President Joe Biden on Tuesday hailed a U.S.-brokered maritime border agreement between Israel and Lebanon as a “historic breakthrough in the Middle East” that allows cash-strapped Lebanon to explore potential gas deposits in the Mediterranean Sea, while giving Israel more security and stability in the volatile region.
“The agreement announced by both governments today will provide for the development of energy fields for the benefit of both countries, setting the stage for a more stable and prosperous region, and harnessing vital new energy resources for the world,” Biden said in a statement. “It is now critical that all parties uphold their commitments and work towards implementation.”
The two neighbors have been formally at war for decades and have no official communication, so the deal was brokered over several months by American officials.
Israel discovered the massive deposits off its coast in 2010, but Lebanon raised concerns that the deposits may stretch into Lebanese waters. And Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah Party has threatened to protect what it claims is its territory.
Speaking to journalists, a senior Biden administration official described the agreement as balanced.
“This agreement is not a win-lose agreement,” said the official, who asked not to be named, as is common practice when the White House briefs reporters. “The parties are not getting more than the other because they get different things. The win for Israel is around security, stability and economic gain. The win for Lebanon is economic prosperity, economic development, foreign direct investment and hope for an economic recovery.”
Top officials from both countries said they were satisfied with the deal, which next goes before the two nations’ parliaments.
“All our demands were met, the changes that we asked for were corrected,” Eyal Hulata, Israel’s National Security Council director and head of the country’s negotiating team, said on Tuesday. “We protected Israel’s security interests and are on our way to an historic agreement.”
The office of Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said he would convene the security cabinet on Wednesday, followed by a special meeting of the government.
“The final version of the offer satisfies Lebanon, meets its demands, and preserves its rights to its natural wealth,” Lebanese President Michel Aoun said in a statement.
Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said each side stands to gain from this agreement.
“Israel would become energy secure,” he told VOA by email. “Lebanon, which is completely broke with high unemployment and malnutrition, would gain a new source of income. Even Hezbollah sees this as in their interest.”
But, Riedel added, “There is opposition in Israel from Netanyahu, who says the government gave too much. So, there is some urgency in finalizing the deal before the Israeli elections.”
Israel’s election is scheduled for November 1.
Will Todman, a Middle East analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the United States also benefits.
“The United States seized on a moment of opportunity for a diplomatic win,” he told VOA by email. “Israel has a less hardline Israeli government, and Lebanon has a dire economic crisis. It was, therefore, in the interests of both sides to come to a deal.”
Earlier this year, the World Bank described Lebanon’s two-year economic free fall as “one of the top 10, possibly top three most severe economic collapses worldwide since the 1850s.” Contributing factors, they say, include the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 Beirut port explosion and a history of mismanagement that has led to a currency crash, an electricity crisis and catastrophic food-price inflation.
VOA asked administration officials whether the agreement included any safeguards or guarantees should Hezbollah — a powerful political force in Lebanon — act on its threats.
“The negotiations that were carried out through U.S. mediation did not include discussions with Hezbollah,” the U.S. official said. “This is with the sovereign leadership of Lebanon. We held meetings with the president, the prime minister and the speaker, and I have every assurance that the government of Lebanon intends to keep its end of this agreement, as I have on the Israeli side.”
But Todman said this agreement almost certainly has the blessing of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
“The Lebanese government would not have agreed to this deal without Hezbollah’s go-ahead,” he said. “Hezbollah has celebrated the agreement. Nasrallah just said, ‘Tonight, we will not issue threats. Tonight, there will only be joy and clapping.’”
But the official stressed there are also no guarantees that there is any treasure in these still-undeveloped waters.
“It has been discovered but not drilled,” the official said. “So, it is unclear how much and where the deposits of gas are.”