Recently, Israel and Lebanon, two neighboring but hostile countries technically at war, officially signed a maritime border deal, setting a new trend in regional politics. Since then, there are several concerns raised by analysts across the world such as whether the deal led to ending a long-running dispute over their 330-square-mile maritime border and opened the door to offshore energy exploration in the Mediterranean Sea or whether Lebanon has recognized Israel unofficially. To address some of these concerns, let’s reflect on the maritime border issue between Israel and Lebanon.

The maritime border remained a long-running conflict between Israel and Lebanon. Both countries claim equal/same share over the stretch of ocean in the Eastern Mediterranean waters. It is not limited to a dispute over shared waters alone but the potential richness of the waters in terms of oil and gas deposits. Traditionally, Israel and Lebanon remain in disagreement over demarcating border allocation of the separate economic zones. Israel claimed the boundary aligned towards the north at line 1, giving them the right to operate in the Karish Field. Lebanon, on the other hand, claims the border is aligned towards the South at line 23. In 2012, a US mediator came up with a midway proposal called half-line but it was not accepted by both parties. A decade later in 2022, Lebanon demanded the boundary be pushed southward at line 29. But, it remained contested.

The recent plan offered a compromise that both states will share the Qana Prospect while the Karish Field will remain in the Israel zone. The contested waters will be divided by a line straddling the ‘Qana’ natural gas field. Both parties would be able to produce gas on their side of the line, in addition to the royalty arrangements agreed upon. A buoy line will remain between the two countries. With this arrangement, both Israel and Lebanon will be able to unlock the potential oil and gas reserves in the Qana Field. With this, there is a discussion going on that the Eastern Mediterranean waters will come up as an alternate energy hub – supplying oil and gas to Europe that seeks to replace Russian gas.

But here the question arises: is this the first time Israel-Lebanon entered an agreement? In 1949, the Lebanon-Israeli Armistice Agreement was one of a series of agreements concluded under the aegis of UN mediator Ralph Bunche. Under the current agreement, the US became the mediator. But there are threats associated with the deal in the form of Hezbollah’s presence. Israel is worried about Hezbollah – who can disrupt the plan. Despite several threats, what benefits both Israel and Lebanon will achieve?

If we consider Israel first – this deal can strengthen its security alone. With this Israel will be on peaceful terms somehow with Iran via Hezbollah. That will potentially lead to peace and security in the region. But for Lebanon, it is beyond peace and security. The deal will bring along economic prosperity. Currently, Lebanon is going through economic crises, heaps of corruption, and some form of instability. An offshore energy discovery – while not enough on its own to resolve Lebanon’s deep economic problems – would be a major boon, providing badly needed hard currency. Lebanon is looking for foreign loans through the IMF and assistance to deal with its financial crisis. If Qana Prospects reserves are unlocked it will bring Lebanon riches in its waters to ease its economic hardships. Probably, that is the main reason Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah stated that it is not time to bank on our political gains but concentrate on the points of our strengths. He further called the deal “a very big victory for Lebanon.”

But questions are raised such as has Lebanon recognized Israel?

The two countries have no diplomatic relations and have formally been at war since Israel’s creation in 1948. To make this deal a success, they engaged with one another via third parties such as the US. Lebanese President Michel Aoun signed a letter approving the deal at his palace in Baabda in the presence of the US official who mediated the accord, Amos Hochstein. Leaders from Lebanon, Israel, and the United States have all hailed the deal as “historic” but the possibility of a wider diplomatic breakthrough remains slim. As a result, there was no joint signing ceremony. However, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid signed separately in Jerusalem, saying the deal was a “tremendous achievement” that had produced Lebanon’s de facto recognition of Israel. Lebanon does not recognize Israel’s right to exist and still considers itself at war with its neighbor, with laws barring contact with Israeli officials.

If we look at the US stance on the deal, according to the US President, energy in the region “should not be a cause for conflict, but a tool for cooperation, stability, security, and prosperity”. Presumably, if oil is explored at Qana Prospects, it will bring regional stability in the form of a stable Lebanon contributing to its economic and security well-being of the Middle East. It will also stabilize Hezbollah which may decrease Iranian influence over Hezbollah or it could be another way around where Iran gets access to the energy-rich Eastern Mediterranean. Potentially, it looks like Iran and Hezbollah will remain knitted together and will share the benefits. It will be hard for corruption-driven Lebanon to deal with the rising energy resources in its country. Hence, Iran will draw larger benefits because oil/gas is yet not discovered. Lebanon will require skills to develop and produce gas and in the later stage find a market to sell it.

If it is about Europe, then the practicality of this project seems too hard as if we look at the sea route from Lebanon to Turkey which is roughly around 2020.53 km from one another. The existing gas pipeline which is called Turkstream can connect Lebanon to Europe but commercially this gas will be too expensive for Europe as the route is almost triple in size to the Turkstream pipeline. The only way it becomes feasible is through LNG.

The deal also put Hezbollah in an awkward position. Will Iran allow the deal to happen? Will Benjamin Netanyahu, who came back to power, let it happen where constitutional reforms are required for territorial readjustments? Given Israel and Iran relations on the one hand and Israel-Hezbollah relations on the other, the deal seems impracticable. Looks like it will remain on paper alone.

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