By Abdel Bari Atwan – Oct 4, 2022
While the demarcation agreement is yet to be signed, skepticism on both sides signals conflict ahead
There is a sense of optimism in Lebanon over the possibility of signing a maritime agreement with Israel that would enable the extraction of gas from Lebanese territorial waters, which could help lead the country out of its dire financial crisis.
After the 3 October meeting that brought together Lebanese President Michel Aoun, Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, and Prime Minister Najib Mikati at the Republican Palace, it was clear that everyone agreed with the “moderate” proposals presented by US envoy Amos Hochstein, head of the indirect negotiations between Lebanon and Israel over their common maritime border
Deputy Speaker of Parliament Elias Abu Saab announced after the meeting that Lebanon’s “comments” on the proposals would be sent to Hochstein, and that the Lebanese government would not provide an official answer to the proposal – pending a response from the US envoy before the end of the week.Israel for its part has reportedly given preliminary approval for the proposal which consists of a 10-page draft.
Abu Saab confirmed that Lebanon had obtained its full rights in the maritime “Qana gas field,” but he cautioned that the devils lie in the detail.
Mikati, who seems the most enthusiastic to sign the US-brokered agreement, said after leaving the presidential palace that “things are going in the right direction.” His smile was wider than ever – as though gas revenues in the billions of dollars were about to flow into the coffers of the Central Bank of Lebanon.
Gas deal ‘leaks’
So far, few details of the agreement have been revealed. Currently in circulation are ‘deliberate’ indirect leaks from the two negotiating parties to ‘beautify’ the agreement for their respective constituents. It reflects the desire of deal proponents to clinch an agreement as soon as possible, ostensibly to avoid a war on the Lebanese-Israeli border that could escalate into a regional war, and maybe more.
While the Lebanese side appears uncharacteristically united and more willing to sign, sharp divisions persist in the Israeli camp, especially between interim Prime Minister Yair Lapid and his ally Minister of Defense Benny Gantz, on the one hand, and the opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, on the other.
Lapid claims, through his camp’s leaks, that Israel will retain full sovereignty over the contested Karish gas field and will receive financial compensation by relinquishing part of Lebanon’s Qana gas field – paid for by French corporation TotalEnergies, which is currently in talks of its own with Israel over potential profit sharing from exploration.
Lapid also promotes the notion that Israel made a “tactical concession in exchange for a strategic gain in stability on the northern borders.”
Netanyahu has stepped up his attacks on the prime minister and has criticized the draft agreement for making huge concessions on the ‘Land of Israel’ and for handing over its natural resources to Lebanon and Hezbollah.
This, he contends, is taking place without holding a public referendum or securing the approval of the Knesset (Parliament). He has also vowed to abolish the agreement if he comes to power following legislative elections scheduled for 1 November.
Meanwhile, everyone is awaiting the results of the mini-Israeli security cabinet meeting next Thursday, which is supposed to discuss and ratify the agreement.
The internal battle may then move to Israel’s Supreme Court to decide on the opposition’s demands to hold a referendum on the agreement, or to submit it to the Knesset for approval – or both. There are initial indications that the Supreme Court may support the opposition’s opinion.
Uri Adiri, the chief Israeli negotiator for demarcating the maritime border with Lebanon, announced his resignation in protest of Lapid’s management of the negotiations. It seems clear that the resignation came under opposition pressure, and it is not unlikely that similar resignations will take place in the coming days.
Negotiations leading to ‘normalization’
There are also criticisms on the Lebanese side in some circles, chiefly over the notion that such negotiations are a precursor to normalization with the occupation state. Abu Saab, however, has insisted that no agreement or treaty will be signed with the Israeli enemy, and that there will be no document that includes a Lebanese signature alongside an Israeli signature.
But there are several caveats worth noting:
Firstly: The final version of the US-brokered proposals has not yet been agreed upon, and therefore the possibilities of returning to square one, that is, before the ‘theoretical current agreement,’ are still present.
Secondly: The only guarantors of this agreement are the United States and France. Experiences with US guarantees are not encouraging. As we have seen with Washington’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – likewise, the US guarantee of the Oslo Accord, signed at the White House on 13 September, 1993 – an American guarantee no longer invokes much confidence.
Thirdly: Netanyahu cannot cancel the agreement as long as it is legally approved, but he can undermine it if he wins the next legislative elections. As with the Oslo Accords – which he strongly opposed – while he could not exit the agreement, he prevented its implementation and reduced it to empty words by settling 800,000 settlers in Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.
Delaying the inevitable
Finally: We cannot rule out that these Israeli disputes between the government and the opposition are just political theater intended to stall, deceive the Lebanese, and plan ahead for the inevitable response by the Lebanese resistance movement, Hezbollah.
It should be noted that the US is Israel’s strongest global ally, that Lapid is one of Israel’s most ardent supporters of the US war against Russia in Ukraine, and that the American “mediator” Amos Hochstein is Israeli-born and served in the Israeli army.
The only reliable guarantee for Lebanon, for its oil and gas resources, for its security and stability, is the Islamic resistance represented by Hezbollah and its huge arsenal of precision missiles, advanced drones, and one hundred thousand-strong army of resistance fighters.
This is the first time in the history of Israel, since its establishment, that its government has offered concessions under the threat of arms and in fear of a war that threatens its existence. This is entirely due to Hezbollah’s refusal to allow Israel to extract gas before Lebanon has secured its own rights.
The next few days could be the most dangerous for Lebanon and the region. The utmost caution must be exercised, and every word or comma in any binding agreement must be carefully scrutinized before signing.
Remember that Netanyahu is a paper tiger, and he was subjected to humiliating defeats at the hands of the resistance in the Gaza Strip, especially in the battle of Sayf al-Quds.
The resistance is the biggest winner of this agreement so far in both in its implementation – because it is the one who imposed it with missiles and drones – and in the event of its collapse – because it is ready for all possibilities, foremost of which is war.
While the Lebanese people are peaceful, and have sought hard to secure a fair and equitable agreement over their maritime borders, they may yet be forced to militarily secure their national rights to Lebanon’s natural resources.
Abdel Bari Atwan
Abdel Bari Atwan was born in Gaza, Palestine and has lived in London since 1979. The founder and editor in chief of Raialyoum since 2013, Abdel Bari was previously the editor of London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi, an independent, pan-Arab daily newspaper since 1989. He is the author of several books, including the bestselling 'The Secret History of al-Qa'ida,' a prolific contributor to international media outlets - TV and print - and lectures worldwide