Israel and Lebanon are moving closer to a US-brokered deal to quell a dispute over their maritime border, a long-standing source of tension between the two countries, officials said on Sunday.
The latest proposal, sent to both countries last week by US envoy Amos Hochstein, would clear the way for the use of disputed gas field in the eastern Mediterranean, that LebanonIran-backed Hezbollah has threatened to attack if Israel brings it online before a border deal is reached.
IsraelPrime Minister Yair Lapid, who faces elections next month, said the country was still “discussing the final details” of the proposal, “so it is not yet possible to praise the finished product.” However, he added that the proposal “ensures Israel’s full security-diplomatic interests as well as our economic interests.”
“For more than a decade, Israel has been trying to reach this agreement. The security of the North will be strengthened,” he added. “The money will flow into the state coffers and our energy independence will be ensured.”
But his rival Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the Israeli opposition, criticized the deal, accusing Lapid of “capitulating” to Hezbollah and writing on Twitter that if the deal passes, “it will not bind us” if Netanyahu wins the election.
Lebanese authorities said they were studying the 10-page proposal, details of which were not released. Prime Minister Najib Mikati said on Saturday after receiving the proposal on Friday that “the atmosphere is positive and an agreement should be reached soon. He added that the agreement could be signed before the current president’s term expires on October 31.
Nabih Berri, a Hezbollah ally and one of the country’s most powerful leaders, told the London-based Asharq al-Awsat newspaper on Sunday that the draft agreement was “positive” and “basically meets Lebanon’s demands.”
Indirect talks between Lebanon and Israel began in 2020 but stopped in May 2021. They resumed this year after a vessel operated by London-listed Greek oil and gas explorer Energean arrived at the eastern Mediterranean Karish field in June .
Israel has said the gas field lies in an area recognized by the United Nations as its exclusive economic zone and that it has the right to develop the area. However, Lebanon says the area is disputed.
Energean said last month that “first gas” from the gas field was on track to be delivered “within weeks”. However, production is not expected to rise in full until the last three months of the year.
Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, said last month that his group was ready to act if Israel began drilling before a deal was reached, warning that its missiles were “locked” on Karish. But he said in a speech on Saturday that Lebanon’s acceptance of the draft agreement was a “very important step” and that the next few days would be “crucial”.
Hezbollah, whose Lebanese paramilitary force is the most powerful in Lebanon and is seen by Israel as one of its main adversaries, has pledged to abide by the deal amid a deteriorating economic freefall.
Recent discoveries have shown that the waters off Israel and Lebanon in the eastern Mediterranean are rich in natural gas, raising the stakes in the border dispute.
In addition to removing the threat of clashes over Karish, the deal is also expected to pave the way for Lebanon to develop the nearby Qana field, which both countries also claim. A senior Israeli official told the Financial Times last week that Israel would receive “compensation” for its share of the field, but that the exact mechanism for such payments was still under discussion.
Lapid said on Sunday: “[Israel does] not to prevent the development of another Lebanese natural gas field, of which we will of course receive the share we deserve. Such an array will weaken Lebanon’s dependence on Iran, limit Hezbollah, and promote regional stability.