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The Lebanon-Israel Maritime Agreement: Myth of a victory

Sami Atallah

Lebanon and Israel officially signed an “indirect” agreement delineating their shared maritime border on October 27, 2022. Hailed by Lebanese public figures as a historical moment, it resolved a 15-year-old dispute between the two countries, which technically remain at war with one another. Putting aside the hype, this agreement raises three main issues. First, the Lebanese government has mishandled the demarcation of its maritime border with Israel since 2007, which effectively forced Lebanon to cede territory. Second, despite muscle flexing, Hezbollah chose a pragmatic course of action, given domestic and geopolitical factors. Third, by brokering the agreement, the US gained a stronger foothold in the Eastern Mediterranean amid significant shifts in regional geopolitics.

Let’s start with the agreement itself. It adopts “line 23” as the maritime demarcation between Lebanon and Israel, while it maintains the status quo near the shore (where Israel tried to legitimize its 5 kilometer security line into Lebanon’s territory but failed). According to the deal, the Karish field is controlled by Israel and the Qana field by Lebanon. Since part of the Qana field lies beyond line 23, under the terms of the agreement, Israel is expected to not “exercise any rights to develop hydrocarbon deposits” in block 9 but will be renumerated directly by the operator.  The operator in Lebanon’s offshore block 9 – which is currently contracted to French petroleum company Total by the Lebanese state – must notify Israel beforehand in order to explore for resources south of line 23 and the latter “will not object to reasonable and necessary activities”.  The operator must also obtain the “consent” of Lebanon and Israel to begin commercial production, and the latter will “not unreasonably withhold such consent” if drilling is to commence below line 23. The language in the agreement does not make clear how Israeli “consent” can be sought, communicated, or secured.

How did Lebanese leaders present this agreement to their audiences? In his address on October 13, 2022, then President Michel Aoun attributed the agreement to his son-in-law Jebran Bassil for launching the process ten years ago in his capacity as minister of energy and water. Prime Minister Najib Mikati stated that the agreement is the outcome of a collaborative effort by Lebanese officials and “friends of Lebanon”. Samir Geagea, the head of the Lebanese Forces, welcomed the agreement but said it was finalized six to seven years late. Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general of Hezbollah, labelled the agreement as a “victory” for Lebanon and went further by crediting the “three presidents” – in reference to Lebanon’s effective tripartite executive – for their “excellent” work in managing the negotiations.

Self-congratulating aside, all these leaders conveniently failed to mention how the Lebanese state has mishandled the demarcation process since 2007.

Self-congratulating aside, all these leaders conveniently failed to mention how the Lebanese state has mishandled the demarcation process since 2007. Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s government erred in 2007, when it drew Lebanon’s maritime boundary with Cyprus. Israel was quick to exploit the error and drew “line 1”, which infringed on Lebanon’s share. The Lebanese government admitted its mistake and went on to adopt line 23, south of line 1. This line, which had no legal basis, increased Lebanon’s maritime area by 860 km2, compared to the maritime boundary demarcated using line 1. Following years of dispute between Tel Aviv and Beirut, the US proposed splitting the area between Lebanon and Israel – using what became known as the Hoff line – giving Lebanon about 60% of the area between line 1 and line 23. Lebanon refused. Now that Israel has recognized line 23, Lebanese politicians are claiming victory.

However, this is not the whole story. Lebanese officials chose not to recognize line 29, the border defined by the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and the British Hydrographic office (UKHO). This line, which is south of line 23, would expand Lebanon’s maritime boundaries by an additional 1,430 km2. Neither Aoun nor Mikati sought to officially adopt line 29 by signing decree 6433 or by registering it at the UN. They argue that line 29 was used for bargaining purposes. Seen from this perspective, a signed agreement based on line 23 is hardly a “win”.        

The second issue to note concerns Hezbollah. While Lebanese politicians were largely silent on the particulars of the deal, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah recognized it was necessary to publicly justify the signing of the agreement to his hardline constituency. He did so by first by declaring that Hezbollah will adhere to the decisions of the Lebanese state regarding demarcation lines along the southern border. In his October 11 speech, Nasrallah stated that he was “not concerned with the demarcation lines, be it 23 or 29”. He went further in an October 29 speech titled “Lebanon, Victorious”, by declaring that Hezbollah would have been obliged to fight for line 29 if the state had claimed it as Lebanon’s official maritime border. He notably did not mention that under the terms of the agreement, the borders are “permanent”, likely because this contradicts the raison d’etre of the Resistance, namely that Hezbollah and their allies do not recognize Israel’s legitimacy. Conveniently, Hezbollah has positioned itself to counter criticisms of dereliction or unwarranted compromise by claiming to be working within the confines of the state which, ironically, the party often undermines.

Not to be sidelined, Nasrallah attributed the success of the agreement to the party’s history of armed resistance. From Hezbollah’s perspective, it was the drones that flew over the Karish field a few months ago and other military maneuvers that forced Israel to reconsider exploration of the Karish field until its dispute with Lebanon was settled. Hezbollah Executive Council Member Sheikh Nabil Qaouk was even more explicit, stating that it was not diplomacy that secured Lebanon’s maritime rights, but rather Hezbollah’s military force.

Between these two strategies – working for the state and projecting the power of the Resistance beyond the state – Hezbollah joined Lebanese leaders in assenting to the vague terms of the agreement. Furthermore, Hezbollah seems to be tolerating – for the time being at least – the assertive role of the US in the Eastern Mediterranean. Hezbollah publicly labels the US as its enemy but accepted its role as a “facilitator and mediator.” Moreover, the party did not object to US demands that the operator in block 9 not be “subject to international sanctions, that would hinder US continued facilitation” nor to the fact that Lebanon and Israel must “share” resource data across the maritime boundary line with the US. This sharply contrasts with Hezbollah’s past pronouncements on the role of the US in the region.

This brings us to the question of why Hezbollah accepted the maritime border deal. Clearly, it did not want to be blamed for scuttling the agreement, an action that could have led to a potentially devastating conflict, which Lebanon and Hezbollah cannot afford. Hezbollah also could not justify taking action that would prevent Lebanon from accessing its hydrocarbon reserves, particularly in light of the financial collapse. While domestic concerns are of prime importance when assessing Hezbollah’s decision-making regarding the agreement, party leaders must have read the geopolitical writing on the wall as well. After a decade of lingering negotiations, the US exerted significant pressure in a matter of mere months to make the deal stick just few days before Aoun left the presidential palace and within one week of Israeli parliamentary elections. Furthermore, both the Lebanese and Israeli governments chose not seek parliamentary approval before putting pen to paper.

Considered to be a “historical breakthrough” by US President Joe Biden, two additional factors may have contributed to the maritime border deal being signed. First, due to the Russia-Ukrainian war, the US is seeking alternative sources of energy for Europe, a portion of which Israel can provide (reminiscent of the 1945 Marshall Plan, part of which aimed to secure Saudi oil for Europe after WWII through the Tapline). Second, considering the geopolitical rivalry in the Eastern Mediterranean between Turkey-Libya (which signed two agreements few weeks ago to deepen their relationship) and Greece-Israel-Cyprus-Egypt – not to mention the possibility of reshuffling these alliances – the US reasserted itself in the East Mediterranean by brokering this agreement. The US also positioned itself to leverage power and influence next door to where Russian companies are operating in Syrian maritime territory.

Under US pressure, Lebanon’s impotent leadership failed to protect the country's full maritime borders; undermined state institutions, including the government, the parliament, and the LAF; and succumbed to geopolitical pressure but they have audacity to claim victory, a hollow one, while they shower themselves with praise.


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