Israel and Lebanon are edging towards a US-brokered agreement to defuse a dispute over their maritime border that has been a long-running source of tension between the two countries, officials said on Sunday.
The latest proposal, sent to the two countries by US envoy Amos Hochstein last week, would clear the way for the use of a disputed gasfield in the eastern Mediterranean Sea that Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hizbollah had threatened to attack if Israel brought it online before a border deal 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 is not yet possible to praise a done deal”. But he added that the draft “safeguards Israel’s full security-diplomatic interests, as well as our economic interests”.
“For over a decade, Israel has been trying to reach this deal. The security of the North will be strengthened,” he added. “Money will flow into the state’s coffers and our energy independence will be secured.”
However, his rival Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s opposition leader, lambasted the deal, accusing Lapid of “surrendering” to Hizbollah and wrote on Twitter that if the deal went through “it won’t bind us” if Netanyahu wins the election.
Lebanese authorities said they were studying 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”, following receipt of the draft on Friday. He added that a deal could be signed before the current president’s term of office expires on October 31.
Nabih Berri, a Hizbollah ally and one of the country’s most powerful leaders, told London-based Asharq al-Awsat newspaper on Sunday that the draft agreement was “positive” and “in principle meets the Lebanese demands”.
Indirect negotiations between Lebanon and Israel started in 2020 but stalled in May 2021. They restarted this year after a vessel operated by London-listed Greek oil and gas explorer Energean arrived at the eastern Mediterranean Karish gasfield in June.
Israel has said the gasfield lies in an area recognised by the UN as its exclusive economic zone and that it has a right to develop the territory. However, Lebanon says the area is disputed.
Energean said last month that “first gas” from the gasfield was on track to be delivered “within weeks”. However, full-scale production is expected to increase only in the final three months of the year.
Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizbollah, said last month that his group was ready to act if Israel began extraction before an agreement was reached, warning that its rockets were “locked on” Karish. However, in a speech on Saturday, he said that Lebanon’s receipt of the draft deal was “a very important step” and that the next few days would be “crucial”.
With its economy in worsening freefall, Hizbollah, whose paramilitary is Lebanon’s most powerful and is regarded by Israel as one of its main adversaries, has pledged to abide by the agreement.
Recent discoveries have shown the waters off Israel and Lebanon in the eastern Mediterranean to be rich in natural gas and raised the stakes in the border dispute.
As well as removing the threat of clashes over Karish, the deal is also expected to pave the way for Lebanon to develop the nearby Qana field, which is 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 was still under discussion.
Lapid said on Sunday: “[Israel does] not oppose the development of an additional Lebanese gasfield, from which we will of course receive the share we deserve. Such a field will weaken Lebanon’s dependence on Iran, restrain Hizbollah and promote regional stability.”
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