US official rips critiques by Netanyahu, Trump officials

‘You’re making history’: Biden hails border deal in calls with Lapid, Lebanon’s Aoun

Israel says it’ll receive guarantees from US; administration official says opportunity may disappear if not immediately exploited, amid calls to wait until after Israeli election

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent

Left to right: Prime Minister Yair Lapid, US President Joe Biden and Lebanese President Michel Aoun. (Collage/AP)
Left to right: Prime Minister Yair Lapid, US President Joe Biden and Lebanese President Michel Aoun. (Collage/AP)

US President Joe Biden on Tuesday separately phoned Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Lebanese President Michel Aoun on Tuesday to congratulate them on backing the first mutually agreed upon boundary between their two countries, in a US-brokered deal aimed at ending a decades-long maritime dispute.

“You’re making history,” Biden told Lapid, according to a readout from the Prime Minister’s Office, which also said that Lapid managed to secure a series of economic and security guarantees from the US in parallel to the agreement.

Biden said in a statement that the maritime deal announced by both governments earlier Tuesday “will provide for the development of energy fields for the benefit of both countries, setting the stage for a more stable and prosperous region, and harnessing vital new energy resources for the world.”

He urged Jerusalem and Beirut to “uphold their commitments and work towards implementation,” as questions continued to rise about whether it would be possible to implement the deal, given that both countries are currently run by caretaker governments and that Israel is just weeks away from an election.

Still, Biden insisted that the agreement “protects Israel’s security and economic interests critical to promoting its regional integration” while providing Lebanon “the space to begin its own exploitation of energy resources.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the deal a “historic breakthrough.”

“This breakthrough represents a new source of prosperity, stability, and regional coordination that will deliver vital energy resources for the world,” Blinken said.

A senior Israeli official familiar with the negotiations told reporters in a Tuesday statement that the agreement will see the buoy-marked borderline established by Israel in 2000 five kilometers (3.1 miles) off the coast of the northern town of Rosh Hanikra recognized by the sides as an agreed-upon status quo. Lebanon will not be allowed to make counter-claims regarding that boundary unless a new maritime agreement is reached between the parties.

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

At the end of the buoys, Israel’s border will follow the southern edge of the disputed area known as Line 23, the senior Israeli official said.

Lebanon will enjoy the economic benefits of the area north of Line 23, including the Qana gas field, though the senior Israeli official said Jerusalem will receive monetary compensation for a certain percentage of revenue from the Qana, part of which lies south of Line 23. The exact compensation will be decided in negotiations with the French drilling company TotalEnergies.

Israel will also receive a letter of guarantees from the US stressing Washington’s commitment to Israel’s security and economic rights in case Hezbollah or another party fails to respect the deal, according to the senior Israeli official, who said the agreement will contribute to border stability and reduce Lebanon’s dependence on Iranian funds.

Meanwhile, a senior Biden official who briefed reporters after the president spoke with Lapid and Aoun warned Israel and Lebanon against waiting to ratify the US-brokered maritime agreement.

“No one can guarantee [what the future holds], and therefore no one can guarantee that opportunities for the security of Israel and the economic prosperity of Lebanon will still be there at a different time,” the senior US official said in response to a question regarding the timing of the deal just weeks before the November 1 Knesset election.

Opposition lawmakers along with Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked — who has expressed her desire to join a future government with many of the opposition parties — have insisted that the maritime deal should not go through while an interim government is in power and should be brought before the Knesset, which is not currently in session.

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)

The senior Biden official expressed optimism that the deal will indeed be seen through.

“The governments on both sides are aware of the political reality that they that they live in, and I have every expectation that this agreement is going to be signed and put into force [as early as possible],” the official told reporters.

“When the opportunity is there, and there’s a pathway toward an agreement [the] momentum should be taken advantage of,” the senior official added.

The senior US official went on to affirm Israel’s control over the Karish gas field, which is located south of Line 23 and dismissed threats made by Hezbollah that the terror group would attack Israel if the latter began extracting natural gas at the site before a maritime deal is reached.

Asked by The Times of Israel during the phone briefing whether the maritime deal announced Tuesday factored in Hezbollah’s warnings, the senior US official said, “threats are not what drove these negotiations. What drove them was the need to secure the entire coast for Israel and to provide economic interests for Lebanon.”

“In that context. The United States has always supported Israel’s right to develop Karish, and we are satisfied and happy that Lebanon will now be able to develop the [Qana field] as well as others,” the official added.

While Lebanon in recent months agreed to negotiate a border based on Line 23, it had previously pushed a more aggressive Line 29 demand, which would have seen Israel’s Karish field fall under dispute as well.

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

The senior Biden official later tore into critics from the Trump administration and the current Israeli opposition who have branded the US-brokered maritime agreement as a deal tilted in Beirut’s favor and beneficial to Hezbollah.

“Many people have said over the last several days that a better deal could have been done for one side or the other. Others have claimed that they could have negotiated a better deal — some from the region, some from the United States,” the official said.

“They were in power. They did not reach a better deal,” the official continued. “And when those better so-called better terms for either side were on the table, they ended up not reaching and not concluding an agreement.”

When news of an impending deal broke last week, former US president Donald Trump’s envoy tasked with negotiating the same deal told The Times of Israel that Lebanon was receiving 100% of its demands. This point was echoed by Trump’s ambassador to Israel David Friedman as well as by opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu. The former premier went as far as to call the agreement a “surrender” to Hezbollah and accused Prime Minister Yair Lapid of giving away Israel’s sovereign territory to Lebanon.

The former US and Israeli government officials claimed that previous agreements that had been weighed were far more beneficial to Israel. In the phone briefing, the senior Biden administration was quite dismissive of this argument, saying “there have been several proposals for so-called better terms for one side or the other, but since they were not agreed to, they were just proposals, and the threat of insecurity, violence, and conflict continued to rise.”

“This agreement — being the only one that actually was reached — is therefore the one that has the best terms for Israel, and in fact, the best terms for Lebanon. The reason for that is because once it is executed it will actually provide for security guarantees and assurances for Israel; it will provide for economic guarantees and hope for Lebanon that can actually be accomplished and put into force.”

“Previous pieces of paper are just that,” the Biden official added.

Acknowledging that it is still unclear how much gas is available for extraction in the long-disputed territory, the senior official said that the deal still nonetheless provided the Lebanese people hope for a brighter economic future after years of decline.

Lapid said earlier Tuesday that the “historic” agreement would “strengthen Israel’s security, inject billions into Israel’s economy, and ensure the stability of our northern border.”

File: People hold portraits of the head of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, as they gather to welcome tankers carrying Iranian fuel, upon their arrival from Syria in the city of Baalbeck, in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley, on September 16, 2021. (AFP)

The premier will convene the security cabinet on Wednesday, followed by a special meeting of the full cabinet to approve the agreement, the Foreign Ministry said.

Aoun tweeted that “the final version of the offer satisfies Lebanon, meets its demands and preserves its rights to its natural wealth.”

Even Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah cautiously welcomed the agreement late Tuesday, while crediting his group’s strategy of threatening and launching drones at Israel for helping spur the deal.

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.

Hochstein submitted last week what at the time was described as a final proposal aimed at settling a dispute over control of a series of gas fields off the coast of Israel and Lebanon — two countries officially at war and with no recognized maritime boundary between them.

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)

A deal would put to bed a long-running dispute over some 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) of the Mediterranean Sea, covering the Karish and the Qana gas fields.

While Jerusalem indicated openness to last week’s proposal, it was swiftly rejected by Lebanon, which reportedly had reservations over officially recognizing the buoy-marked boundary established by Israel. Lapid’s office subsequently made clear that it would not back off from this demand.

While prospects for a deal began to fade, Hochstein continued his talks with the sides over the weekend until reaching a breakthrough on Monday.

Israel and Lebanon never agreed to demarcate their border on land either, keeping to a UN-enforced ceasefire “Blue Line” instead, and thus leaving their offshore exclusive economic zone disputed. 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.

Hochstein agreed to once again broker talks late last year and was engaged in negotiations for the past 15 months.

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