UPDATED: 11 OCT 2022 02:02 PM EST
JERUSALEM — Israel’s prime minister said Tuesday that the country has reached a “historic agreement” with neighboring Lebanon over their shared maritime border that could pave the way for natural gas exploration and reduce tensions between the enemy countries.
The agreement, coming after months of U.S.-mediated talks, would mark a major breakthrough in relations between Israel and Lebanon, which formally have been at war since Israel's establishment in 1948. But the deal still faces some obstacles, including legal and political challenges in Israel. There was no formal announcement from Lebanon, though officials indicated they would approve the agreement.
In Washington, President Joe Biden announced that Israel and Lebanon agreed to “formally end” their maritime boundary dispute. He said he spoke Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Lebanese President Michael Aoun and both men said they were ready to move forward with the agreement.
The agreement “will provide for the development of energy fields for the benefit of both countries, setting the stage for a more stable and prosperous region,” Biden said.
At stake are rights over exploiting undersea natural gas reserves in areas of the eastern Mediterranean claimed by the two countries. Lebanon hopes gas exploration will help lift its country out of its spiraling economic crisis. Israel also hopes to exploit gas reserves while also easing tensions with its northern neighbor.
Lapid called the deal a “historic achievement that will strengthen Israel’s security, inject billions into Israel’s economy, and ensure the stability of our northern border.”
Lebanon and Israel both claim some 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) of the Mediterranean Sea. Under the agreement, those waters would be divided along a line straddling the strategic “Qana” natural gas field.
Israeli officials involved in the negotiations said Lebanon would be allowed to produce gas from that field, but pay royalties to Israel for any gas extracted from the Israeli side. Lebanon has been working with the French energy giant Total on preparations for exploring the field, though actual production is likely years away.
The agreement would also leave in place an existing “buoy line” that serves as a de facto border between the two countries, the officials said.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were discussing behind the scenes negotiations, said the deal would include American security guarantees, including assurances that none of the gas revenues reach Hezbollah.
Many leading Israeli security figures, both active and retired, have hailed the deal because it could lower tensions with Lebanon's Hezbollah militant group, which has repeatedly threatened to strike Israeli natural gas assets in the Mediterranean. With Lebanon now having a stake in the region's natural gas industry, experts believe the sides will think twice before opening up another war.
The two sides fought a monthlong war in 2006, and Israel considers the heavily armed Hezbollah to be its most immediate military threat.
“It might help create and strengthen the mutual deterrence between Israel and Hezbollah,” said Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies. “This is a very positive thing for Israel.”
The final draft of the agreement will be brought before Israel’s caretaker government for approval this week ahead of the Nov. 1 election, when the country goes to the polls for the fifth time in under four years.
An Israeli official said the Cabinet is expected to approve the agreement in principle on Wednesday, while sending it to parliament for a required two-week review. After the review, the government would give final, official approval, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss government strategy. It remains unclear if parliament needs to approve the agreement, or merely review it.
Approval is not guaranteed. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said the caretaker government has no authority to sign such an important agreement and has vowed to cancel the deal if re-elected. On Tuesday, he accused Lapid of caving in to Hezbollah threats.
“This is not a historic agreement. It's a historic surrender,” Netanyahu said in a Facebook video.
The Kohelet Policy Forum, an influential conservative think tank, already has filed a challenge with the Supreme Court trying to block the deal.
Eugene Kontorovich, the forum's director of international law, claimed the agreement requires parliamentary approval. He accused the government of trying to rush through an agreement under pressure from Hezbollah. “This means Hezbollah now overrides Israel's democracy,” he said.
But Yuval Shany, an expert on international law at the Israel Democracy Institute, another prominent think tank, said it is customary, but not mandatory, to seek Knesset approval for such agreements.
“Peace agreements are usually brought to the Knesset, but this is not a peace agreement. It's a border and limitation agreement,” he said.
Senior U.S. energy envoy Amos Hochstein, whom Washington appointed a year ago to mediate talks, delivered a modified proposal of the maritime border deal to lead Lebanese negotiator, Deputy Speaker Elias Bou Saab late Monday night, according to local media and officials.
The office of Aoun, the Lebanese president, said the latest version of the proposal “satisfies Lebanon, meets its demands, and preserves its rights to its natural resources," and will hold consultations with officials before making an announcement.
A senior official involved in the talks told The Associated Press that Aoun, Prime Minister Najib Mikati, and Speaker Nabih Berri are all satisfied with Hochstein’s latest reiteration of the maritime border deal. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Hezbollah did not immediately comment, but its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has said that the group would endorse the Lebanese government’s position. In the past, however, he has threatened to use its weapons to protect Lebanon’s economic rights.
Nasrallah was expected to make an official statement later Tuesday.