Early last week, Israel gave a preliminary nod of approval to a U.S.-brokered draft deal with Lebanon to address a years-long dispute regarding a Mediterranean gas project. The maritime border dispute is an ongoing territorial and natural gas dispute between Lebanon and Israel over the Qana and Karish gas fields, which are believed to contain significant gas reserves. Israel is reportedly poised to start extracting gas from the area, and Hezbollah — the powerful Lebanese Shite militia and party — is threatening all-out war if Israel proceeds without first resolving the territorial dispute.
At the time U.S. mediator and the State Department’s senior adviser for energy security Amos Hochstein presented the confidential draft proposal for resolution to the parties, there was hope that the deal might be accepted by both sides. But, just a few days later, after Lebanon presented proposed amendments to the plan and other clarifications to Hochstein, the message from Israel became much more pessimistic. According to reports, Israel rejected the Lebanese amendments, which were deemed by Israel to be a threat to the Jewish state’s security and economic interests. That action was immediately followed by Israel’s defense minister, Benny Gantz, reportedly instructing Israel’s defense establishment to prepare for a rise in tension with Lebanon over reaction to Israel’s rejection of Lebanon’s demands.
In today’s Middle East environment of endorsement and expansion of the Abraham Accords, more cooperative engagement with Egypt, possible opportunities for expanded exchanges with Jordan and even potential positive steps in relations with Saudi Arabia, the Israel-Lebanon negotiations are a clear outlier. While all of the other regional accords, treaties and discussions are focused on rapprochement, with an eye toward growing interdependence, engagement and peaceful coexistence, the Israel-Lebanon negotiations are much different. All participants agree that the objective of the bilateral, indirect negotiations is not for Israel and Lebanon to be friends, and all agree that the possible gas deal is not a normalization agreement or a peace agreement. What is being proposed is a business deal between two very hostile parties.
Israel and Lebanon disagree over the land border between the two countries, and there are ongoing tensions and clashes between Israel and Hezbollah, the Iranian terror proxy that plays a decisive role in Lebanon’s domestic and international affairs. But notwithstanding those fundamental disagreements and related deep mistrust, both sides see the benefit of an economic deal that enables Israel and Lebanon to extract gas from the Mediterranean and provide much needed revenue for Lebanon and an element of stability to an otherwise threatened border for Israel.
This is not an easy negotiation. And the U.S. and Hochstein are to be commended for their impressive efforts to broker a deal. While the fits and starts will continue, as will the posturing on both sides, there is a deal to be made that can be of significant benefit to both sides. We remain hopeful that a deal will be reached.