Cautious Optimism After Israel-Lebanon Maritime Deal

How Israel’s far-right politics may still hinder the historic settlement reached with Lebanon

Cautious Optimism After Israel-Lebanon Maritime Deal
Lebanese protesters take part in a rally by sailing in boats with slogans in Hebrew affirming Lebanon’s right to its offshore gas wealth, from the southern coastal city of Tyre towards Naqoura near the maritime border with Israel on Sept. 4, 2022 (Mahmoud Zayyat / AFP via Getty Images)

Over the past month, the next Middle East war threatened to erupt not because of matters of religion, holy sites or even land — but over the fate of an offshore natural gas field on the edge of the Eastern Mediterranean. The two parties claiming the field, Israel and Lebanon, apparently forestalled such an eventuality on Tuesday when both sides finally agreed to a U.S.-brokered deal delimiting their shared maritime border.

Yet analysts remain unconvinced that this is the end of the saga, with the impending agreement quickly escalating into the most divisive political issue inside Israel mere weeks before the upcoming Nov. 1 election. It could yet prove to be the trigger for military conflict after Israelis go to the polls.

The main point of (maritime) contention between Israel and Lebanon had been the Qana-Sidon natural gas field, which both claimed fell within their respective economic waters. Successive U.S. envoys have been mediating between the two states on the issue for nearly a decade now, to no avail. Yet in recent months a confluence of factors came together to push for a compromise resolution.

First, a (separate) nearby field called Karish, which Israel considers wholly within its territory, was set to begin producing gas, likely by November. The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah had explicitly linked the two fields and threatened retaliation if there was no agreement by the time Karish came online.

“The hand that reaches for any of this wealth will be severed,” declared Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah in August, just one month after the Israeli military said it had downed four (unarmed) Hezbollah drones nearing Karish.

Second, the messy political clocks in both Lebanon and Israel militated against continued delay. Lebanese President Michel Aoun’s term expires this month on Oct. 31, with the identity of his successor uncertain. Meanwhile, Israel is mired in its fifth election in less than four years, with subsequent coalition talks often taking months to return a new government (if at all).

While the exact terms of the agreement have yet to be made public, according to reports Israel and Lebanon have both relented on their maximalist maritime border line claims, though Beirut has apparently received most of the Qana-Sidon field. In return, Israel is set to receive a significant share of future profits from the field — 17%, according to a recent report from the Haaretz daily — along with complete and unencumbered control over its Karish field and the continued deployment of a maritime “security zone” farther to the north, closer to the Israeli coast.

Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid on Tuesday hailed the agreement as a “historic achievement that will strengthen Israel’s security, inject billions into Israel’s economy, and ensure the stability of our northern border.” Aoun, too, praised the deal, saying it “preserves Lebanon’s rights to its natural resources, and all this at an important time for the Lebanese” because of the country’s ongoing economic collapse, including in the energy sector. Even Hezbollah is reportedly pleased with the outcome, if for no other reason than the political credit it is now arrogating to itself for defending Lebanese interests.

The only side highly displeased, to put it mildly, is the Israeli right wing led by opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu (and, oddly, a slew of right-wing American analysts and former Trump administration officials who have weighed in on the issue). For weeks, Netanyahu has led a wholesale domestic assault against the deal, charging the Lapid government on Monday with “surrendering to Hezbollah’s blackmail” and “transferring strategic assets to Hezbollah in a liquidation sale.” The former prime minister went on to allege that Hezbollah would use Lebanon’s future gas windfall to further develop its missile and rocket arsenal for use against the Israeli public.

“This weak and amateur transition government has no mandate to make such a dangerous decision in the dark, just days before the election,” Netanyahu added, alluding to Lapid’s status as a transition/caretaker premier and the possible legal impediments to concluding such a deal before election day.

Israeli officials have rejected in the strongest possible terms all of the above critiques, with one describing Netanyahu’s behavior as a “shocking display of a lack of national responsibility … [and] shameful even by his standards.

“All of the security establishment, without exception, thinks this is a good agreement for Israel,” the senior official told New Lines. “Netanyahu is just trying to score cheap political points during a campaign. It’s a sad state of affairs when a senior Israeli official like him chooses Nasrallah’s talking points over our own security experts.”

Despite the right-wing Israeli narrative that “Lebanon got 100% and Israel got zero percent” from the deal, the reality of Israeli-Lebanese relations extends far beyond the specific Qana-Sidon gas field.

Israeli security officials and analysts maintain the agreement will create a “balance of deterrence” in the Eastern Mediterranean — with the Israeli gas field (Karish) sitting opposite the Lebanese gas field (Qana-Sidon), so that harm to one will almost certainly be reciprocated. In energy terms, the deal should allow Karish to go online in a matter of weeks without impediment, furthering Israel’s (already substantial) energy security and revenues. The Qana-Sidon field, by contrast, still requires further exploration, to say nothing of exploitation, which analysts say may take years.

Finally, in regional terms, Israeli officials are adamant that it is in Israel’s interest for Lebanon to not fully devolve into a failed state (or, as one Israeli military officer put it to me last year, “Somalia on the Mediterranean”).

“Israel is interested in having a stable and prosperous Lebanese neighbor,” said Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Tuesday. In this sense, and contrary to the statements by Netanyahu and hawks in Washington, any revenue Lebanon can extract from offshore gas development would be positive.

“Such a field will weaken Lebanon’s dependence on Iran, restrain Hezbollah and promote regional stability,” Lapid told his cabinet last week.

In one narrow area, however, Netanyahu may have a point: It remains unclear whether the Lapid government will be able to ratify the agreement officially and legally before voters go to the polls.

According to officials, the timetable for approval will be extremely tight regardless: first by the security cabinet, then by the full government in principle, after which the agreement will be sent to Parliament for a 14-day review. The Supreme Court will likely still have to hear appeals (by right-wing petitioners) demanding a vote by Parliament, which may further delay proceedings; the attorney general will, very soon, have to issue an opinion on whether a transition government so close to election day has the legal authority to approve such an agreement.

The senior Israeli official was confident that all of these hurdles could be overcome, that the deal would enjoy “overwhelming” government support and that its “clear security and economic rationale” created a strong legal case for allowing the government to approve such an agreement before an election during this highly specific “window of opportunity.”

Perhaps. Yet, even if approved, the biggest obstacle to the deal’s future may arrive after election day, in the event that Netanyahu emerges victorious and heads the next government.

He has already vowed that he will not be beholden to any agreement signed by Lapid — something no Israeli leader has ever dared to do, on any diplomatic issue (including past controversial peace deals with the Palestinians). How would Hezbollah respond in such an event? The stakes surrounding the upcoming Israeli election just got a whole lot bigger, and potentially deadlier.

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy