The Israel-Lebanon maritime border agreement: Pros and cons

While there are several positive aspects to the agreement from Israel’s perspective, it may have a serious strategic downside.

An Israel Navy vessel sails near one of Israel's natural gas rigs in the Mediterranean Sea. Credit: IDF.
An Israel Navy vessel sails near one of Israel's natural gas rigs in the Mediterranean Sea. Credit: IDF.
Yaakov Amidror
Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Yaakov Amidror is a senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

The agreement with Lebanon over the maritime border has several implications, and needs to be examined from various angles.

First, it makes sense to look at the agreement from a financial perspective:

In terms of Israeli gas exploration, this is a good agreement, mainly because it allows Israel to immediately begin extracting gas from the Karish gas field, while significantly decreasing the level of threat to the offshore rigs. Foreign companies will also be able to search for additional gas in Israel’s economic waters in a more favorable atmosphere. The question is how committed Hezbollah is to the agreement.

In contrast, Israel’s hope of revenue from the gas field north of the agreed line will probably be only partially realized. That is because the agreed demarcation line (known as the Line 23) greatly reduces the area to which Israel will be able to claim economic rights (about 17% of the reservoir area, depending on how the gas is dispersed).

It can be argued that without signing the agreement there was nothing to divide at all (because no company would have done the drilling without an agreement), but this is the argument of those who gave up the area in the negotiations and are trying to cut their losses rhetorically.

Politically, for Israel to conclude another agreement, even if quite limited and not bilateral, which settles a dispute with one of its neighbors with whom there are no political agreements, is important. Now, at least, there is one issue settled between the countries—a small step toward the recognition of Israel.

Moreover, an agreement that implies Hezbollah’s approval is a bitter pill for the organization to swallow. It still sees the elimination of Israel as a primary goal, yet here it is a partner, if covertly, in an agreement with Jerusalem. This has symbolic importance.

From a security perspective, Israel’s position that the line of buoys amounts to some kind of international recognition is a correct emphasis, although it is primarily a tactical security achievement: it creates a more comfortable space for the routine operations of the Israeli Navy. Although the wording, in the end, does not define the line of buoys as an internationally recognized border, which is a source of discomfort, Israel can live with it, provided the navy is indeed able to operate without any future challenges.

There is also a small concession over sovereign waters. This is different from a concession on economic waters that are not under the sovereignty of the state, and I leave it to the jurists to have their say. It seems that this issue revolves around violating a principle that is more important than the area ceded.

At the heart of the negotiations was a territorial dispute over the boundary between the economic waters of Israel and Lebanon. From a strategic perspective therefore, on this essential point the agreement is not good for Israel.

The agreed line is clear, and it shows a complete Israeli renunciation of the territorial line that Israel, with good reason, claimed for years. Israel’s arguments were no less valid than those of Lebanon for Line 23, which will henceforth be the borderline recognized by Israel and the international community.

Such a complete concession can be perceived as a weakness. Even objective observers, who accept that Israel had an economic interest in the agreement, would likely agree that the absolute concession embodies a fear of conflict with Hezbollah, a fear that does not add to Israel’s deterrence.

It will be important to see how Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah interprets the absolute Israeli concession on this key issue. If he views Israel’s action as capitulation due to fear of confrontation, Israel can expect further attempts at blackmail. If the concession is perceived as tactical—to speed up the negotiations because of Israel’s economic needs—then its damage will be less. At least publicly, it is clear that Hezbollah and Nasrallah are adopting the first interpretation.

Luckily, the Lebanese demanded two minor amendments at the end of the negotiations and allowed Israel to reject them at least rhetorically (in the wording regarding the line of buoys the Lebanese accepted part of their demand), thus saving a little of Israel’s dignity, although it is clear that these are minor issues in comparison with the absolute territorial concession on the border line.

The insistence that the matter of financial compensation be discussed directly between Israel and the oil company designated to explore north of Line 23, and that its conclusion be a condition for the utilization of the gas, is important economically. As noted, the economic benefits to Israel will be smaller because of the geographic concession.

Israel’s insistence on these two secondary issues was important for the outcome of the negotiations, whose conclusion is sending a bad message to the international community as well. What’s noteworthy is that Israel faces negotiations on maritime borders with the Palestinians and with the Cypriots, with whom there are similar disagreements over gas fields that mostly (or completely) belong to the other side.

It is impossible in such negotiations to ignore the position of the United States, which in the later part of the negotiations was inclined to favor the Lebanese position. It is not clear whether this was a result of an American decision to have Israel make concessions—in view of the failure of the United States to influence Lebanon (actually Hezbollah)—or whether the U.S. position reflected an Israeli decision to completely surrender for the sake of an agreement.

It is important for Israel to conclude the negotiations in coordination with the United States, especially in anticipation of future conflicts that may arise between Israel and Lebanon, especially at sea.

Let us now review the four issues that came up in the public debate.

The claim that the gas money will be used to enrich Hezbollah is only partially true. Yes, it is likely that in the context of Lebanese corruption, Hezbollah will also benefit when the gas starts flowing. But make no mistake: Hezbollah will get stronger not because of this money but because of Iran’s efforts; the gas revenues will only marginally help Hezbollah.

The claim that having rigs on both sides guarantee peace is probably greatly exaggerated. If Hezbollah decides for whatever reason that it is time to start a conflict with Israel, the existence of a “Lebanese rig” will not stop it, just as the existence of Lebanese power plants did not stop it from using force against Israel. In any case, Hezbollah shooting at Israel would certainly not be justification for Israel hitting a French rig in Lebanese waters.

And even if Hezbollah fires at a rig in Israeli waters, it is not at all certain what Israel’s response will be.

For these reasons, having rigs on both sides of the border will contribute little to stability.

The third claim—that Lebanese gas will reduce Lebanon’s dependence on Iran, and therefore reduce Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon (and perhaps also bring about more stability in Lebanon), is without merit, even putting aside that the gas will only start flowing to Lebanon in five to 10 years.

Hezbollah is strong in Lebanon not because of its economic influence, although it is trying to increase it; Hezbollah is the strongest political force in Lebanon because it is the strongest military force in the country. No Lebanese organization, including the national Lebanese army, can stand up to it, and nobody wants to confront Hezbollah militarily. The arrival of Lebanese gas will not change this reality, and we should not deceive ourselves.

We should remember that Lebanon was not stable even in the years when its economy flourished. Lebanon is not functioning not because of poverty but because of corruption, which will not decrease when there is more money to distribute to the various interested parties. Indeed, perhaps it will work the other way around.

The claim that Israel may have made great concessions but the American letters of guarantee are adequate political compensation stems from a lack of understanding. These guarantees are a flag to be waved for PR and nothing else. They are not even binding on this American administration, let alone the next administration.

In conclusion: even if Israel had only achieved some of its demands for the demarcation of the disputed maritime area, but had not accepted the full Lebanese territorial demand, it would have been a good agreement.

The complete Israeli concession on the territorial issue clouds the other achievements:

A. The immediate continuation of the exploration of Israeli gas, and relief in that it will allow more foreign companies to search for gas in the sea.

B. Financial compensation (smaller than expected and unspecified) from the Lebanese gas field.

C. Approval of the line of buoys (despite the ambiguity in the language of the agreement).

If Nasrallah believes (as he states publicly) that it was the fear of confrontation with Hezbollah that led Israel to the territorial concession, he may believe that this situation opens the door for future pressure on Israel. If that is his conclusion, instead of contributing to stability, the agreement may actually cause an escalation; short-term peace could be the basis for increased tension down the road.

It is possible that Nasrallah believes he was able to change the deterrent equation with Israel—this is the main strategic weakness in the agreement.

Still, when the draft agreement is final, it will be necessary to approve it despite its weaknesses.

An Israeli rejection of the U.S.-negotiated agreement will damage Israel’s international legitimacy in future conflicts that are likely to arise with or without the agreement.

Hezbollah’s opposition to Israel’s existence will not change, and the question of how we will become better prepared for the next conflict should guide us in the various decisions.

IDF Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror was national security adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and chairman of Israel’s National Security Council (April 2011-November 2013). He served for 36 years in senior IDF posts (1966-2002), including commander of the Military Colleges, military secretary to the defense minister, director of the Intelligence Analysis Division in Military Intelligence and chief intelligence officer of the IDF Northern Command. He is the author of three books on intelligence and military strategy: “Reflections on Army and Security” (Hebrew, 2002), “Intelligence, Theory and Practice” (Hebrew, 2006) and “Winning Counterinsurgency War: The Israeli Experience” (JCPA, 2008).

This article was first published by the Jerusalem Institute of Strategy and Security.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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