Israel and Lebanon: Partners as energy deliverer for Europe?

photo credits: Energean PLC / AFP

With US mediation, Israel and Lebanon are apparently heading towards an agreement in the long-standing dispute over their sea border in the Mediterranean. This promises great benefits for both states, from regional security to gas field exploitation. A deal between the two enemy countries, which have officially been at war since 1948, can certainly be viewed as historic. According to Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, an agreement has been reached in the long-standing dispute over the maritime border between Lebanon and Israel. “This is a historic achievement that strengthens Israel’s security, injects billions into the Israeli economy and ensures the stability of our northern border,” Lapid said Tuesday.

Lebanon had previously stated that the final draft of the US-brokered agreement could meet all the requirements and lead to a “historic agreement”. “We believe the other side should think the same,” said Lebanese chief negotiator Elias Bou Saab on Monday. But there are still a few obstacles and hurdles to overcome. Lebanese President Michel Aoun stressed beforehand that an agreement would not mean a “partnership” with Israel.

The background is a territorial dispute over an area in the eastern Mediterranean where there are gas deposits. Iran-backed Hezbollah militia in Lebanon has threatened Israel with violence if the country searches for gas near the sea zone. From Israel’s perspective, the gas field lies within its economic zone and not in the disputed waters. The threat is primarily aimed at the Iran-sponsored Shiite organization Hezbullah, the strongest military force in Lebanon, which maintains a state within a state there. Hatred of Israel and corresponding fantasies of annihilation are their ideological core.

Hezbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah had repeatedly threatened in the maritime border dispute. The conflict is not only sensitive because Israel and Hezbullah have been walking a tightrope on the edge of a military confrontation for years. This could easily escalate into a war that would bring great destruction to Lebanon from Israeli airstrikes. Israeli cities were threatened with massive rocket fire from Hezbollah. In one of the gas maritime fields, Israel has begun preparations for exploitation. Hezbollah has repeatedly threatened attacks if they begin without an agreement, and Israel threatens severe retaliation if they would do. The Israeli government has also sharpened its tone again on the question of imminent exploitation. A government official announced that gas would be extracted from the Karish field “as soon as possible”. “If Hezbollah or anyone else tries to damage the Karish facility or threaten us, the sea border negotiations will be halted immediately.”

The struggle between Israel and Lebanon is the question of the angle at which the border line departs from the coast. Both countries submitted their ideas to the United Nations in 2011, and negotiations have been interrupted since then. Israel locates the sea border further north, Lebanon further south. Looking at this on the map, the argument is about a triangle, which is often compared to a slice of pizza. The explosive thing about it: This triangle touches two gas fields. One of them, called Karish, has already been largely developed by Israel. The second named Kana would like to explore Lebanon as soon as possible and exploit it profitably.

A solution to the old dispute has become urgent for a number of reasons. Globally, since Russia’s attack on Ukraine, there has been a search for new gas supply sites everywhere. In the medium term, replacements could also be procured from the Mediterranean for missing Russian deliveries to the West. That is why Washington has now put a lot of pressure on the two brawlers and sent the special envoy Amos Hochstein on a shuttle mission between Jerusalem and Beirut.

Above all, the conflict between Israel and Lebanon had heated up enormously over the summer. The Anglo-Greek energy company Energean, which had acquired the license for the Karish field from Israel, positioned its well on high seas 80 kilometers west of Haifa in June – and the head of the Lebanese terrorist militia Hezbollah, took it an occasion for open threats of war. Without an agreement on the exact demarcation of the border, Lebanon will not allow the Israelis to exploit Karish, he railed. To show how seriously this should be taken, Hezbollah sent four drones towards Karish in July. Israel’s army shot them down, and Israel’s government immediately joined in a canon of mutual threats.

Hezbullah has so far shown itself willing to negotiate on the question of the sea border. Lebanon could very well use natural gas revenues. The country is stuck in one of the worst economic crises in recent history. The state is bankrupt, the population is suffering, and the Shiite organization’s clientele, which come from the poorer classes, is also seething. Hezbollah actually wants a deal – even if the hope of being able to quickly turn an agreement into money is completely illusory. It is not yet clear whether there is enough gas that would make exploitation attractive for foreign companies, nor is there the infrastructure to export gas.

But both for Hezbullah and for other representatives of the cartel of warlords, clan leaders and oligarchs that dominate and plunder Lebanon, it would be a success if people could be fooled into thinking that the money would be flowing soon, so that the hardships of the everyday life belong to the past. The government’s latest proposals have been closely – and at a high level – coordinated with the Shia organization.

Now, however, Washington’s intervention appears to have turned the tide. In the past few days, both sides have officially been handed a compromise proposal for the demarcation of borders: Karish is completely assigned to Israel, Lebanon is assured of the exploitation of Cana. For that small part of the Lebanese field that extends into Israeli waters, Israel is to be compensated by the French company Total, which holds the license for Cana.

Positive signals about this proposal are coming from both sides. Although the Lebanese media still reports reservations about individual points, even Hezbollah is now hoping for a “happy ending.” Its head describes the compromise as a success, it will “help Lebanon to cope with the economic crisis”. In view of the impoverishment of the country, in which the energy supply has also become extremely precarious, this actually appears to be the main motivation for unification. In any case, it will still be a few years before gas can actually be produced in the Cana field.

The US proposal was also loudly welcomed by Israel’s Prime Minister Jair Lapid. He sees an agreement as an opportunity to reduce Lebanon’s dependence on Iran as soon as the country is in a better economic position thanks to energy revenues. In addition, it is argued in Israel, two neighboring oil production sites in the Mediterranean could create a kind of balance of deterrence.

However, not everyone in Israel wants to share this view, especially since there is an election campaign going on there. Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu is already firing against the compromise that has now been presented. He accuses Lapid of “surrendering” to Hezbollah. Furthermore, the conclusion of an agreement is “illegal” because Lapid, as interim prime minister, has no power to make such a far-reaching decision on Israel’s territorial status until the November 1st election. Just in case, Netanyahu has already announced that if he returns to power, he will not be bound by any agreement that has been concluded up to that point.

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