Biden was not wrong to describe the maritime demarcation agreement between Israel and Lebanon as "historic". It took "guts" to bring the negotiations to a successful conclusion, the US president acknowledged to his Israeli counterpart Isaac Herzog during his visit to the White House on Wednesday. After more than a decade of disagreements, the parties agreed in mid-October that the text presented by US mediator Amos Hochstein met their demands.
After settling domestic political formalities, the Israeli and Lebanese governments were due to put their final signatures on the text on Thursday to ratify their compromise. And so it was. President Michel Aoun, who is in the final days of his term of office, which expires on 31 October, was the first to sign from Beirut. Minutes later, Prime Minister Yair Lapid followed suit after an extraordinary Council of Ministers meeting in Jerusalem.
Hebrew Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked's vote was the only dissenting vote. The visible head of the right-wing Yamina, the party led by former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett until his resignation, was seeking to run on a new platform in the November 1 elections and did not rule out contributing to a hypothetical parliamentary majority for Netanyahu, in whose penultimate cabinet she held the justice portfolio. But his opposition was to no avail.
"It is not every day that an enemy state recognises the state of Israel, in a written agreement, before the entire international community," Lapid declared. The acting head of the government, who is in line to revalidate his post in just five days, highlighted the "strange consensus" among the various security organisations that have pronounced themselves on the agreement in positive terms. "It strengthens Israel's security and freedom of action against Hezbollah," he insisted.
The Israeli and Lebanese delegations are holding the confirmation ceremony at the UN regional headquarters in the border town of Naqoura. They will sign the agreement in separate rooms. There will be no press, but the negotiating teams and the US special envoy for international energy affairs, Amos Hochstein, will be present. The US diplomat, who was born in Israel and served in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), has unblocked an agreement that had been moving forward with serious difficulties since 2020.
The legal validity of the text will come into force after the signing ceremony. This will bring an apparently irresolvable dispute to an end, and in its place will begin "a new era" in bilateral relations, as advanced by the Lebanese negotiator, Elias Bou Saab. The parties have agreed to draw a "permanent and equitable" maritime border on the so-called Line 23, which divides the Qana and Karish gas fields. The former for Lebanon and the latter for Israel.
"It is clear that [the agreement] provides gains for both sides despite their respective commitments, and in some areas even serves mutual economic, strategic and security interests," writes researcher and former advisor to the Prime Minister's Office Orna Mizrahi at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). The biggest loophole, analysts point out, is that it leaves the sharing of future profits from energy exploitation unresolved.
This is an agreement with little precedent. Israel and Lebanon are two historic enemies that are technically at war. And they will remain at war even after the agreement is signed, even if the last episode of war occurred in 2006. In fact, this is their first pact since the ceasefire signed that same year. However, the text only covers maritime demarcation.
The window of opportunity opened up by the critical situation in Lebanon, engulfed in a political and economic crisis unprecedented in centuries according to the World Bank, and with the last stages of the incumbent coalition government led by the centrist Yair Lapid, forced the parties to at least sit down at the table despite the recent escalation of tensions provoked by the Shia Hezbollah party-militia.
Writing in New Lines Magazine, Neri Zilber writes that "the deal should allow [the Karish gas field] to come online in a matter of weeks without hindrance, boosting Israel's already considerable energy security and revenues. The Qana field, on the other hand, still requires more exploration, not to mention exploitation, which analysts say could take years to complete.
Prior to signing the agreement, the Hebrew government had authorised the director general of the energy ministry to represent the state in negotiations with the French energy giant Total to finalise the terms of exploitation. This is not the first step in this direction by Israel, which has already begun to generate gas at Karish after giving the green light to British energy company Energean to begin production.
In strategic terms, the "historic" demarcation of maritime borders favours the de-escalation of tensions between Israel and Hezbollah, on the verge of a new outbreak of war over gas fields in eastern Mediterranean waters. It also allows Lebanon to dream of some economic relief from hydrocarbon revenues. For its part, Israel could activate the machinery to alleviate Europe's energy shortages.
A hypothetical Netanyahu election victory threatens to overturn the deal. The longest-serving prime minister in Israel's history has assured that, should he have the numbers to win a majority in the Knesset and form a government, he will not be committed to respecting any pact signed by Lapid. The coming months will be decisive in determining whether the maritime demarcation agreement comes to fruition.
Coordinator America: José Antonio Sierra