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A truly historic moment in the topsy-turvy relationship between Israel and Lebanon

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16 Oct 2022 04:10:32 GMT9
16 Oct 2022 04:10:32 GMT9

It is a rarity for media headlines in both Israel and Lebanon to be in agreement, as if they were written in tandem. The current near-miracle of consensus is the result of two countries whose relations are mainly characterized by discord and conflict reaching an agreement on demarcating the long-disputed maritime border between them.

In a similarly rare display of mutual harmony, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Lebanese President Michel Aoun, along with US President Joe Biden, expressed extreme satisfaction with this landmark achievement.

What has most often characterized the reports about the agreement, the analyses of it, and the reactions from most political quarters is the use of the word “historic” — which is not far from the truth.

What makes this deal historic is not only that it finally resolves a decades-long dispute that could have got out of hand, but that it was agreed between two states that are still officially at war with each other and it goes beyond simply demarcating a border to represent something equally, if not more, significant: An agreement to share resources.

As for both sides assertions that the deal meets their demands, this is a somewhat more complex issue and reflects a need not to be seen as conceding too much to the other, especially given the fragile and hostile political environments in which both leaderships operate.

It is an especially delicate time, given that Lapid will face voters on Nov. 1 in a finely balanced election. Meanwhile, Aoun’s presidential term will have run its course by the end of this month — although his successor has yet to be confirmed.

It could be argued that while Lapid was keen to present a major achievement before election day, his opposite number in turn was eager to bow out having averted a renewed round of hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah, which had seemed increasingly likely in recent months, and to be able to present some promising prospects for the country’s struggling economy in the form of resources from the Kana gas field.

The importance of this deal goes beyond its specific scope. In settling this long-running source of friction over a maritime border, both sides have demonstrated the necessary diplomatic flexibility to prioritize their national interests while putting aside domestic difficulties and the difficult history of relations between the two countries.

Moreover, to settle a long-standing dispute in the absence of any official diplomatic channels and direct negotiations required a proactive mediator, and in this case the US has shown the necessary resolve to push two willing sides over the finishing line, despite recent setbacks which only last week saw Israel increase its military presence on the border with Lebanon. This action might have been precautionary but it more likely signaled to Beirut that Israel was preparing itself in case the deal fell through and its archenemy Hezbollah attempted a military confrontation.

Both sides are right to be satisfied with the agreement they have reached, as long as they complete the final hurdle of ratifying it domestically.

Yossi Mekelberg

While the maritime border dispute has a long history, recent explorations of the gas fields in its vicinity have given added impetus to, on the one hand, the countries challenges to each other over the demarcation of the border with the aim of maximizing their respective economic benefits, but on the other hand to incentives for reaching a deal that will enable both Israel and Lebanon to boost their economies with billions of dollars of resources hidden under the sea, while also averting a military conflict.

The current global energy crisis provided an incentive for Washington to accelerate the negotiations, as the development of gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean could ease the pressure inflicted by the Kremlin on energy markets over the past few months and, in the longer term, will weaken Russia even further.

The Kana gas field, which is adjacent to the Karish field that is entirely within Israeli waters, will generate, albeit not immediately, substantial income for the Lebanese government when it becomes operational and will provide a significant source of income for the ailing Lebanese economy. Consequently, it is expected to strengthen the central government’s position with regard to Hezbollah. This is good news not only for the government in Beirut but also Israel, which could benefit from having a prosperous neighbor that is no longer held hostage by Hezbollah and the party’s paymasters in Tehran.

Regrettably, however, the resolution of the maritime dispute far from ends the state of war that exists between Israel and Lebanon and we are no closer to a normalization of relations across the Blue Line of the Israeli–Lebanese border. Instead, in the absence of diplomatic ties, the settlement will take the form of two separate agreements with Washington — one between Lebanon and the US and the other between the US and Israel. But the agreement is no less significant despite this and, in fact, is a source of optimism in view of the hostile environment in which it was reached.

While the deal was generally greeted positively in both countries, there were some dissenting viewpoints but these more about those who express them than the agreement itself.

After months of employing threatening language, in addition to his organization launching drones toward the Karish gas field, Hezbollah’s chief, Hassan Nasrallah, has softened his menacing rhetoric toward Israel in recent days and cautiously, and grudgingly, welcomed the deal.

Across the border, it was Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the Israeli opposition, who lambasted the pending agreement, claiming in his typical vitriolic style, and without any substance to his allegations, that the government was surrendering a major strategic asset that belongs to Israel. Moreover, he threatened to repeal the agreement should he succeed in forming a coalition government after next month’s general election.

These are empty threats, however; his record in government shows his bark is much worse than his bite. Yet it is a sad testimony to the lengths to which he is prepared to go to win an election, and in this instance he is coming across as more extreme and dangerous than Nasrallah.

Both sides are right to be satisfied with the agreement they have reached, as long as they complete the final hurdle of ratifying it domestically, as it is comprises exactly what good agreements are made of: Compromises, the benefits of which exceed the costs, so both sides can claim that they have come out on top.

It is an agreement that reduces tensions, lessens the likelihood of a military confrontation and ensures economic benefits for both Israel and Lebanon. This is no mean achievement for two countries that for way too long have been on a path of unnecessary and highly damaging conflict and bloodshed.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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