Oct 11, 2022 - World

Biden hails "historic breakthrough" on Israel-Lebanon maritime border

President Biden.

President Biden on Oct. 7. Photo: Craig Hudson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

President Biden on Tuesday hailed an agreement to end the maritime dispute between Israel and Lebanon as a "historic breakthrough."

Driving the news: Israeli and Lebanon earlier Tuesday announced they had accepted a U.S.-mediated agreement on the maritime border between the two traditional enemies.

  • Once signed, the deal will allow the beginning of natural gas exploration in the disputed area — a potentially gas-rich, 330-square-mile area with an estimated value reaching billions of dollars — in the eastern Mediterranean Sea and reduce the threat of regional war. 

What he's saying: "Energy—particularly in the Eastern Mediterranean—should serve as the tool for cooperation, stability, security, and prosperity, not for conflict," Biden said in a statement.

  • 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, and harnessing vital new energy resources for the world," he added.
  • "It is now critical that all parties uphold their commitments and work towards implementation."

Biden said he spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Lebanese President Michael Aoun separately on Tuesday to congratulate their governments on the agreement.

  • "This agreement also protects Israel’s security and economic interests critical to promoting its regional integration. It provides Lebanon the space to begin its own exploitation of energy resources," the U.S. president said.

The big picture: U.S. envoy Amos Hochstein in the past year resumed efforts to reach a deal after efforts by previous officials over the last decade failed.

  • A week ago, it appeared the two sides were headed toward a deal. But negotiations broke down after Israeli officials rejected comments by their Lebanese counterparts on the draft agreement, claiming they were a "material breach" of the text.
  • Israeli officials were concerned about Lebanon's refusal to recognize the three-mile security line of buoys Israel placed in the sea between the countries, and the Lebanese reservations about the compensation Israel would get for its economic rights in the disputed area. 
  • But U.S. officials continued to mediate between the parties and after "a very intensive last several days and very long nights, the governments of Israel and Lebanon agreed, individually and separately agreed, with the United States to end this dispute," a senior Biden administration official told reporters Tuesday.

Details: Israeli sources involved in the negotiations said in a briefing with reporters that the Biden administration gave Israel a letter of guarantee for the agreement.

  • The letter clarifies that the U.S. is committed to the security and economic rights of Israel in a scenario in which Hezbollah, which had threatened war if Lebanon's economic rights weren't respected, or another group decides to challenge the signed agreement, the sources said.
  • According to the sources, at the foundation of the letter is a commitment to the buoy line as Israel’s defensive line and the protection of Israel’s economic rights in the Sidon (Qana) field, as well as preventing revenues from the field from reaching Hezbollah in accordance with existing U.S. sanctions.
  • The sources added that according to the agreement, the buoy line will be recognized as the status quo and there will be no claims to change the line unless another future agreement is reached between the parties. Israel will also receive financial remuneration for the revenues from the Sidon (Qana) reserve in accordance with its negotiations with the company TotalEnergies.

What to watch: The agreement still faces several challenges on the Israeli side. The security cabinet, which is expected to meet on Wednesday, will likely approve the agreement, but it also needs to be approved by the full government plenary.

  • A senior Biden administration told reporters that the U.S. has "every expectation that this agreement is going to be signed and put into force as quickly as possible."
  • "I think at the end of the day, that will happen because this agreement ... delivers such critical wins for both sides," the official added.
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