The US-brokered agreement establishing the maritime boundary between Israel and Lebanon is such an achievement.
Having been an American mediator in the Middle East, I know why it is so difficult to produce understandings or agreements between warring parties. Lebanon and Israel remain in a state of war, but this agreement now reduces the risk of conflict and creates a mutual stake in both countries being able to extract natural gas.
Without the agreement, the risk of conflict would have gone up dramatically — even if neither Israel nor Hezbollah in Lebanon had wanted it. Both understand the potential costs of such a war. Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah consistently makes threats against Israel but has been largely deterred since the war in 2006, understanding the devastation Israel could inflict if Hezbollah provokes a conflict. But Israel, too, has little interest in a war, knowing that Hezbollah has the means to launch as many as 3,000 rockets a day against Israeli cities and economic targets for several weeks.
Nonetheless, the risk of conflict was growing because Nasrallah declared that Hezbollah would stop Israel from extracting natural gas from the Karish rig in Israeli waters if Lebanon could not also exploit the natural gas in the areas, including the Qana field, where there were conflicting Israeli and Lebanese claims. For its part, Israel declared it would start producing natural gas by the end of October — and would answer any Hezbollah threats or attacks with a powerful military response. Such a conflict looked increasingly inevitable. Now it is off the table.
While Hezbollah’s enmity toward Israel remains unchanged, its stake in avoiding conflict has grown, particularly because the development of the Qana field holds the promise of providing desperately needed revenue for the state of Lebanon.
David Barnea, the director of Mossad, observed that “Nasrallah is in a bind because in all the years he did not want Lebanon to sign any agreements with Israel because they would grant it legitimacy. But once he realized the Lebanese public supports the agreement and views it as something that will improve its difficult situation, he decided to piggyback on it.” That creates a new reality in which Hezbollah has acquiesced in a deal with Israel that actually demarcates a boundary. War as a possibility does not disappear, but it becomes less likely now. It does not mean Lebanon is about to make peace with Israel, but it is a step toward normalization.
The timing of the Israeli election on Nov. 1 was bound to trigger controversy over the agreement and make it a political football. But there was a political clock in Lebanon that argued strongly for finalizing the deal now and having Lebanese President Michel Aoun sign it. His term ends on Oct. 31, and there is no agreement on who will replace him much less when that might happen. The U.S., Israel, and the Lebanese recognized the danger of leaving the deal unsigned and in limbo.
One rule of thumb in the Middle East is always lockdown an agreement when you can because events may erupt and undo it.
Any agreement is bound to have critics, and this one, beyond the politics, has generated criticism from those who believe Israel conceded too much in giving up claims on the Qana field and the waters beyond what is known as Line 23. But the Israeli security establishment is not among those criticizing the deal. On the contrary, the Israeli military believes the agreement met Israel’s essential security needs by preserving the buoy line that extends 3.1 miles into the water from the land crossing that separates Lebanon and Israel at Ras al Naqoura and Rosh Hanikra. This boundary will now be acknowledged as the status quo and can only be changed by the agreement of the Israelis and Lebanese. From the military’s standpoint, this definition of the boundary prevented line of sight into Israel and was essential for Israel’s security. In fact, the IDF and the intelligence chiefs all came out strongly in favor of the agreement. They collectively saw it not only as reducing the prospect of war but also potentially providing an infusion of revenue that could prevent the complete collapse of Lebanon — a reality that the Israeli security establishment saw as certain to lead to greater instability along its border.
Criticism of concessions made in any deal are legitimate and to be expected. In this case, the concessions the Israelis made need to be weighed against the strategic benefits of the deal — and these are quite real, ranging from reducing the risk of war to establishing the precedent of Lebanon recognizing a boundary with Israel — even if only a maritime boundary.
One other strategic fact should be noted: The gas that Israel will soon be extracting will be exported to Europe. At a time when Europe needs alternatives to Russian gas, this is a welcome development and another byproduct of the American mediation effort.
In reality, this deal was possible only because of American mediation — and because of that mediation, Israeli, Lebanese, and American interests have been advanced.