The agreement between Israel and Lebanon on the maritime border constitutes a significant development for each of the two countries, as well as for the regional and international arena. After concluding the negotiations, the American mediator, Amos Hochstein, twitted that he “was proud to serve as a mediator in a historic agreement that gives Israel security and stability, and Lebanon the opportunity, prosperity and hope it deserves…” This way, the importance of the agreement for each of the parties was summed up in just a few words.
It is, therefore, appropriate to consider the expected steps for the day after, mainly to avoid a crisis of expectations on both sides of the border.
In the immediate time frame, it should be expected that the agreement will make it possible to complete the gas supply, which has been discussed in recent months, from Egypt through Jordan and Syria to Lebanon. As remembered, this step was not completed since Washington did not give adequate guarantees to the parties concerned (Egypt and Jordan) that the agreement does not violate the existing sanctions on the Assad regime in Syria. Presumably, the U.S. delay in providing the appropriate guarantees served also as a means of pressuring Lebanon to complete the agreement with Israel. Although the deal will not solve Lebanon’s energy problems, it will alleviate the severe current crisis in the country concerning electricity supply.
The agreement with Israel sends a positive message for Lebanon but does not provide an immediate answer to its economic woes. It remains to be seen how the Lebanese government will handle with the IMF and the World Bank’s demands for reforms before approving vital loans to Lebanon. Significant reforms will oblige the ruling elite to take political-economic measures, which it can be assumed is not enthusiastic about doing so. The public should play a central role in Lebanon and the international community concerning the required reforms in the face of a corrupt and unpopular ruling elite.
In the near-medium term, Lebanon will seek to take advantage of the agreement to join the energy market. The French energy company TOTAL committed to start drilling in the Qana field immediately. It is essential to mention the other partnerships in this field: the Italian company ENI and the Lebanese government. The latter regained the share held by the Russian company NOVOTEK (estimated at 20 percent). According to various reports, the Qatari gas company is interested in entering the Lebanese market and acquiring this share (as well as some more percentages from the French and Italian companies).
It is extremely important to align expectations in these initial stages, on the part of the Lebanese government (and the French company). After all, it is a potential for gas and oil, but it must be found.
It can be assumed that following the agreement with Israel, Lebanon will seek to speed up energy activities in all its economic waters. Lebanon has completed the first round of tenders, but this has so far yielded only one drilling, which has not produced any proven resources. It is to be expected that Lebanon will seek to promote the second round of tenders, which has been postponed several times, and build on the positive atmosphere that the agreement with Israel projects. Either way, it is a long process, albeit one with more promising potential, given a more stable political climate.
Israel is in a completely different situation. It has already harnessed the gas discoveries in its economic waters for significant political-strategic gains and at the economic-energy level. The agreement will remove the question marks hanging over the Karish field’s development – not concerning its being in Israel’s economic waters – but in removing a volatile potential of instability or escalation.
The question of the reserves that will be found in the Lebanese Qana gas field (which is shared by both countries) depends, as mentioned, on the drilling that will be carried out by the French company. Although future revenues for Israel should not be underestimated, this is not a significant economic element that will change the national situation from Israel’s point of view. Its political importance, which concerns the manner of implementation of the agreement with Lebanon, increases immeasurably.
An interesting and vital angle concerns the Israeli-Cypriot dispute over the joint Aphrodite-Yishai gas field. The failure of the two countries to reach an agreed mechanism still stands and more emphasized considering the Israeli – Lebanese agreement. This is a highly relevant point, precisely in view of the growing attractiveness of the East Med for Europe (following the war in Ukraine), and the regional dynamic following the Israeli – Lebanese agreement.
For the Regional Geopolitics
The agreement between Israel and Lebanon projects a regional calming, due to the potential for escalation that lay in the failure of the American mediation. The potential for Lebanon to join the regional energy system is complex and will take time. Lebanon will have to make difficult decisions in the face of the impressive regional array that was built in recent years thanks to the energy discoveries. There still stands an open invitation for it to join the regional gas forum (EMGF), but Israel’s membership is obviously a serious challenge. The first step could be to join as an observer. In any case, it is likely, or hopefully, that positive results of the expected drilling in its economic waters will force Lebanon to follow a constructive and beneficial path. It’s anticipated that Lebanon will move on to conclude agreements on its maritime borders with Syria. It should be expected that Syria will not adopt a speedy policy, partly (or mainly) to the Russian angle. The Lebanese – Cypriot agreement that Lebanon hasn’t ratified will need further discussion. It remains to be seen how the “new commers” will take a (positive) advantage from the proven regional potential of the last decade.
For the International Arena
The importance of the Israeli – Lebanese agreement for the international arena, and the U.S., in particular, relates to two key aspects: neutralizing a potential for escalation in the region; and a positive message regarding the formation of a Western energy front against Russia, even if the prospects for energy implementation look quite a few years ahead. The trilateral MOU between Israel, Egypt, and the European Union, signed last June in Cairo, illustrated the attractiveness of the Eastern Mediterranean for Europe. The Lebanese – Israeli agreement fits well into this.
It would be fair, even realistic, to exercise great caution concerning the positive potential arising from the agreement. Its main test lies in its implementation and the way the two parties, as well the U.S., which bears a responsibility that should not be overstated, will deal with difficulties that will obviously arise.
At the same time, both sides’ hard decisions are not self-evident. This is especially evident in the Lebanese arena, with so many players who have generally proven that they cannot overcome their different interests and needed an unprecedented political-economic crisis to bridge the gaps between them.
Similarly, Israel recognized this window of opportunity and made complex decisions, in difficult political circumstances (pre-elections), which produced restlessness in the domestic arena. The preference for the diplomatic path, and the recognition of the extraordinary meeting of interests with Lebanon, provide Israel with many meritorious points.
The United States has again demonstrated its great vitality in the region, precisely at a time when it is perceived as reducing attention to the region.
By the time it will be clearer if this agreement was a game changer in a complicated and challenging region, and what lessons could be taken for other players in the region.
The op-ed was published in November 2022 in the Transatlantic Policy Quarterly.