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Don’t Let Politics Kill the Lebanon-Israel Gas Deal

A U.S.-brokered maritime border agreement could have profound effects on the entire Middle East.

By , a managing director at Capstone and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and , a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
An offshore natural gas production platform is seen from Dor, a coastal town in northern Israel, on Dec. 31, 2019.
An offshore natural gas production platform is seen from Dor, a coastal town in northern Israel, on Dec. 31, 2019.
An offshore natural gas production platform is seen from Dor, a coastal town in northern Israel, on Dec. 31, 2019. JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images

Last month, we visited a Hezbollah tunnel on the Israeli-Lebanese border as part of a bipartisan group of Middle East experts. Dug almost a football field deep—with twisting staircases, advanced lighting, and oxygen cables—the tunnel’s sole purpose was to deliver Hezbollah terrorists from the Lebanese side of the border deep into Israeli territory. Equally menacing was the sight of active Hezbollah outposts less than 100 yards from the discovered tunnel, where the organization conducts intelligence and stores rockets ready to strike deep into Israel in the event of a conflict. The visit underscored that the Israeli-Lebanese border remains at a boil, and developments over the last few months have pushed the two sides closer to conflict than at any time since the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war.

Amid these tensions, Israel and Lebanon have also been locked in a bitter dispute over their maritime border, the focus of which is ownership rights and future production revenue from the offshore Karish and Kana natural gas fields. Given Lebanon’s instability and the constant Hezbollah threat, the U.S.-led negotiation to resolve this maritime dispute is a major unheralded development that, if successful, could be another diplomatic breakthrough for the Middle East. Israel’s military leadership issued an unequivocal statement supporting the deal, stating: “The agreement, in its current form, significantly contributes to Israel’s security interests. … There is a security and political necessity to reach an agreement in the near future and without delay.”

An Israeli-Lebanese border deal could help U.S. efforts to quell Iran, isolate Russia, and support European energy security. However, oppositional political forces in Israel and Lebanon—and their sympathizers in the United States—are now pushing back against any deal. Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who presided over the start of negotiations, accused current Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid of giving gas riches to Hezbollah and of having “no mandate to give sovereign territory and sovereign assets that belong to all of us to an enemy state.” U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz likewise bashed the deal and flagged it as “another topic for the next Republican Congress to investigate.” These criticisms are shrinking Israel’s space to negotiate, and there are already reports that the deal could yet falter.  Supporters of Israel should now rally to give the Lapid government cover for making the necessary compromises and strike a deal.

Last month, we visited a Hezbollah tunnel on the Israeli-Lebanese border as part of a bipartisan group of Middle East experts. Dug almost a football field deep—with twisting staircases, advanced lighting, and oxygen cables—the tunnel’s sole purpose was to deliver Hezbollah terrorists from the Lebanese side of the border deep into Israeli territory. Equally menacing was the sight of active Hezbollah outposts less than 100 yards from the discovered tunnel, where the organization conducts intelligence and stores rockets ready to strike deep into Israel in the event of a conflict. The visit underscored that the Israeli-Lebanese border remains at a boil, and developments over the last few months have pushed the two sides closer to conflict than at any time since the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war.

Amid these tensions, Israel and Lebanon have also been locked in a bitter dispute over their maritime border, the focus of which is ownership rights and future production revenue from the offshore Karish and Kana natural gas fields. Given Lebanon’s instability and the constant Hezbollah threat, the U.S.-led negotiation to resolve this maritime dispute is a major unheralded development that, if successful, could be another diplomatic breakthrough for the Middle East. Israel’s military leadership issued an unequivocal statement supporting the deal, stating: “The agreement, in its current form, significantly contributes to Israel’s security interests. … There is a security and political necessity to reach an agreement in the near future and without delay.”

An Israeli-Lebanese border deal could help U.S. efforts to quell Iran, isolate Russia, and support European energy security. However, oppositional political forces in Israel and Lebanon—and their sympathizers in the United States—are now pushing back against any deal. Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who presided over the start of negotiations, accused current Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid of giving gas riches to Hezbollah and of having “no mandate to give sovereign territory and sovereign assets that belong to all of us to an enemy state.” U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz likewise bashed the deal and flagged it as “another topic for the next Republican Congress to investigate.” These criticisms are shrinking Israel’s space to negotiate, and there are already reports that the deal could yet falter.  Supporters of Israel should now rally to give the Lapid government cover for making the necessary compromises and strike a deal.

The maritime border dispute between the two countries emerged over the last few years as an unexpected extension of Israel’s long-standing war with Hezbollah. The discovery of offshore natural gas reserves adjacent to both countries led Lebanon to demand a redrawing the borders of the two countries’ exclusive economic zones in the Mediterranean Sea, where the deposits are located. Hezbollah, its political fortunes plummeting amid Lebanon’s economic meltdown and rampant corruption, sent three unarmed drones over Israel’s Karish gas field in July, and it then threatened to strike if the dispute over the Israeli-Lebanese maritime border was not resolved.

An Israeli-Lebanese border deal could help U.S. efforts to push back Iran, isolate Russia, and support European energy security.

Israel at first took a hard line and refused to indulge Lebanon’s demands—in part because Israel thought them excessive and, in part, because of concerns that funds from exploiting the gas fields would go to Hezbollah. Both sides dug in, and Hezbollah lambasted the Lebanese government for trying to find a way forward. Hassan Nasrallah, the terrorist organization’s leader, lashed out at U.S. President Joe Biden’s top negotiator, Amos Hochstein, by stating, “no Hochstein, Frankenstein, or any other Stein!” But given Lebanon’s disastrous economic situation, with electricity barely available for two hours a day, Hezbollah did not challenge Hochstein’s numerous visits to Beirut over the last year. Building on diplomatic efforts first pursued by the Obama and Trump administrations, Hochstein steered both sides toward compromise, culminating in the presentation of a proposal last weekend. The Israeli and Lebanese leadership responded positively.

Compromise is never pretty, and Lapid has come under attack for even considering a deal with Lebanon—no surprise in an election season—despite unambiguous support from Israel’s military and intelligence establishment.

U.S. leaders on both sides of the aisle should do all they can to support the border deal, which is in the United States’ interest as much as Israel’s. The agreement laid out by the Biden team could single-handedly reduce the degree to which the Lebanese economy is dependent on assistance from Iran and reassert that the United States is the side to bet on. It could provide a glimmer of hope to Lebanon’s economy, anchoring an industry that could inspire the gradual return of foreign direct investment. It would contribute to Israeli security and much-needed de-escalation in the Middle East, not only by removing contested drilling rights as a cause for war but also by firmly establishing as part of the deal the roughly 3-mile security buffer zone off Israel’s coast that allows it to conduct border security operations.

The development of Lebanon’s gas fields made possible by legal certainty over the maritime border could also lead to future natural supplies to Europe once production begins. Energy analysts estimate that it will take roughly four to five years before Lebanese liquefied natural gas enters the market from the proposed project, but Europe’s need for gas will remain high in that timeframe—especially if it comes from non-Russian producers. Every source of future supply will count, and every year a deal is delayed or drilling is interrupted by conflict will push market entry further out.

Democrats may balk at the prospect of supporting an agreement facilitating future fossil fuel production. However, the Biden administration’s stance on natural gas—including its role as a relatively clean transition fuel at home and abroad—has softened markedly following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and energy blackmailing of Europe. Republicans loath to support any Biden administration initiative should remember this was an effort touted by the former Trump administration.

Critics might further argue that this deal empowers Hezbollah because gas revenues might ultimately find their way into Hezbollah coffers. However, unlike the Iran deal, Israel’s own leadership and security establishment views the benefits of the agreement well worth the risks, not least because changing Lebanon’s politics might have a greater chance if the country’s plummeting economy is stabilized by increased investment and revenue.

U.S. politicians will hopefully recognize that, while imperfect, the gas proposal could be a boon for U.S. and Israeli security. Helping stabilize Lebanon, robbing Hezbollah of an excuse to attack Israel, and providing a path away from war is a win for all sides. Hopefully, Israel will have the courage and full political backing of the United States to accept it.

Daniel Silverberg is a managing director at Capstone, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and a former national security advisor to U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer.

Kirsten Fontenrose is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the former senior director for Persian Gulf affairs on the U.S. National Security Council under the Trump administration.

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