Israel rejects Lebanon's changes to draft maritime deal
The U.S.-mediated talks between Israel and Lebanon over their maritime border dispute faced a major crisis on Thursday after Israel rejected the Lebanese comments on the draft agreement and claimed they were a “material breach” of the text.
Why it matters: Over the last week, it appeared the two sides were headed towards a deal. But this major crisis in the negotiations could lead to a military escalation between Israel and Hezbollah, which has threatened war if Lebanon's economic rights are not respected.
- The dispute is over a potentially gas-rich, 330-square-mile disputed area of the Mediterranean Sea with an estimated value reaching billions of dollars.
- The need for a deal has become especially urgent as the Karish rig, a major Israeli gas project that Israel says is located south of the disputed area, prepares to come online. Hezbollah has called the beginning of production in the Karish rig a red line.
Driving the news: Lebanon on Tuesday sent its comments on the draft agreement to U.S. envoy Amos Hochstein who has been mediating between the parties over the last year.
- Lebanese officials have said the comments were mostly technical and expressed optimism that they wouldn't prevent reaching a deal.
- On Wednesday night, Hochstein briefed the Israeli national security adviser Eyal Hulata in detail about the Lebanese comments, according to Israeli officials.
Behind the scenes: Three Israeli officials said the most significant change in the draft agreement that Lebanon demanded had to do with the recognition of the “line of buoys” as an international border.
- The three-mile line of floating buoys that stretches from the Rosh Hanikra coast into the Mediterranean was installed by Israel after its unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000.
- The recognition of the “line of buoys” was Israel’s main security interest and demand in the talks. The Israeli officials said that anchoring down the “line of buoys” was very important for security reasons. The Israeli military has operated along this line unilaterally over the last 20 years, during which time Lebanon had the international legitimacy to challenge it, the Israeli officials added.
- Israeli officials said that if the line of buoys moves to the south, it will allow a line of sight from the Lebanese side to the northern coast of Israel.
Hochstein told the Lebanese leaders that Israel was willing to compromise on many things but not the location of the line of buoys, which would turn into the agreed-upon international border between the countries, according to the Israeli officials.
- Lebanon stressed in its comments on the draft agreement that it won’t recognize the line of buoys and its legitimacy, according to Israeli officials and Lebanese press reports.
- The Lebanese officials asked to change the words “status quo” in the context of the line of buoys in the draft with the words “de facto," according to the Israeli officials. Israel said this weakens the agreement from a legal standpoint and leaves an opening for Lebanese claims regarding the “line of buoys” in the future.
- Lebanon also rejected a clause in the draft agreement that gives Israel “veto” power over the beginning of gas exploration in the disputed area, the Israeli officials said. This was a key Israeli demand in order to make sure it got its economic rights.
A Western diplomat told Axios that Hochstein thought the Lebanese edits were not critical and would not be a hindrance to an agreement. But the Israeli officials thought differently.
- Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid told the negotiating team to reject the changes Lebanon was seeking.
What they're saying: A senior Israeli official said Lapid “made it clear that Israel will not compromise on its security and economic interests, even if that means that there will be no agreement soon.”
- “Israel will produce gas from the Karish rig as soon as it is possible to do so. If Hezbollah or anyone else tries to damage the Karish rig or threaten us — the negotiations on the maritime line will stop immediately and [Hezbollah leader] Hassan Nasrallah will need to explain to the citizens of Lebanon why they don’t have a gas rig for the benefit of their economic future," the senior Israeli official added.
- Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said that if Hezbollah tries to attack the Karish rig, the organization and the Lebanese state as a whole will pay a heavy price. “We are not trigger-happy, but we are prepared," Gantz said.
- Gantz also ordered the Israeli military to increase offensive and defensive preparedness measures for a possible escalation on the northern border .
The other side: Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati said on Thursday that the maritime border deal with Israel is of strategic importance because it will prevent a regional war.
- Lebanese President Michel Aoun said in a meeting with Lebanon’s Minister of Defense that the Lebanese comments on the draft agreement ensure that Lebanon secures its rights to producing natural gas in its waters and prevent other interpretations that are not in line with Lebanon’s demands.
A White House National Security Council spokesperson told Axios that Hochstein continues his robust engagement with Israel and Lebanon to bring the maritime boundary discussions to a close.
- “We are at a critical stage in the negotiations and the gaps have narrowed. We remain committed to reaching a resolution and believe a lasting compromise is possible," the NSC spokesperson said.
What’s next: Israeli officials said the crisis in the talks makes it highly unlikely that a deal can be reached before the Nov. 1 Israeli elections.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional details from the Israeli Defense Ministry and White House National Security Council.