Official: Lebanon deal will see unprecedented approval for Israel’s maritime border
Senior official argues recognition of line of buoys as border is key achievement, but cautions Beirut could still back out; says cabinet expected to approve deal on Thursday
Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter
The impending agreement on Israel’s maritime border with Lebanon is a victory for Israel’s security, a senior Israeli official argued Sunday evening.
“The security interests of Israel are anchored in the agreement,” said the official, pointing at the Israeli line of maritime buoys extending five kilometers (some three miles) into the Mediterranean from Rosh Hanikra.
“The line of buoys is an important Israeli security line, that was never approved by any outside actor,” said the official during a phone briefing with Israeli reporters . “This will allow Israel to treat it as its northern territorial border.”
Israel deployed the floats after the May 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon. The boundary marked the limits of where Israel unilaterally operates with full freedom of action.
The line will be the northern limit of Israeli waters for the first five kilometers from the coast, after which the border will follow the southern edge of the disputed area, known as Line 23.
The agreement also serves the economic interests of the Lebanese, who will enjoy economic rights in the area bordered by Line 23 in the south.
The official hotly denied that Israel had given in to all Lebanese demands — as opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu has charged — pointing to the fact that Beirut had demanded that Line 29 further south be the border. This would have given Lebanon parts of the Karish gas field.
There will be compensation for Israel for giving up rights to the Qana gas field, some of which lies in Israeli waters.
“We are still working on the details of this agreement with Total,” said the official, referring to the French TotalEnergies multinational energy corporation. ‘This is not an agreement between Israel and Lebanon; it’s an agreement between Israel and the consortium.”
If both sides approve the agreement, it will be binding and anchored in international law, said the senior official.
The agreement includes a section about some sort of joint event with Israeli and Lebanese representation to mark the agreement. “We see this as very important,” said the official.
It is still not known where the ceremony would take place and who would represent the Israeli side.
Israel has yet to officially approve the plan, though Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz have responded positively to it. The official said ministers are expected to vote on it during a cabinet meeting Thursday, though the attorney general has yet to issue a legal issue on the matter.
“There is an urgency and a necessity to reach an agreement in the near future and without delay, in order to prevent an escalation of security [dangers], which is [otherwise] highly likely, and to utilize the unique window of opportunity to reach an agreement,” explained an IDF official, according to Channel 12.
“It is still possible that Lebanon will walk back its agreement,” said the senior government official, while stressing that Israel would begin extracting gas from Karish regardless of the status of the agreement.
“Hezbollah is not party to this agreement directly,” said the official. “The leaders take Nasrallah’s position into account, but he is not someone who is a direct negotiator here.”
Lapid confirmed Sunday that Israel had received the long-negotiated US proposal to resolve its maritime border dispute with Lebanon, and also maintained that the plan would preserve Israel’s regional interests.
The United States handed over the written plan to Lebanese President Michel Aoun on Saturday.
“We are conducting discussions on the final details,” Lapid said and cautioned that it was still too early to see the agreement as completed.
“We do not oppose the development of an additional Lebanese gas field, from which we will of course receive the share we deserve,” Lapid said.
“Such a field will weaken Lebanon’s dependence on Iran, restrain Hezbollah and promote regional stability,” he said.
But he insisted that “as we demanded from the first day, the proposal fully preserves Israel’s diplomatic and security interests, as well as our economic interests.”
“For more than 10 years, Israel has tried to reach this deal, which strengthens Israeli security and the Israeli economy,” Lapid said.
Aoun met with US ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea on Saturday and received the written proposal from US mediator Amos Hochstein for the demarcation of the maritime border with Israel.
Lebanon state media said the government was working quickly to formulate a response to the plan.
The text of the proposal has not been released for publication.
The maritime dispute relates to some 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) of the Mediterranean Sea that include lucrative offshore gas fields.
The US-brokered talks on rights to the area, the subject of long-running but indirect negotiations between Jerusalem and Beirut and repeated threats from the Hezbollah terror group, have made progress in recent weeks.
The discussions began under the auspices of the previous government, led by then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu charged on Sunday that “Lapid has no mandate to hand over to an enemy state sovereign territories and sovereign assets that belong to all of us.
Netanyahu also said Lapid had “surrendered to Hezbollah’s threats,” and that if he were to form a government after the November 1 elections, he would not be bound by the deal.
Lapid responded in a tweet addressing Netanyahu directly, saying, “For 10 years you have failed in trying to bring about this agreement, at least don’t harm Israel’s security interests and help Hezbollah with irresponsible messages.”
Defense Minister Benny Gantz also weighed in on Netanyahu’s comments, accusing the opposition leader of being guided by “irresponsible political considerations.”
“We will continue to look after the political, security, and economic interests of the State of Israel with responsibility and statesmanship,” he tweeted.
Tensions rose after earlier this year Israel moved a gas exploration ship to the disputed Karish gas field and recently said it will begin extracting from the site. Last month Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah threatened that his Iran-backed terror organization’s missiles were “locked on” to Karish.
Yet in televised remarks Saturday, Nasrallah said the US draft deal opens up “new and promising horizons for the people of Lebanon by rescuing the country from the crisis it has fallen into.”
Lebanon claims that the Karish gas field is in disputed territory, while Israel says it lies within its internationally recognized economic waters.
Last month, Lapid’s office vowed Israel would go ahead and extract gas from Karish with or without a deal on the maritime border with Lebanon.