Israel and Lebanon are nearing an agreement over the maritime border dispute

Israel and Lebanon are nearing a US-brokered deal to defuse a dispute over their maritime border that has long fueled tensions between the two countries, officials said Sunday.

The latest proposal, sent to the two countries by US envoy Amos Hochstein last week, would clear the way for exploitation of a controversial eastern Mediterranean gas field that Iran-backed Hezbollah had threatened to attack in Lebanon if Israel did before a border agreement was reached.

Israel’s Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who faces elections next month, said the country was still discussing “the final details” of the proposal, “so it’s not yet possible to praise a completed deal.” But he added that the draft “protects Israel’s full security diplomatic interests as well as our economic interests.”

“For over a decade, Israel has been trying to achieve this deal. The security of the north will be strengthened,” he added. “Money flows into the treasury and our energy independence is secured.”

However, his rival Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s opposition leader, criticized the deal, accusing Lapid of “surrendering” to Hezbollah and writing on Twitter that if the deal goes through, “it won’t bind us” if Netanyahu the election wins.

Jair Lapid

Yair Lapid, pictured, was accused by Benjamin Netanyahu of “surrendering” to Hezbollah © Maya Alleruzzo/AFP/Getty Images

Lebanese authorities said they are reviewing the 10-page draft, details of which have not been made public. Prime Minister Najib Mikati said on Saturday that “the atmosphere is positive and an agreement should be reached soon” after receiving the draft on Friday. He added that a deal could be signed before the current president’s term expires on October 31.

Nabih Berri, a Hezbollah ally and one of the country’s most powerful leaders, told London newspaper Asharq al-Awsat on Sunday that the draft deal was “positive” and “in principle meets Lebanese demands”.

Indirect negotiations between Lebanon and Israel started in 2020 but stalled in May 2021. They resumed this year after a ship owned by London-listed Greek oil and gas explorer Energean reached the Karish gas field in the eastern Mediterranean in June.

Israel has said the gas field is in an area recognized by the UN as its exclusive economic zone and that it has the right to develop the territory. However, Lebanon says the area is disputed.

Energean said last month that the “first gas” from the gas field is on track to be delivered “within weeks”. However, full-scale production is not expected to ramp up until the last three months of the year.

Dorothy Shea presents a letter to Nabih Berri

Nabih Berri, right, with US Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea in Beirut © Wael Hamzeh/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, said last month his group stands ready to act if Israel starts extraction before a deal is reached, warning that its missiles are “stuck” on Karish. However, in a speech on Saturday, he said that Lebanon’s receipt of the draft agreement was “a very important step” and that the next few days were “crucial”.

With the economy in free fall, Hezbollah, whose paramilitaries are Lebanon’s most powerful and are viewed by Israel as one of its main opponents, has pledged to honor the deal.

Recent discoveries have shown that the waters off Israel and Lebanon in the eastern Mediterranean are rich in natural gas, raising the stakes in the border dispute.

The deal is expected to not only remove the threat of clashes around Karish, but also pave the way for Lebanon to develop the nearby Qana field, also claimed by both countries. A senior Israeli official told the Financial Times last week that Israel would receive “compensation” for its share of the field, but that the exact mechanism for such payments is still being discussed.

Lapid said on Sunday: “[Israel does] not against the development of another Lebanese gas field, from which we naturally receive our due share. Such a field will weaken Lebanon’s dependence on Iran, restrain Hezbollah and promote regional stability.” Israel and Lebanon are nearing an agreement over the maritime border dispute

Adam Bradshaw

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