Israel’s JERUSALEM – In recent weeks, the Biden administration has increased pressure on Israel and Lebanon to resolve a long-standing dispute over maritime borders, including a small area of the Mediterranean Sea that is rich in oil and gas.
Israel and Lebanon have been engaged in protracted indirect talks over an 860-square-kilometer area of the sea that both nations want to explore for oil and gas for many years. Most of these talks have been mediated by the United States.
The two nations, who have fought numerous wars and have no diplomatic ties, renewed their negotiations two years ago, and they appeared to be moving forward this week.
Although Yair Lapid, Israel’s acting prime minister, and Michel Aoun, the president of Lebanon, have both made statements that suggest a deal may be on the horizon, ongoing hostilities between the neighbors still run the risk of being exacerbated by Hezbollah, which is supported by Iran. This is especially true given that Israel appears determined to move ahead with production at Karish, a new offshore gas rig close to the disputed waters.
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The deal’s collapse at this point would require something dramatic, according to Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), who spoke with Fox News Digital this week. This is especially true given that the U.S. appears determined to pressure Israel into caving to Hezbollah’s demands for Lebanese sovereignty over the entire area in question.
According to Badran, the U.S. has been pushing for a solution to give Lebanon, a country on the verge of economic collapse, new revenue sources. This has happened under Obama, Trump, and now Biden.
“Israel had already started drilling in fields that are all outside the disputed area, and the Obama administration wanted to encourage foreign businesses—which are hesitant to work in areas of dispute or conflict—to come and operate in Lebanon, according to the U.S. mediator at the time.
Even the smaller Karish field is not located in the disputed area, so the dispute has not interfered with Israel’s ability to develop and export its gas. The conflict only had an impact on drilling in Lebanon.
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The Biden administration has made completing this deal a top priority and sent Amos Hochstein, the U.S. State Department’s senior adviser for global energy security, to the area in an effort to inject money into Lebanon. It is especially eager to conclude talks before Israelis go to the polls on November 1 and before Karish production starts.
In order to appease Hezbollah, which has threatened to scuttle the negotiations and attack Israeli interests in and around Karish, Badran claimed that the U.S. is hoping Israel will renounce its claims to the entire disputed region.
However, he added, “from the talk coming out of Lebanon, it appears that, at least thus far, Hezbollah is satisfied with what the Biden administration is offering.”
A representative for the Israeli prime minister declared on Monday that despite threats from Hezbollah and pressure from the United States, Karish production would “start without delay, as soon as possible.”
Lapid said he had given his negotiating team “very clear parameters” to reach a deal with Lebanon while he was in New York this week for the UN General Assembly. On the eve of the UNGA, his national security adviser Eyal Hulata met with Brett McGurk, the White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, to talk about the issue. Israeli officials described the meeting as “good and productive.”
An unidentified spokesperson for the Israeli prime minister commented on the situation as follows: “In order to protect the interests of the people of both nations, Israel thinks it is both possible and necessary to come to a maritime border agreement with Lebanon. Such a deal would strengthen regional stability and be extremely beneficial.”
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This week, President Aoun also mentioned progress in Lebanon.
According to local media reports, Aoun stated on Monday that “negotiations to demarcate the southern maritime border have become in their final stages, in a manner that guarantees Lebanon’s rights to gas and oil exploration in the specified fields in its Exclusive Economic Zone.”
Aoun said during a meeting with the U.N. Special Coordinator for Lebanon Joanna Wronecka that “communication with U.S. mediator Amos Hochstein is ongoing over some technical details related to the demarcation process,” and he expressed the hope that “exploration in Lebanese waters will contribute to reviving the Lebanese economy, which witnessed a major decline over the past years, as well as strengthening security and stability in the south.”
“It would be very surprising if Hezbollah undermines that,” said Amir Avivi, CEO of the Israel Defense and Security Forum. “We heard the Lebanese President Michel Aoun say this week that he is pretty much ready to arrive at an agreement” (IDSF).
The IDSF is an NGO that has been closely observing developments and has 4,000 members who were once officers in various Israeli defense organizations.
According to Avivi, “I believe they will actually try to claim credit for this agreement and claim that they are the ones who actually managed to make Israel make more concessions.”
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According to Avivi, Israel is interested in working out a deal with Lebanon in the hopes that it will stabilize its northern neighbor and be advantageous for the whole region. He added that it was crucial to consider the conflict in the context of other regional players, such as Russia, France, and Iran, rather than just Israel and Lebanon.
“Russia has a strong presence in the area of Lebanon and Syria, and I can say that it is definitely not interested in seeing a deterioration of the situation or even a large-scale war between Israel and Lebanon,” said Avivi, who also noted that Russia was also in the process of withdrawing from the region as it battles the ongoing war in Ukraine.
In Lebanon, a former colony, France is also a very powerful force, he added. Mediterranean gas sources are becoming more and more valuable as Europe’s economic and energy crises worsen.
“There is the understanding that Israel actually might be a solution, to some extent, for getting gas to Europe,” he said. “But this is very much dependent on Karish being operational.”
According to Avivi, Iran’s hardline Islamic government is torn between supporting Hezbollah as a potential deterrent along Israel’s northern border, which could cause Israel to engage in another conflict with Lebanon, and pulling back out of concern that Israel might completely destroy the organization.
Iran will likely lose its strongest tool for preventing any attack from Israel on itself, according to Avivi, who added that Israel has the intelligence and capabilities to do so. “If we find ourselves in a situation where Israel engages in a large operation that destroys Hezbollah capabilities – and this is exactly what will happen – Iran will lose probably its strongest tool for preventing any attack from Israel on itself,” Avivi said.