Lebanon agreement: Israel gives up its piece of the pie - analysis

Why is Israel giving up the entire zone in dispute - something concrete - in exchange for theoretical promises and things it already has?

The production platform of Leviathan natural gas field is seen in the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Haifa (photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
The production platform of Leviathan natural gas field is seen in the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Haifa
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)

Israel and Lebanon have been in an ongoing dispute for the past decade over the economic rights to an area of the Mediterranean Sea shaped like a slice of pizza.

Israel is giving up the entire zone in dispute - something concrete - in exchange for theoretical, amorphous promises and things it already has.

Israel's security needs

Prime Minister Yair Lapid presented the deal on Twitter on Monday as giving Israel “100% of its security needs, 100% of the Karish Reservoir and even part of the earnings of the Lebanese reservoir.” 

When Lapid says “security needs,” he is referring to several things. 

The most solid security benefit of the deal is recognition of the “buoy line,” a 5-km-long row of floating obstructions extending from the point along the Mediterranean Sea at which Israel and Lebanon meet. The buoys help secure the northernmost points on Israel’s shores. The agreement is supposed to include recognition of that line and get the UN Interim Force in Lebanon off of Israel’s back about it.

 Prime Minister Yair Lapid flies over the Karish gas rig, July 19, 2022 (credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO) Prime Minister Yair Lapid flies over the Karish gas rig, July 19, 2022 (credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)

However, the “buoy line” has never been a huge issue, even if Lebanon or UNIFIL would occasionally kvetch. And having the Lebanese government sign an agreement with the US - they’re not co-signing anything with Israel - doesn’t do much for Israel’s security, because the threat from Lebanon is not the Lebanese Army as much as it is Hezbollah. And since when does Hezbollah care about international agreements? 

Why is Israel willing to compromise? 

The other security advantage of the deal that Lapid presented is that by helping Beirut become a natural gas exporter and improve its economy, it will “will weaken Lebanon’s reliance on Iran, will restrain Hezbollah and will bring regional stability.” That is a theory that is a frequently-heard refrain in Israel’s security establishment when it comes to the Palestinians: Give them something to lose, and they will behave more peacefully to protect it. 

The theory shouldn’t be knocked entirely, but historically, its results for Israel have been mixed. As such, this can only be hope for the deal, not an achievement or result improving Israel’s security at this point.

What Lapid understandably does not want to admit, but gave away in his remarks about Israel retaining 100% of the Karish Reservoir, is that this deal is trying to buy quiet from Hezbollah.

As talks between Israel and Lebanon advanced earlier this year and Karish licensee Energean set up a gas rig, the Iran-backed terror group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, grew bolder in his threats against the Israeli natural gas field, even sending drones - which Israel shot down - to fly over it. 

Throughout, Lapid, Energy Minister Karin Elharrar and their ministries insisted that Karish is not up for negotiation. But now Lapid is presenting its retention as an achievement of the talks. 

In other words, for Lapid, the talks were, in fact, about protecting Karish, and like governments led by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu allowing suitcases full of cash to be sent into Gaza to buy temporary quiet from Hamas, Lapid was willing to take a calculated risk and pay a price to try to put Karish out of Hezbollah’s sights.

Lapid also mentioned in his tweet that Israel would get “part of the earnings of the Lebanese reservoir.” The Kana gas field juts out beyond the pizza-slice disputed area into Israeli waters, coming very close to Karish. It is within “Line 29,” a broader disputed area - a wider slice of pizza - that Lebanon put on the table in early 2021, which Israel rejected and was never the actual basis of negotiations.

As former US ambassador to Israel David Friedman described it on Twitter, the not-yet-extant royalties deal would mean “that Israel gets royalties only on drilling within its own sovereign territory - that’s beyond the scope of the maritime dispute with Lebanon.” Israel is negotiating to get paid for what is already rightfully Israel’s.

In addition, due to the ongoing dispute, Lebanese licensee Total Energy has never actually been able to check if and how much hydrocarbons are in Kana. The estimate is that it is a small-to-medium reservoir, but there remains a chance that Israel will get little to nothing in terms of economic compensation.

Israeli negotiators were wise enough not to rely on Lebanon, an enemy state with a failed economy, to pay up. The Energy Ministry is still working out a deal with Total for the French-owned company to pay Israel for the percentage of the area that is in Israeli waters.

And then there’s the very fact that Israel is conceding the entire area in dispute.

Former Energy Minister Steinitz attacks the deal

“The way things look matters,” former Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, told The Jerusalem Post this week, and he argued that it looks like Israel is a pushover.

As energy minister when renewed negotiations took place in 2020 and early 2021, Steinitz was in favor of negotiating with Lebanon to allow both sides to move forward and develop their gas fields and noted that opposing the outcome of the deal is not the same as opposing the talks when they were ongoing. 

 Outgoing Likud MK Yuval Steinitz. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST) Outgoing Likud MK Yuval Steinitz. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Steinitz recounted that, in 2012, the US first attempted to negotiate the maritime line issue, proposing the “Hoff Line,” which would have given Lebanon 55% of the pizza slice and Israel 45%, with each able to extract gas on their own side. The former minister was willing to be flexible and for Israel to take as little as one-third of the disputed zone when he was the minister.

“What kind of negotiation is it if they get 100% and we get zero?” Steinitz asked. “That is wrong and it’s a dangerous precedent.” 

Israel is involved in negotiations with Cyprus over the Aphrodite-Yishai gas reservoir, as well, 10-12% of which is in Israeli waters. Cyprus already had a firm stance in the talks, and the result of the Lebanon negotiation could indicate to Nicosia that they can get Israel to give up.

Meanwhile, Lapid and his associates have tried to paint a rosy picture of the deal, with only advantages.

“Lebanon is not getting 100% of what it wanted,” a senior diplomatic source said on Sunday, praising the deal in fainter terms than he had probably intended.

It’s understandable that politicians don’t want to present the weaknesses of their policies, especially less than a month before an election. But the fact that Israel is giving up its piece of the pizza pie is too obvious to obfuscate with political spin.