overlapping.

On Tuesday morning, Israel announced that it had reached a “historic” agreement with Lebanon over the maritime border between the two countries in gas-rich Mediterranean waters.

The successful completion of the deal comes in the wake of intense efforts by US mediator Amos Hochstein in recent days to bridge the gaps between the two sides.

The lack of a maritime border had not been a major issue until a decade ago, when a gas discovery bonanza began in the eastern Mediterranean, potentially reshaping the region’s economic future.

Successive US administrations have sought to broker a maritime agreement, with Hochstein leading the talks during the Obama administration as well. The effort was picked up several years later when Donald Trump was president, but made little progress.

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