After decades of enmity, Israel and Lebanon last week signed a historic agreement agreeing to demarcate their maritime boundaries and also demarcating the disputed area in Qanaa prospect, which is believed to be rich in oil and gas reserves.
Further, it has in a de-facto manner, forced Lebanon to accept Israel as a sovereign nation, which it has refused to do so till now, as it maintains no diplomatic relations with Israel.
The disputed 860 sq.km area of the Mediterranean Sea potentially holds billions of dollars’ worth of oil and gas. Tensions between Israel and Lebanon worsened earlier this year when, in June, a London-based vessel arrived to develop a gas field for Israel.
Though at present the deal seems to be a win for both sides, future security threats can’t be ruled out after this maritime agreement.
Welcome by Lebanon
Lebanese Deputy Speaker Elias Bou Saab has described the maritime border agreement as a “game changer” with hope that “People will start talking to Lebanon again,” adding that the deal will give Lebanon’s youth “hope”.
For Lebanese government it may prove to be a shot in the arm to bolster its flailing economy and workout a package, which puts the nation back on the tracks for economic recovery and attracting potential investors.
Under the US-brokered deal, Lebanon would be able to begin gas exploration in the Qanaa prospect, which lies within Lebanon’s exploration block but crosses over into Israeli waters. The Qanaa gas field is yet to be explored, but Lebanon believes it is rich with resources. It is currently estimated to be worth around $3 billion altogether. That could bring Lebanon between $100 and $200 million a year.
However, the immediate economic benefits from Qanaa for Lebanon, seems to be too far fetched, as its current infrastructure is in poor or at nascent stage and it’ll not be able to start extracting natural gas and oil immediately. At the earliest it may take another four to five years.
If TotalEnergies does indeed begin exploration for the Lebanese, it could also offer incentives for other companies to get involved, with these prospects in mind, it is yet to be seen what the direct economic impacts will be.
For Israel also, the potential earnings may start after four to five years, once it signs agreements with France’s TotalEnergies to explore the whole block.
As for the Israeli politicians, they have started hailing it as a decisive victory against Iran-backed and Lebanon-based Hezbollah. These politicians led by Prime Minister Yair Lapid seem to be in a hurry to get the agreement approved by the government and thus be able to mobilise the votes in their favour in the upcoming general elections in the country on November 1.
But the right-wing elements in Israel, led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have described the agreement as a failure of the centrist-Lapid government and describe this as conceding ground to Hezbollah, which may get further bolstered after this agreement.
But the US negotiator Amos Hochstein dismissed Netanyahu’s criticisms as campaign rhetoric, saying the fact that two enemy countries managed to reach agreement on maritime border is ‘enormously significant’. Overall a regional security crisis seems to have been averted due to economic interests of both sides.
Following the deal’s approval by the cabinet, the agreement was presented to the Knesset for a review over the next two weeks, but not asking for the parliament’s approval. Israel’s Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, has opined that the current government is legally entitled to sign the maritime border agreement, and did not need to hold a referendum on the issue and suggested it would be preferable for the government to allow a Knesset vote on the issue, though it’s under no legal obligation to do so.
Members of the Likud and other right-wing parties approached Knesset speaker Mickey Levy, demanding that the agreement be put to a parliamentary vote.
Countering Netanyahu’s criticism Defence Minister Benny Gantz has said the talks started under his leadership, and if he were prime minister, he would probably “rush to sign the deal right now”. Gantz also said that the deal also “has the potential to reduce Iran’s influence on Lebanon”.
Meanwhile discounting allegations of Lebanon gaining an upper hand in the agreement, Israel’s National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata said though Lebanon received almost all of the waters under dispute with Israel, it did not receive what it was really after.
Behind the scene negotiators
This brings out into the open the real negotiators behind the deal. The negotiations started months before at the US insistence and brokered by France. French diplomats helped US negotiator Amos Hochstein to stitch the deal together.
Thus, apart from political gains for the ruling coalition in Israel, the agreement also brings political benefits for the US President Joe Biden, who also faces mid-term elections for both the houses, next month.
US mediation efforts were key to achieving the deal and it may bolster the Biden administration ahead of the mid-term elections next month. He might use this agreement to assuage the rising resentment amongst American public due to constantly increasing prices of oil and gas in America.
Meanwhile, Europe’s gas crisis is increasing day by day. European governments are doing all they can to shield consumers from price shocks, but the crisis took a further dip after explosions damaged Nord Stream 1 and 2 last month. The Nord Stream 1 pipeline was Europe’s main source of Russian gas.
Israel has said that, once the maritime deal is signed and delivered, it can begin extracting oil and gas from its Karish field and export it to Europe within weeks.
Lapid has repeatedly spoken about the role Israel can play to help Europe as Western countries try to wean themselves off Russian energy.
This development comes in the background of worsening US-Saudi relations, which hit a new low last week when the OPEC+, led by Saudi Arabia and Russia, defied the US with the largest output cut since the pandemic, bringing added pressure for Biden Administration.
But, it is also a regional victory for the Biden administration, which lately has seen diplomatic tensions rise with some of its Middle Eastern allies. With the possibility of much needed gas from the Mediterranean and averting a potential security crisis between historic enemies, the US notched an important win in a region where its influence has seemingly diminished.
(Asad Mirza is a political commentator based in New Delhi. He writes on Indian Muslims, educational, international affairs, interfaith and current affairs)