Lapid Upbeat on Draft Lebanese Demarcation Deal, Sees Gas Profit-Sharing

Israel’s Prime Minister Yair Lapid attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on Sept. 18, 2022. Israel’s prime minister on Monday, Sept. 19, 2022 vowed to begin production at a contested Mediterranean natural gas field “as soon as it is possible,” threatening to raise tensions with Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group.(Ronaldo Schemidt/Pool Photo via AP)

YERUSHALAYIM (Reuters/Hamodia) – Israel gave its preliminary nod on Sunday to a draft U.S.-brokered deal demarcating a maritime border with Lebanon that may lead to profit-sharing in a disputed Mediterranean gas prospect.

Hoping to defuse one source of conflict between the enemy countries and prod them toward accommodation, U.S. envoy Amos Hochstein last week submitted a new proposal that would pave the way for offshore energy exploration.

After years of stop-start shuttle diplomacy, agreement seems closer than ever. As Beirut mulls the 10-page draft – details of which have been kept under wraps – the Iran-backed Hezbollah terrorist group called it “a very important step” while Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a powerful Hezbollah ally, deemed it “positive.”

Israeli approval of the draft awaited legal review, Prime Minister Yair Lapid told his cabinet at its weekly session.

“But,” he stipulated, “just as we insisted from day one, the proposal fully preserves Israel’s national security interests, as well as our economic interests.”

Lapid appeared to float an arrangement whereby gas would be produced by a company under a Lebanese license in the disputed Qana prospect, with Israel receiving a share of revenues.

“We have no opposition to an additional Lebanese gas field being developed, from which we would of course receive royalties due us,” he said. “Such a field would weaken Lebanese dependency on Iran, restrain Hezbollah and bring regional stability.”

While Lapid was upbeat about the emerging deal, opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu denounced it.

“Yair Lapid shamefully surrendered to [Hezbollah chief Hassan] Nasrallah’s threats. He is giving Hezbollah sovereign territory of the state of Israel with a huge gas reservoir that belongs to you, the citziens of Israel,” he said.

Netanyahu added that in the event he returns to power after the November elections,  “we will not be bound by this fait accompli.”

Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas criticized the Biden administration’s role in reaching the draft agreement: “I am deeply troubled that Biden officials pressured our Israeli allies to hand over their territory to the Iran-controlled terrorist group Hezbollah. Another topic for the next Republican Congress to investigate,” Cruz tweeted.

But Israeli officials sounded eager to go ahead with it. Gideon Sa’ar, Lapid’s justice minister, acknowledged such deals would generally be brought before the Knesset. However, Saar told Kan radio, “there are exceptional cases where – and this requires the agreement of the justice minister – there is exemption from the mandatory submission.”

Neither Lapid nor Sa’ar mentioned that Israeli law requires a referendum on any change in the borders—including maritime borders—of the country. It was not immediately clear whether the draft agreement would entail a change in borders. 

Hezbollah also responded positively. “We support the Lebanese position, so that we safeguard our right to demarcate our maritime borders and invest in our gas,” Lebanon’s National News Agency quoted senior Hezbollah official Mohammad Raad as saying.

The head of Lebanon’s Hezbollah said that the receipt by the Lebanese authorities of a written offer from the U.S. mediator on demarcation of the Lebanese maritime border with Israel was “a very important step.”

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech that the coming days would be crucial for that issue. In recent months, he has repeatedly threatened military intervention if the negotiations fail to meet his approval.

Former energy minister Yuval Steinitz, of Likud, said he was baffled by the apparent outcome of the negotiations.

 “There was a dispute, we proposed one line and Lebanon proposed another,” Steinitz recalled. “In 2012, the U.S. proposed that 55% [of the disputed area] go to Lebanon and 45% to Israel, both sides accepted and in the end they got cold feet. What kind of negotiation is it if they get 100% and we get zero?”

“I could understand 60-40, a third and two-thirds, but 100 and zero? That is wrong and it’s a dangerous precedent,” the former minister was quoted by The Jerusalem Post as saying.

An agreement involving Israel receiving royalties from the Kana field, that would encroach onto Israel’s side of the line, does not make up for Israel conceding the whole disputed area, Steinitz said, because no one knows with any certainty whether there is actually any gas there.

To Read The Full Story

Are you already a subscriber?
Click to log in!