Lebanon Says Maritime Deal ‘Make or Break’ After Israel Rejects Changes

Israeli Navy boats in the Mediterranean Sea, as seen from Rosh Hanikra, close to the Lebanese border. (Reuters/Ammar Awad/File)

YERUSHALAYIM/BEIRUT (Reuters/Hamodia) — Lebanon said U.S.-brokered talks to demarcate its maritime border with Israel were at a “make or break” point on Thursday after Israel rejected revisions to a draft deal requested by Beirut, throwing years of diplomatic efforts into doubt.

Interim Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who greeted the deal with high optimism late last week, giving the impression all that remained to finalize it was a legal review, on Thursday found the Lebanese modifications unacceptable.

Lebanon’s requested changes in the draft, which had only days ago been called minor by Western officials, were termed “significant” by a senior Israeli official quoted by The Times of Israel on Thursday.

The two countries have been haggling over rights to potentially rich natural-gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean, with the dispute centered on where exactly each country’s maritime zone extends. In recent months, progress toward a final agreement was reported, and last week a draft agreement was circulated among the parties, with each reserving the right to make comments and request changes before signing.

The Lebanese reportedly refused to accept the establishment of a buoy line as an international border off Rosh Hanikra, near the Lebanese coast, and Israel receiving a share of any profits from the Kana gas field, both of which are important to Israel.

“This is certainly a blow to a rapid closure of the negotiation but we don’t think it marks the death of it… yet,” a European diplomat told the ToI.

“Both sides have shown their interest in finding a middle ground in the last weeks, and it would be a pity to witness the failure of negotiations given its recent progress,” the diplomat added.

The White House, which has served as a go-between, was cautiously optimistic. “Special Presidential Coordinator Amos Hochstein continues his robust engagement to bring the maritime boundary discussions to a close. We remain in close communication with the Israelis and Lebanese,” said a White House National Security Council spokesperson. “We are at a critical stage in the negotiations and the gaps have narrowed. We remain committed to reaching a resolution and believe a lasting compromise is possible.”

The stakes are more than economic.

Earlier Thursday, Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister said the deal with Israel would avert a war in the Middle East.

“We are avoiding a definite war in the region,” Najib Mikati said he told Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi during a meeting in Bkerké. “When we unite and our decision is one, we can reach what we all want.” He did not explain why failure to reach agreement would mean war, though Hezbollah has repeatedly threatened violent action if the outcome is not satisfactory in their eyes.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Thursday directed the IDF to prepare for a scenario of escalation in the north in both offensive and defensive efforts, in light of the possible breakdown in the talks.

An Israeli official, however, downplayed the extent of the disagreement, saying that the deal could still be brought to conclusion soon.

Lebanon’s Deputy parliament speaker Elias Bou Saab told Reuters that the deal “is 90% done but the remaining 10% could make it or break it,” adding that the U.S.-brokered negotiations were ongoing.

Israel’s top cabinet ministers convened later on Thursday to discuss the now-contested draft, but will not take a final vote on it, a senior official said.

Deputy Foreign Minister Idan Roll said Israel’s security cabinet, a generally secret forum for approving key strategic affairs, discussed the draft at its meeting Thursday.

“The main points of the deal, and the matters we support, will be presented to it,” Roll told Ynet.

“There are still caveats … The deal will be brought to the security cabinet, then it will be brought to the (full) cabinet, then it will be submitted to parliament,” he said, indicating that Israel had its own revisions in mind and an uncertain approval process ahead in any case.

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara said on Thursday that the full cabinet must approve the deal, but it can then decide whether to seek the approval of the Knesset, or to suffice with merely presenting the full proposal before it, according to Ynet.

Gantz reportedly told the security cabinet that reaching agreement on the original terms of the draft was a matter of “strategic urgency.”

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked said that Knesset approval is needed for the agreement. “The public doesn’t know the details,” Shaked said, “and the gas needs to be extracted from the Karish facility in any case and the connection between Karish and the agreement must be severed. In no way should we submit to Nasrallah’s dictates.”

Israel maintains that the Karish field, not far from the disputed Kana, is in a wholly-owned Israeli zone, outside the scope of the negotiations. It has already authorized the Greek-U.K. company Energean to begin drilling there, regardless of the outcome of the negotiations with Beirut, and despite the threats from Hezbollah.

Israeli opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu took credit for Lapid’s change of course.

“Only intense pressure from myself and my friends has caused him to back away from this surrender agreement, for now,” tweeted Netanyahu.

Among the issues still outstanding is that of the Kana gas field. Lapid reportedly would not agree to the Lebanese demand that Total Energy, the French company with the license to develop the field, buy out the portion of the reservoir in Israeli waters, whereas Israel had agreed to have Total pay royalties for the gas extracted from the area.

Exploration has not yet begun in Kana and the amount of gas in the reservoir remains unknown, such that an immediate buyout could fall short of the actual value of the gas in Israeli waters, according to The Jerusalem Post.

Another problem that emerged on Thursday was Lebanon’s refusal to accept the “buoy line” as a border. It extends 5 km. into the sea from Rosh Hanikra, on the border with Lebanon. The government has argued the line was vulnerable because Israel had established it unilaterally as a zone necessary to have freedom of action for its security, and the agreement with Lebanon will anchor that line in international law.

Agreement on the line was presented by Lapid as a security achievement of the negotiations. But now Lebanon wants a change in the text to avoid giving it the status of an international border.

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