As the Israel-Lebanon maritime agreement is put on hold, fears of military escalation grow
Important gas fields in disputed territories between the two countries are at stake. Lebanese Prime Minister Mikati spoke of the “diplomatic success" that avoids a new conflict, but some details have turned out to be very contentious, including the “buoy line”. Hanging over everything are Hezbollah’s position and Israel’s upcoming election, which might see Netanyahu make a comeback.
Beirut (AsiaNews) – Last-minute differences have temporarily derailed the agreement between Israel and Lebanon on demarcating their maritime border and thus on developing offshore gas fields. A deal was believed to be close to the satisfaction of both sides.
During a visit on Wednesday to the Maronite Patriarch, Beshara al-Rahi, Lebanon’s Prime Minister-designate Nagib Mikati even congratulated himself that this “diplomatic success” would make it possible “to avoid a new war in the region”.
However, on Wednesday evening, that risk re-emerged when Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz called on his country's military to prepare for possible escalation in the north. This followed amendments to the agreement made by Lebanon on Tuesday during a meeting to finalise the deal at the Presidential Palace in Baabda.
These amendments were presented as “details” and “clarifications” by Élias Bou Saab, Deputy Speaker of Lebanon’s Parliament charged by Lebanese President Michel Aoun with the negotiations.
The main amendment that appears to have sunk the deal, according to Lebanese media, refers to the “buoy line”, i.e. the line of buoys Israel installed after it withdrew from southern Lebanon in May 2000, which extends for about six kilometres, starting from Rosh HaNikra (Ras Al Naqoura), on the Israeli side of the border.
In the proposal by US mediator Amos Hochstein, the border demarcating the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of the two countries follows the route of the buoy line for six kilometres before it reaches Line 23, adopted as the southern maritime border between the two countries.
However, at Hezbollah's insistence, Lebanon refuses to recognise this line, and wants it to be referred to in the text as the imposed "de facto” line. According to Israeli media, in Amos Hochstein's text, it was described as the “status quo” line.
For the Israeli side, this simple “detail” suggests a desire by Lebanon to later challenge the line. "Hezbollah doesn't want to hear about it," said a source involved in the negotiations. Nor does Israel seem ready to make concessions in the matter.
In addition, the Ici-Beyrouth website is reporting that Israel has refused Lebanon’s request that the French company Total, which is to set to develop the Qana field, have total freedom to operate in the sector, without Israel’s prior consent.
Although the top negotiator, Amos Hochstein, said there is nothing insurmountable about the difficulties that have arisen, stalled talks have generated pessimism across the region.
Unfortunately, failure to reach an agreement could bog down negotiations, at least until after Israel’s elections on 1 November, despite expectations that they would be concluded before that date.
This means that if Benjamin Netanyahu wins the Israeli election, the whole deal could be called into question, increasing the risk of escalation or even war.
For Israelis, in fact, the priority is to start extracting gas from the Karish field without the risk of escalation. Hezbollah has repeatedly threatened to carry out a military operation against the area if operations begin before Lebanon can do the same in its own EEZ.
Amos Hochstein's proposal grants Lebanon the area north of the Line 23, its official claim, which also includes the Qana field, part of which extends southwards.
Mr Netanyahu, who wants to get back into power, has accused Prime Minister Yair Lapid of selling out Israeli sovereign territory, even of capitulating to Hassan Nasrallah's threats.