The US-brokered maritime agreement between Israel and Lebanon that was signed on October 27, 2022 presents a real—yet fragile—opportunity for both countries. As the Lebanese government confronts political turmoil at home, the conclusion of the agreement could provide much needed political capital since it comes as Lebanon is facing an economic and energy crisis which has hampered growth and dampened productivity. Through diplomatic efforts by US State Department Energy Advisor, Amos Hochstein, the maritime agreement seeks to end the territorial dispute in the Eastern tip of the Mediterranean Sea through proposed boundary lines on gas and oil exploration. The question, however, is whether the deal will end up a success story as it encounters significant political challenges which must be overcome if the agreement is to last.
The deal mentions Line 23, which allows both Israel and Lebanon to benefit from hydrocarbons and natural gas exploration in the Karish and Qana gas fields respectively. While it provides an opportunity for Lebanon to benefit from the Qana field to address its energy shortfalls, the truth is that the revenue generated could end up in the hands of the Lebanese political elite. This would prevent a trickle-down effect from taking place, which the current Lebanese administration seeks to use to consolidate power.
Additionally, the deal comes amid Lebanon settling for Line 23 instead of Line 29 during negotiations. Line 29 would have allowed Lebanon to pierce through the Karish field that Israel seeks to extract hydrocarbons from. The truth is that securing the Qana field does not guarantee unfettered access to Lebanon given that gas exploration is subject to the approval of Israel as per the agreement. The French company, Total, for example, is slated to explore the gas field, yet is mandated to reach a financial agreement with Israel without prior approval from Beirut. Essentially, the arrangement will allow Israel to monopolize the Karish field while Lebanon has to share 17 percent of Qana’s revenues with Total and seek Israeli approval for its activities. Thus, this deal can be best described as a political arrangement that Lebanon has conceded to rather than a long-term framework for peace between the two countries.
On the security front, there looms the palpable threat of Hezbollah as a major spoiler of the deal. Hassan Nasrallah’s leadership gave security guarantees to the Israeli leadership that the Karish field will not be targeted. The entire agreement was vetted by the top brass of the group prior to approval, which signals a departure from the years-long uncompromising stance adopted by Hezbollah on border negotiations with Israel. The question, however, is whether Hezbollah’s conciliatory stance will hold. Currently, the movement lacks popular support in Lebanon and Hezbollah will be tempted to exploit the fragile political situation in the country by using its resistance rhetoric against its political opponents, and their dealings with Israel.
It is clear that the sustainability of the maritime agreement will remain uncertain in the absence of significant political reforms and efforts to curb the influence of Hezbollah in Lebanese politics. While the agreement does underline Lebanon’s recognition of Israel and bodes well for the future of diplomatic ties, only by controlling spoilers and promoting broader political stability can Lebanon ensure the deal’s longevity and take advantage of its potential to foster peace.
Hamzah Rifaat Hussain is an Assistant Research Associate at the Islamabad Policy Research Institute in Pakistan and a Visting Fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington.