Israel-Lebanon tensions shows limitation of gas deal - analysis

The Lebanon rockets seem to show the limitation of the deal signed last year in which peace, security and stability were supposed to be some of the benefits.

 A fire truck extinguishes an area in Israel's North struck by a rocket from Lebanon, on April 6, 2023. (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
A fire truck extinguishes an area in Israel's North struck by a rocket from Lebanon, on April 6, 2023.
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)

The rocket attacks from Lebanon and the Israeli response illustrate that the maritime deal signed with Beirut last year has not reduced the chance of conflict.

The current violence apparently shows the limitation of the deal in which peace, security and stability were supposed to be some of the benefits, as well as the supposed deterrence of Hezbollah.

Terrorist groups, such as Hamas, are able to operate openly in areas used by the major Lebanese one.

The Israel-Lebanon maritime border deal

The maritime deal was agreed to by Israel and Lebanon late last year, on the eve of the Knesset elections. It came in the wake of more than a year of talks, supported by the US. It also came amid Hezbollah threats to Israeli gas and energy exploration off the coast.

At the time of the deal in late October, the EU put out a statement saying it “congratulates Israel and Lebanon on this landmark achievement and commends the role of the US in facilitating negotiations. This historic agreement will contribute to the stability and prosperity of the two neighbors, as well as to that of the wider region.”

The talks go back more than two years. Since they began, there has been an increase in attacks from Lebanon. During the May 2021 conflict between Israel and Hamas, there were rocket attacks from Lebanon. In addition, Hezbollah used drones last July to target a gas rig off the coast. On the eve of the deal last October, the terrorist group also appeared to threaten conflict with the Jewish state.

AN ISRAELI military observation tower overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and part of the maritime border with Lebanon, is seen near Rosh Hanikra. (Ammar Awad/Reuters) (credit: REUTERS)AN ISRAELI military observation tower overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and part of the maritime border with Lebanon, is seen near Rosh Hanikra. (Ammar Awad/Reuters) (credit: REUTERS)

On the eve of the deal, Israel had to prepare for escalation in the North. At the time, Jerusalem was told that tensions were rising there, because the negotiations over the deal were at risk. If Israel didn’t do the deal, then there could be conflict. This was an odd preview of worse to come since a deal to achieve “stability” seemed to be creating a potential for conflict instead.

The agreement didn’t address the continued use of southern Lebanon by terrorist groups and the stockpiling of weapons. In fact, just weeks after the deal, on December 14, Hezbollah murdered a UN Irish peacekeeper in southern Lebanon. In late January, reports said that Qatar was joining the consortium searching for gas off the coast of Lebanon.

QATAR’S ROLE appeared interesting because Doha has also been involved in cash payments to Gaza over the years.

The wealthy Middle Eastern country has a sort of Janus-face in regard to Israel. On the one hand, it has hosted Hamas in the past, and Al-Jazeera in Arabic has often spread extremist rhetoric, whereas in English, it has tended to be more moderate and is a key strategic ally of the US.

Qatar hosted the Taliban and also became a closer ally of the US. It has a way of seeming to profit off hosting extremist groups and working more closely with the West.

It’s unclear how that will work out in Lebanon. France24 said that Beirut “announced that Qatar had entered a consortium to explore for offshore gas in waters near Israel, following a historic border deal last year between the two foes.”

In a statement at the time of the deal, then-Israeli prime minister Yair Lapid said that the draft agreement met all of Israel’s security, economic and legal demands, stressing that “this is a historic achievement that will strengthen Israel’s security and bring in billions to Israel’s economy and ensure stability on the northern border.”

There was also a theory that the agreement would lead to the development of the Qana gas field off Lebanon’s coast, which could weaken its dependency on Tehran. At the time, Israel’s then-defense minister Benny Gantz also said in mid-October 2022 that “the maritime border agreement will act as a deterrent” and “has the potential to reduce Iranian influence on Lebanon.”

The UN Security Council praised the deal last year, saying that its members “commended the announcements that Lebanon and Israel have agreed to end their dispute over their maritime boundary and delineate it permanently. This is a major step, which will contribute to the stability, the security and the prosperity of the region. It will benefit both countries and their people and will allow both parties to benefit equitably from energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean.”

US SENATOR Jacky Rosen (D-Nevada) put out a statement on October 27 regarding the deal, reflecting the general view at high levels in Washington that the deal was supposed to bring security and stability.

“I congratulate Israel and Lebanon for signing this agreement and the Biden Administration for their diplomatic efforts facilitating it,” she said. “The US-brokered deal between Israel and Lebanon will end a decades-long maritime dispute, strengthen Israel’s security, lower the risk of war, and contribute to regional stability and economic success. American global leadership and diplomacy can help bring about a more peaceful world, from facilitating new partnerships for Israel in the Middle East to promoting a two-state solution with the Palestinians. As the historic Abraham Accords have demonstrated, cooperation with Israel benefits the entire region.”

The US Institute of Peace also hosted a discussion about the deal. The discussion included experts such as the institute’s Robert Barron, Mona Yacoubian and Hesham Youssef, who tried to “unpack the agreement, its significance for Lebanon and Israel and the implications for peace and stability in the region.”

Yacoubian predicted that “the deal will help to de-escalate tensions between Lebanon and Israel, reducing the prospects for conflict between the two countries in the near term.”

However, the deal did not prevent Hamas or other terrorist groups from openly moving rockets during the day to areas near Tyre to launch into the Jewish state.

Hezbollah doesn’t appear deterred, since it controls the area from which rockets were fired. In addition, Hamas leaders openly fly into Beirut and meet with Palestinian Islamic Jihad and plotted the attacks this past week during Passover.

The statements about how the deal brought security, stability, peace and deterrence may now need to be revisited in light of the recent exchanges in the North.

The question also relates to what will happen in the future as gas exploration continues.

While this round of clashes included rocket fire from Lebanon in broad daylight targeting Israel during Passover, it’s not clear what else the terror groups may be up to in Israel’s restive northern neighbor.

It’s also not clear if those who backed the deal and said it would include security will revisit this question and pressure Lebanon regarding its hosting of extremist groups.