Updated Oct 27, 2022 - World

Israel and Lebanon finalize historic U.S.-mediated maritime deal

An Israeli navy vessel patrols the maritime border between Israel and Lebanon in the Mediterranean Sea on Sept. 4. Photo: Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP via Getty Images

An Israeli navy vessel patrols in the Mediterranean Sea at the maritime border between Israel and Lebanon, off the southern Lebanese town of Naqoura, on Sept. 4. Photo: Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP via Getty Images

Israel and Lebanon on Thursday finalized the historic U.S.-mediated maritime border agreement in a joint ceremony at the UN base in Naqoura on the border between the two countries.

Why it matters: The agreement ends more than a decade of U.S. diplomatic efforts with several rounds of direct and indirect talks between Israel and Lebanon.

  • The dispute was over a potentially gas-rich, 330-square-mile area of the Mediterranean Sea with an estimated revenue reaching at least $3 billion.
  • The deal between the two traditional enemies will allow the beginning of natural gas exploration in the area that was disputed.

Driving the news: A senior Israeli official who attended Thursday's ceremony said the Israeli and Lebanese delegations entered the tent at the UN base from opposite sides. Each delegation presented U.S. envoy Amos Hochstein with a copy of the agreement signed by its leader.

  • Each delegation also submitted a document with the new coordinates of the agreed-upon maritime border to UN representatives for deposit at the global body.
  • According to the Israeli official, Hochstein checked the documents submitted by the parties and then signed them himself. After Hochstein signed the agreement, it came into force, the Israeli official said.
  • The Israeli official said the Lebanese team didn’t engage with the Israeli side and didn’t shake hands.
  • At the end of the ceremony, Hochstein said: “Congratulations we have an agreement." Both delegations stood up and gave applause.

Between the lines: This agreement is unique because it is a delineation of a border between two countries in a state of war. Israel and Lebanon will stay at war even after the deal is signed.

  • Israel, Lebanese and U.S. officials say the agreement prevented a potential military escalation between Israel and Hezbollah that could have had regional implications.
  • Hezbollah had turned the start of production of the Karish gas rig, a major Israeli gas project that Israel said was located south of the disputed area, into a red line prior to the deal. Hezbollah vowed to go to war if the rig came online and Lebanon's economic rights weren't respected in the negotiations over the deal.
  • Israel on Tuesday greenlighted the start of production at the Karish rig. Energean PLC, the company in charge of the rig, said production began on Wednesday.

What they're saying: Hochstein said after his meeting with Lebanese President Michel Aoun earlier Thursday that the agreement will create stability on both sides of the border and an economic horizon for the Lebanese people.

  • President Biden in a statement congratulated Lebanon and Israel on the agreement. "It will secure the interests of both Israel and Lebanon, and it sets the stage for a more stable and prosperous region," he said.
  • Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said during an Israeli government meeting earlier Thursday that the agreement strengthens Israel’s security “and our freedom of action against Hezbollah and the threats to our north."
  • “This is a diplomatic achievement. It is not every day that an enemy country recognizes the State of Israel, in a written agreement, in view of the international community," Lapid said.
  • But Aoun said the agreement does not have any political dimensions or effects that contradict the foreign policy pursued by Lebanon in its relations with Israel.
  • Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech that the Lebanese government was careful during the negotiations not to take any steps “that even smelled like normalization” with Israel.

State of play: During an Israeli government meeting to officially approve the deal earlier Thursday, Israeli ministers were briefed about the agreement between Israel and the French energy company Total that will conduct the exploration in the area that was under dispute.

  • Two ministers told Axios the agreement includes an “anti-Iran” clause, which states that Israel will have a veto over the entry of other companies to the consortium that will develop the Qana gas field.
  • According to the ministers, the agreement says that companies from a country that doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Israel will be able to join only if Israel approves.

Behind the scenes: The Biden administration and the Israeli government have been negotiating a separate letter of assurances that deal with U.S. security commitments to Israel and a commitment to prevent the future revenues from potential natural gas sales from going to Hezbollah, Israeli officials said.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional details throughout.

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