My word: Calm or stormy waters ahead?

When it comes to the maritime border dispute between Israel and Lebanon, the question can be legitimately asked in more than one sense. 

 ISRAELI SOLDIERS are seen on a boat at Rosh Hanikra, on the border with Lebanon.  (photo credit: AVI MOR/FLASH90)
ISRAELI SOLDIERS are seen on a boat at Rosh Hanikra, on the border with Lebanon.
(photo credit: AVI MOR/FLASH90)

Where do you draw the line? When it comes to the maritime border dispute between Israel and Lebanon, the question can be legitimately asked in more than one sense. 

US mediator and Special Envoy for International Energy Affairs Amos Hochstein, who has been shuttling between the two countries, seems confident that a draft of the maritime agreement is close to being approved. But the question is not only “location, location, location” but also a matter of timing. Both are particularly sensitive under the circumstances.

Even when it seemed the talks were all at sea, Hochstein carried on making waves and eventually, a compromise seems to have been reached. Whether this is an acceptable compromise or a matter of Israel being compromised depends on whom you ask.

Under the outline of the deal according to a report by The Jerusalem Post’s Lahav Harkov and Anna Ahronheim, “Israel will concede the entire triangle of economic waters that had been in dispute with Lebanon in 2012-2021, but not the extended triangle that Lebanon demanded in early 2021. It will also allow Lebanon to develop the entire Kana Field, which extends south into what would be Israeli waters.” 

The Karish gas field will remain under full Israeli control, while the more northern Kana gas field, which lies in the disputed area, will be under Lebanese auspices, although Israel should receive a percentage of the profits once, or if, it becomes operational. Since the exploration of Kana has not yet begun, the amount of gas in the reservoir is unknown. The royalties deal will be worked out between Israel and the gas consortium led by French energy giant Total, which holds the Lebanese license to extract gas from the Kana field. 

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)

In addition, according to the Israeli side, the agreement includes recognition of what Israel calls the “line of buoys,” which extends five kilometers (about three miles) into the sea from Rosh Hanikra, on the border with Lebanon, in effect demarcating the border off the coast and allowing the Israel Navy more freedom of movement in the critical area.

The matter of timing is significant for more than one reason. Prime Minister Yair Lapid told the cabinet on Sunday, “For over a decade, Israel has been trying to reach this deal. The security of the North will be strengthened. The Karish field will operate and produce natural gas. Money will flow into the state’s coffers and our energy independence will be secured. This deal strengthens Israel’s security and Israel’s economy.”

Lapid sounded as buoyed as the bobbing markers in the Mediterranean at the beginning of the week although more deflated as news of Lebanon’s stance surfaced. There is no doubt that reaching an agreement with a neighboring enemy country is an achievement that could be touted in the campaign ahead of the November 1 election. But whether the prime minister has the right to determine a move with such strategic long-term implications ahead of the election is debatable. 

Not only Israel’s democratic elections are hovering in the background. Israel and Lebanon, as such, are not at war. Many of us even fondly remember the Good Fence at Metulla where Lebanese workers used to cross into Israel every day. The enmity is with the Iranian-backed terrorist organization Hezbollah, led by Hassan Nasrallah. Nasrallah is absent as a separate partner from the agreement but very present in the overall picture. It’s hard to avoid the impression that part of the timing stemmed from his threats that Hezbollah would target Karish if it began operations before Lebanon’s (growing) demands were met. The terrorist organization even sent drones in the direction of the Israeli gas facility, which Israel intercepted and shot down. The drones were not carrying explosives. They were carrying a threatening message.

Hezbollah in Lebanon

It’s not clear what guarantees there are that Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon won’t later come up with new demand, literally testing boundaries. Even waters that look calm can have dangerous undercurrents. 

Incidentally, the timing might also have been influenced by the political situation in Lebanon where the term of President Michel Aoun, who favors the deal, is due to end this month. It is not known who will succeed him. Last week, the Lebanese parliament failed to agree on his successor, leaving the specter of even greater turmoil in Israel’s northern neighbor.

Lapid initially presented the deal as a win-win situation: Not only would Israel benefit from part of the profits of the Kana gas field, it will boost the battered Lebanese economy, hopefully reducing threats as domestic tension might spill over. As Lapid puts it, this “will weaken Lebanon’s reliance on Iran, will restrain Hezbollah and will bring regional stability.”

It’s hard to know whether this is spin or a dangerous whirlpool.

As long as Hezbollah plays a dominant role in the Lebanese government, it is not a given that the influx of money in Beirut’s empty coffers will be spent on building up the Land of the Cedars rather than continuing to try to bring down the Jewish state. 

While Lapid might genuinely believe he is buying peace, or at least calm, with a deal that is advantageous to Lebanon, it is unlikely that Nasrallah is interpreting it the same way.

As Lapid would have it, acceding to Lebanon’s request for control over a larger area removes Hezbollah’s potential casus belli. But the belligerent terrorist organization does not work with the same rationale or rationality. How many hundreds of rockets have been launched on northern Israel by Hezbollah since the complete IDF withdrawal from the so-called security zone in Lebanon in 2000? 

Using the pretext that Israel holds a few square kilometers on Mount Dov – what he calls the Shebaa Farms – Nasrallah has continued to periodically attempt to kidnap or kill soldiers and civilians. The 2006 Second Lebanon War is evidence that  Hezbollah are not “water under the bridge” types.

Instead of removing Hezbollah’s threats, the deal might just whet its appetite. This could be perceived by Hezbollah, and its equally ugly terrorist sibling Hamas in Gaza, as Israel yet again succumbing to pressure. Indeed, from Hezbollah’s point of view, it made a threat, and Israel, at America’s urging, backed down. Although the deal with Lebanon has been worked on for a decade, it intensified in the last couple of years, with active pressure from the Biden Administration.

And it is not only giving a problematic message to Israel’s enemies: As Harkov noted: Israel is involved in negotiations with Cyprus over the Aphrodite-Yishai gas reservoir, of which 10-12% is in Israeli waters. The result of the Lebanon negotiation could be to indicate to Nicosia that it can get Israel to concede on more points under discussion.

Former US ambassador to Israel David Friedman is among those who this week voiced concern over the emerging terms of the draft agreement. 

“We spent years trying to broker a deal between Israel and Lebanon on the disputed maritime gas fields,” he tweeted. “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.”

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacted to the announced draft deal as to an act of piracy at sea. He accused Lapid of “handing to Hezbollah a sovereign territory of Israel with a huge gas reservoir, all without a parliamentary debate and without a referendum.”

He, too, of course, has political reasons to make waves.

But politics aside: If there is one lesson the country should have learned over the years in which rockets have been launched from Lebanon, while UN peacekeepers in UNIFIL stood by, it’s that Israel ultimately can rely only on itself for its own security. 

The gas deal remains potentially explosive. The coast is far from clear. If it fails, rather than open seas, it will be open “sea-son” on Israel.