Lebanon maritime border deal: A blessing or a curse for Israel?

A better deal can always be had. The question is whether the deal on the table serves the country’s long-term interests, even if it is not perfect.

 AN ISRAELI Navy boat is seen in the Mediterranean Sea from Rosh Hanikra, close to the Lebanese border (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
AN ISRAELI Navy boat is seen in the Mediterranean Sea from Rosh Hanikra, close to the Lebanese border
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)

On September 14, 2016, after long, drawn-out negotiations, Israel and the US signed a 10-year memorandum of understanding governing military assistance to Israel from 2019 to 2028.

Under the deal, finalized by then-US president Barack Obama in the waning days of his presidency, Washington would provide Israel with $38 billion in military assistance over a decade, amounting to $3.8b. per year. No paltry sum, this represented a $7b. increase over the previous MoU.

As details of the deal began to trickle out even before the agreement was formally announced, then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu came under a barrage of criticism. Ehud Barak, Netanyahu’s bitter political rival, led the charge, arguing that had Netanyahu maintained better ties with Obama – and not gone head-to-head with him over the Iranian nuclear deal – Israel could have gotten an even better deal. Barak maintained that it would have been possible to get a $45b. package.

In addition, critics said that Israeli defense industries would be badly hurt by the MoU’s phasing out of an Off-Shore Procurement provision by which Israel could spend 26.3% of the US military assistance locally.

One of the counterarguments used by Netanyahu’s spokesmen at the time was that the opposition will always claim that it could have negotiated a sweeter deal.

A court hearing in the trial against former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at the District Court in Jerusalem on March 23, 2022. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)A court hearing in the trial against former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at the District Court in Jerusalem on March 23, 2022. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

It is ironic, therefore, that one of the arguments Netanyahu and the Likud are making against the draft agreement with the US over a maritime border arrangement with Lebanon is that Israel gave in too much, and that with more determination a better deal could have been had.

A better deal can always be had. The question is whether the deal on the table serves the country’s long-term interests, even if it is not perfect.

The Lebanon deal is heavily politicized

PREDICTABLY, DURING an election campaign, the answer to that falls along party lines, with Prime Minister Yair Lapid and his supporters singing the deal’s praises, and Netanyahu and his supporters saying it was a total capitulation to Lebanon and Hezbollah.

Making matters even more difficult is that while the general contours of the deal have come out in the press over the last few days, the nitty-gritty details of the arrangement remain hidden from view.

According to reports in the press, Israel conceded some of what it claimed as its territorial waters to Lebanon so that the Lebanese could explore and then possibly exploit the Kana gas field.

In return, according to the reports, Israel will get a percentage of the royalties from that field, although the exact percentage has not been revealed. Beyond that, little more is known.

On Thursday Lapid’s office said that he rejected changes that the Lebanese wanted to insert in the agreement, though the public has no idea what those changes are. The security cabinet met to discuss the details of the plan only on Thursday afternoon.

Despite the dearth of any real information, a bitter political debate is already being waged over the issue, with Netanyahu arguing that Lapid has sold Israeli interests out to Hezbollah, and Lapid saying that Netanyahu is feeding Hezbollah propaganda.

In other words, a critical long-term strategic issue has turned into a short-term political one, leading to speculation whether Lapid would be pushing so hard for this deal if it weren’t three weeks before an election, and whether Netanyahu would be slamming it to the same degree if he were not in the midst of another election campaign.

THE ISSUE is a complex one, and negotiations surrounding it have been going on for over a decade, led first by Frederic Hof under the Obama administration, then David Schenker under the Trump administration, and over the last couple of years by Amos Hochstein, a Biden envoy.

At issue are competing Israeli and Lebanese claims about where their maritime border lies – an issue that took on great importance only over the last 20 years because of natural gas finds in the Eastern Mediterranean. The line Israel originally claimed is hundreds of kilometers north of where Lebanon set its line – constituting a disputed territory of some 860 sq.km., an area that is believed to be rich in natural gas deposits.

In 2012, Hof split the difference between the two claims, giving Lebanon 55% of the disputed territory, and Israel the remaining 45%. This left the majority of the undeveloped Kana field on the Lebanese side of what became known as the Hof Line, while the lucrative Karish field would be fully inside Israel’s territorial waters.

Eight years later, however, the Lebanese changed their mind, and redrew their line even further south than their original position, encompassing the entire Karish field. Israel dismissed those claims, and the Karish field has been developed and is just awaiting word from the government before becoming operable.

One thing that has held up making Karish operable is Hezbollah’s threats. In July the organization launched four drones toward the rig, and a month later released a video putting the rig within Hezbollah missile sites. The message was clear: if Israel begins pumping gas from Karish, Hezbollah will retaliate, undoubtedly triggering a wider conflagration.

At first glance, Hezbollah’s message seemed aimed at Israel: don’t dare start pumping from Karish until the maritime dispute is resolved. But in retrospect, the message seemed designed for the Lebanese public: to convince it that it was Hezbollah’s threats that forced Israel to back down on its demands and compromise on its maritime claims.

So when Netanyahu said, as he did on Sunday, that Lapid “shamefully surrendered to Nasrallah’s threats” by “giving away sovereign Israeli territory with a huge gas reservoir,” that is also the same impression Hezbollah head Hassan Nasrallah wants to create.

The question is whether willingness to concede Kana is a surrender.

Former US ambassador David Friedman apparently believes it is. On Monday he tweeted the following: “We spent years trying to broker a deal between Israel and Lebanon on the disputed maritime gas fields. Got very close with proposed splits of 55-60% for Lebanon and 45-40% for Israel. No one then imagined 100% to Lebanon and 0% to Israel. Would love to understand how we got here.”

To understand “how we got here,” the first place to look is at the geopolitical map, which – because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine – has changed radically in the two years since Friedman was involved in trying to broker the deal. In addition, the situation in Lebanon has only worsened since Friedman left his post as ambassador.

Both the US and France have been heavily involved in trying to strike a deal, primarily as a way to keep Lebanon – already a basket case – from completely unraveling. While it will take years before any gas from Kana actually flows – as of now it is not even clear whether there is a commercial quantity in the field – an operable and profitable Kana field could help put Lebanon on a better trajectory.

The US has made it clear that it has an interest in seeing this deal through, and reportedly has placed pressure on Jerusalem to give it the green light. America’s interest is not only in trying to prop up Lebanon, but also in trying to find alternative energy resources for Europe, which is desperately seeking new energy sources now that the Russians – on which Europe was heavily dependent for its energy needs – have turned off the spigot.

Kana does not solve Europe’s energy needs, but – taken together with other alternative avenues that Europe is exploring – could eventually make a dent.

For Washington this deal is in the interests of not only Lebanon and Israel, but also the US. As such, Israel must ask itself whether it wants to say no to its most important ally over an issue that is more an economic than a security one, especially at a time when the Iranian nuclear issue still looms large and tensions are rising with the Palestinians.

In addition, the deal could potentially have far-reaching positive regional repercussions.

For instance, if the Kana field is developed, it would make it less likely for Hezbollah in the future to target Israel’s offshore gas sites, as it has threatened to do in the past, since this deal would give Israel a convenient target to retaliate against.

Secondly, while this deal is light years away from any kind of treaty or normalization agreement with Lebanon, it will provide Lebanon with a stronger incentive than it has now to ensure that the border with Israel remains calm.

And, thirdly, the stronger Lebanon becomes economically, the less it will depend on Iran. In this sense, the deal looks worthwhile from a long-term strategic viewpoint, even if it means paying an economic price.

What’s the problem?

The problem is that these types of logical scenarios predicting how various actors will play is reminiscent of the arguments the government made before Israel carried out its withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.

The Palestinians will want to maintain the quiet, it was argued, because of a fear of Israeli reprisals and because if they had something to lose, they wouldn’t want to jeopardize it. Furthermore, then prime minister Ariel Sharon also argued that this would give Israel more leeway from the Bush administration in acting against the Palestinian terrorism of the Second Intifada.

It all made sense in a theoretical world – it’s just that in the real world not all the actors acted as expected.

The issues involved in the maritime agreement with Lebanon are weighty – such as how Kana might be used to fill Hezbollah’s coffers, and what will be the ramifications of Hezbollah presenting this to the Arab world as an Israeli capitulation. This matter deserves a serious debate that goes beyond Netanyahu and Lapid trading barbs. The problem is that with just three weeks until the election, the chances of getting such a discussion are slim.

And that raises another difficulty. Should such a significant decision be made by a caretaker government in the final weeks of its tenure? And if the decision to accept the arrangement is made so close to the new election, won’t the legitimacy of the deal be forever questioned?•