Israel hailed a US proposal to settle the country’s maritime border dispute with Lebanon, building further momentum for a deal between two nations that are technically still at war.
The draft deal, presented by US envoy Amos Hochstein, aims to settle competing claims to offshore gas fields and was handed over to Lebanese and Israeli officials over the weekend.
Lebanese authorities, who confirmed they had received the terms, have pledged to provide a response “as soon as possible” after a spate of recent announcements from Beirut that a deal with Israel is nearing completion.
Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid told his cabinet on Sunday that the US proposal “will strengthen Israel’s security and Israel’s economy.”
His government is “finishing the final details, so it’s not yet possible to commend a deal that’s been made,” Lapid said.
“However, as we have requested from the outset, the proposal protects Israel’s full security diplomatic interests as well as our economic interests.”
Lebanon and Israel have no diplomatic relations and their land border is patrolled by the United Nations.
They resumed negotiations on their sea border in 2020, but the process has been blocked by demands from Lebanon to change the map used by the UN in the talks.
Advances have resumed after Lebanon appeared to have changed its position, particularly on the Karish gas field, which Israel claims as its territory and is not open to negotiations.
The head of the powerful Lebanese Shia movement Hezbollah, Hasan Nasrallah, had threatened Israel with attacks if it started producing Karish.
But Nasrallah called the US proposal “a very important step” on Saturday.
Lapid said Israel had been seeking an agreement with Lebanon “for over a decade”.
He added that his government “is not opposed to the development of an additional Lebanese gas field, of which we will of course receive the share we deserve” – an apparent reference to the Qana field, which could be subject to a revenue-sharing mechanism in the US proposal .
“Such a field would weaken Lebanese dependence on Iran, restrain Hezbollah and bring regional stability,” Lapid said.
The Hochstein proposal will be submitted for final approval after legal review, he said.
Progress on the deal comes ahead of Israel’s Nov. 1 elections, the fifth vote in less than four years.
Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a staunch foreign policy hawk seeking a return to power, warned that the right-wing government he plans to form after the vote could scuttle any pact. “If this illegal ploy goes through, it won’t commit us,” he said.
Netanyahu accused Lapid of “ceding to Hezbollah a sovereign Israeli territory with a vast gas field” to the Jewish state, without specifying which Israeli waters he believes will be abandoned.
Israel and Hezbollah fought a 34-day war in 2006. Netanyahu said Lapid had “shyly capitulated to Nasrallah’s threats”.
Lapid fired back, accusing Netanyahu of making “irresponsible announcements” that undermine Israel’s “security interests.”
“Invest in our gas”
Defense Secretary Benny Gantz, who is also aspiring to be elected prime minister in less than a month, said Netanyahu’s criticism was uninformed and dangerous.
“I would suggest that Netanyahu … ask for an orderly update on the issue before fueling Nasrallah’s propaganda that has jeopardized and is jeopardizing the deal,” Gantz said in a statement.
Gantz also said that when finalized, the deal would be presented to Parliament and shared with the Israeli public.
It was not yet clear whether such a deal would require parliamentary approval, where Lapid does not have a majority.
The Justice Department said late Sunday that it was still reviewing the agreement and related legal issues.
With the growing plight of the Lebanese economy, Hezbollah has pledged to honor whatever Beirut agrees to in the indirect talks.
“We support the Lebanese position to uphold our right to demarcate our sea borders and invest in our gas,” Lebanese National News Agency quoted senior Hezbollah official Mohammad Raad as saying.