Israel discovered natural gas off its Mediterranean coast in the early 2000s. Twenty-two years later, on October 11, Israel and Lebanon announced that they had finally agreed to establish recognized maritime borders in the Mediterranean Sea.
This historic agreement marks an end to years of fruitless negotiations, paving the way for natural gas extraction from under the Mediterranean off the shores of both Lebanon and Israel. Strangely, the success of this agreement hardly made a ripple in either the Mediterranean Sea or the international news.
This “October surprise,” just three weeks before Israel’s upcoming election — the fifth such election since April 2019 — has drastically reduced the risk of disruption to offshore Israeli gas development and production. Hezbollah had threatened to attack Israeli operations in waters near the country’s northern border and had launched unarmed Iranian drones at the gas rig to make its point. While the drones were successfully shot down by the IDF, it was clear that the stakes had been raised.
This feather in the cap of interim Prime Minister Yair Lapid and his coalition has been heralded as a success by Israel’s security establishment, even as the Likud and other right wing political parties claim it to be a political and security failure. In an Israeli security cabinet meeting, Mossad director David Barnea defended the deal, saying that people who claim the maritime border agreement is a win for Hezbollah know nothing about the situation in Lebanon. Barnea stressed that the agreement is a de facto recognition of Israel—something to which Hezbollah is opposed.
The signed agreement opens the possibility for Lebanon to begin its own offshore gas and oil development, with the potential for substantial amounts of desperately needed income.
The 10-page agreement gives full rights and control over the Karish gas field to Israel; Lebanon yields all its previous claims to the fields. As soon as the agreement was signed, tests of gas flow began, and it is believed that the field could hold as much as two to three trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Conversely, Lebanon has full control of the nearby Kana field, which still is under exploration. A portion of the field lies within the newly recognized Israeli offshore zone; once gas does begin to flow, Israel will receive a royalty on extractions from the Kana field.
Negotiations for a recognized demarcation of borders in the Mediterranean Sea between Israel and Lebanon have been going on for decades, and they have included the question of gas extraction since 2020. In fact, versions similar to the just-signed agreement have been rejected at one time or another by then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as by Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun.
The current agreement has been made possible only by a rare convergence of circumstances. Lebanon is financially broke, and that has forced its remaining leaders to understand that it is now or never. If they turn down the compromise, Lebanon will have to suffer through years of international arbitration to resolve its dispute with Israel, rather than launching the long-awaited drilling of its offshore Kana gas reservoir.
Israel is in the same boat. If it turned down the deal, it would face years of arbitration and would risk attacks on its Karish gas field, which is adjacent to its border with Lebanon, rather than starting immediate production at a time when there is a particularly intense appetite for alternatives to Russian energy. Without an agreement, the dispute would drag on, constantly teetering on the verge of war.
The outcome also represents an unheralded success of quiet intermediation organized by the Biden administration.
Upon the signing of the agreement, the office of President Aoun said in a statement that the draft deal satisfied “Lebanon, meets its demands and preserves its rights to its natural resources.”
Minutes later, the Israeli prime minister, Yair Lapid, said in a statement: “This is a historic achievement that will strengthen Israel’s security, bring billions into Israel’s economy and ensure stability on the northern border.”
The deal is guaranteed by the United States. President Biden later called it “a historic breakthrough in the Middle East,” one that was “setting the stage for a more stable and prosperous region and harnessing vital new energy resources for the world.”
It would seem that this deal is all sunshine and rainbows – but the same forces that helped get the agreement signed make the agreement weak and tenuous. The Israeli elections that are just a few sunrises away have turned it into fodder for voices from the right to attack those who forged this deal.
In a press conference after the agreement was signed, Netanyahu announced that he would cancel it if he is returned to power as prime minister. “Yair Lapid shamefully surrendered to [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah’s threats,” he said. “He is giving Hezbollah sovereign territory of the State of Israel with a huge gas reservoir that belongs to you, the citizens of Israel.”
And in a campaign posting on Facebook, untethered by truth, Bibi continued “Lebanon got 100% and Israel got zero. This is not an historical agreement it is an historical surrender.”
While polls show that the general population of Israel is divided over the agreement, it is favored by a small plurality. A large number of people remain undecided. Even with this knowledge, the tensions of the upcoming election have spread from the campaign into the Knesset itself and the sitting government is divided along party lines about the agreement. Recognizing the election-driven level of partisanship, Prime Minister Lapid has chosen to forego the Knesset approval process completely. Instead, the treaty would be approved by his cabinet and then submitted to the whole Knesset for discussion and review. In this procedure, the Knesset can comment but it has no veto.
While technically this maneuvering is legal, we must assume that Lapid is aware that it can be seen as pushing through a treaty without support of the full Knesset, and that the action certainly will be used by the opposition to attack him and the governing coalition. The approved agreement, and actions taken in connection with it, however, will establish some “facts on the water” that may not be so easy to upset.
If this agreement were to fail now, all the gains this treaty brings would be lost, and the same kind of “perfect storm” might never come again. The dispute had prevented important economic development for both Israel and Lebanon. With the agreement in place, both societies can move forward. Israel and Lebanon haven’t become BFFs. But a proposition that has met the needs of each fairly and with recognition of legitimacy was forged. It has paved the way for a particular resolution that, if developed, can show the benefits of peace based on mutual recognition and respect, while raising the cost of future violence making war too expensive.
Sometimes there is no partner until there is a partner. And when there is a partner, the sensible thing is to take yes for an answer.
Dr. Mark Gold of Teaneck holds a Ph.D. in economics from NYU. He is on the executive board of Partners for Progressive Israel, a member organization of the American Zionist Movement and an affiliate of the World Union of Meretz.
Hiam Simon of Englewood is the past chief operating officer of Ameinu, the leading progressive Zionist membership organization in the United States. He lived in Israel for many years, where he was the dean of students at what is now the Alexander Muss High School, and he served in the IDF as a noncommissioned officer in the artillery.