Skeptical Lebanese less enamored with Israel maritime deal than leaders

Lebanese people are still unsure what to celebrate, even as the Lebanese authorities have sold the deal to them as the answer to all their woes. 

 An Israeli Navy missile ship patrols the waters near the Karish gas rig. (photo credit: IDF)
An Israeli Navy missile ship patrols the waters near the Karish gas rig.
(photo credit: IDF)

Israel and Lebanon on Thursday signed an historic agreement to set their shared maritime border in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Thanks to long-standing American mediation, the two enemy states have now set their border at sea and agreed on who will be in charge of and benefit from exploring different areas of the gas-rich area. 

“The main issue is that the public is not well informed and they are believing the propaganda of this political campaign that is shared by the media. It is in the interest of the political class to spread this false belief.”

Sibylle Rizk, president of the Executive Board of the Lebanese Oil and Gas Initiative
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But the Lebanese people are still unsure what to celebrate, even as the Lebanese authorities have sold the deal to them as the answer to all their woes. 

For three years, the country has been enduring an economic and financial collapse, with almost three quarters of the population living in poverty, according to the United Nations. The agreement with Israel has been hailed as a chance to turn around the country’s fortunes with drilling at the Qana gas field at the center of a now-resolved sovereignty row, but for many in Lebanon, nothing has really changed. 

Lebanese experts weigh in

 Prime Minister Yair Lapid's visit to the Karish gas rig in the Mediterranean Sea (credit: KOBI GIDON) Prime Minister Yair Lapid's visit to the Karish gas rig in the Mediterranean Sea (credit: KOBI GIDON)

“There are some doubts about how this deal will bring economic prosperity when we still have in power the same political class, the same government and the same mentality that brought us here,” Laury Haytayan, a Lebanese oil and gas policy expert, told The Media Line.

“I don’t think this will end up being a good deal for the country, it will be just a deal that had an impact on the political class,” she said. 

Haytayan said everyday Lebanese are struggling to see the benefits for the general population who have borne the brunt of the economic turmoil, and not just for the ruling class. 

“In order to make this deal successful and make Lebanon prosperous, we need to work on all the reforms required, such as a better financial system, better institutions, better accountability, rule of law, and to end or at least curb corruption,” she said.

The public is not well informed

Sibylle Rizk, the president of the Executive Board of the Lebanese Oil and Gas Initiative (LOGI), an independent NGO based in Beirut, told The Media Line that the promise of better days thanks to the agreement with Israel is “propaganda” disseminated by Lebanese leaders. 

“The main issue is that the public is not well informed and they are believing the propaganda of this political campaign that is shared by the media,” she said. According to Rizk, “it is in the interest of the political class to spread this false belief.”

Many in Lebanon are also accusing the authorities of inefficiency, arguing the great effort they invested to get this deal passed vastly outweighs any action taken to tackle people’s economic problems in recent years.

“This deal cannot fix in any way Lebanon’s huge financial and economic crisis, which is out of proportion,” said Rizk. “The magnitude of losses is 72 billion dollars, whereas we are speaking of potential future revenues in seven years of maybe six billion dollars.”

Adding weight to this argument is the fact that it is not immediately clear when Lebanese drilling will begin in Qana, part of which is located on the Israeli side of the maritime border. Furthermore, the agreement states that Israel must be compensated for the gas extracted from the part of the field on its side of the border.

For now, the deal will largely impact on border security and stability for the two warring nations. 

“Every party is committing not to escalate, not to engage in military conflict in the sea linked to the demarcation itself,” said Rizk. During the summer, both sides were worried that an upset in the negotiations could turn into a military escalation in the border. 

Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who is facing tough elections next week, didn’t hesitate to celebrate the agreement as a diplomatic win, something that was definitively rejected by the Lebanese side. 

“This is a political achievement - it is not every day that an enemy state recognises the State of Israel, in a written agreement, in front of the entire international community,” he said. But the Lebanese have insisted that this deal does not imply normalization or even recognition of its neighboring state.

Israel-Lebanon relations

Lebanon and Israel have been officially at war since the creation of the latter in 1948 and the former refuses to recognize the existence of the state established as a homeland for the Jewish people. 

“There is no change legally on the relations between both countries, because the state of belligerency is still there and Lebanon wanted to make sure it was not a straight deal between the two parties,” Rizk pointed out. This is reflected by the fact that on Thursday two separate agreements were signed - one between Lebanon and the United States and the other between Israel and the United States.

“Israel is talking about stability and political recognition, and this is what Lebanon doesn't want to hear about,” said Haytayan. 

“Lebanon is saying that this is pure delimitation that serves our economic purposes and it doesn’t go beyond that,” she said. “But at the end of the day, they have done a deal with a country that they don’t recognize but yet they have delimited the border with them; the Palestinians were not asked about this delimitation.”  

It is the irrefutable fact of a successful diplomatic process - albeit via an intermediary - that has led many to be surprised by Hezbollah’s positive stance on this deal. The Iranian-backed militant organization was created 40 years ago as “resistance” to Israel, or as they call it, the “Zionist enemy.” 

Despite not taking an active part in the negotiations, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah gave his crucial green light for the deal to go ahead. This approval might have been an attempt by the Shiite organization to appropriate the successful signing of the agreement, in light of decreasing support for its political wing. 

“To follow their narrative of the resistance, Hezbollah can claim that it was their weapons and the threat to use them against the Karish field that brought this deal to its conclusion,” Rizk told The Media Line. Rizk was referring to the eastern Mediterranean gas field entirely in Israeli territory that Hezbollah threatened to attack as border negotiations faltered. 

With the border with Israel now agreed, Lebanon is already reaching out to Cyprus and Syria to start direct negotiations over shared northern and western maritime borders, but there are still many obstacles on the way. 

“Cyprus is technically easy but politically is complicated with Turkey’s say in it,” Haytayan said. “Syria might be more difficult than Israel, but now with the [Lebanese] presidential vacuum next week everything will stop [and] all the focus is about discovering resources in the Qana field.”