The Israeli–Lebanese maritime and gas extraction deal: An overview
On October 12, the Israeli government voted to approve a United States-mediated maritime border deal with Lebanon. The deal is designed to regulate the sea border demarcating each country’s exclusive economic zone, and by extension, natural gas exploitation rights by both countries. Within Israel – which is due to hold national elections on November 1 – the deal triggered a firestorm of controversy, with the right-wing opposition camp led by Benjamin Netanyahu condemning it as a shameful capitulation to Hezbollah threats, while the government, headed by Prime Minister Yair Lapid, defended the deal as delivering critical strategic and economic benefits. Netanyahu even threatened to overturn the deal should he win the elections and come to power.
Leading figures in Israel’s defense establishment came out in favor of the deal, though others within the defense and intelligence communities had some reservations regarding the potential boost it could have for Hezbollah’s standing in Lebanon and the region. According to Brig. Gen. (res.) Erez David Maisel, the former commander of the Israel Defense Force’s International Cooperation Unit, the agreement will benefit both Lebanon and Israel economically, as well as Europe, which will receive more Israeli natural gas at a time when it is highly keen for alternative energy sources, while also representing a victory for the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, creating a rare win-win-win situation for all parties concerned (Israel, Lebanon, and Hezbollah). Based on Maisel’s assessment, the presence of the two gas rigs – one Israeli and one Lebanese – next to each other, operated by the neighboring countries, could result in “mutually assured development” and help in stabilizing relations.
From the defense perspective, the arrangement contributes to a de-escalation of immediate tensions between Israel and Hezbollah, as Hezbollah’s Secretary-General, Hassan Nasrallah, threatened repeatedly in the months leading up to the agreement that if Israel began extracting natural gas from its Karish offshore platform, located off the northern Israeli coastline, before it reached an agreement with Lebanon over maritime borders, it would attack Israeli gas platforms. To underline the threat, Nasrallah dispatched unmanned aerial vehicles in the direction of the Karish platform in July from Lebanon, which the IDF shot down using ship-based missiles and missiles fired from fighter jets.
Nasrallah’s posture was interpreted by some in Israel as a controlled brinkmanship maneuver, based on the assessment by Hezbollah that the Israeli and Lebanese governments would succeed in reaching an agreement, thereby enabling Nasrallah to tell his Shi’ite Lebanese political base, as well as domestic Lebanese critics, that Hezbollah’s missile array was able to secure Lebanon’s right to natural resources. Such a strategy by Hezbollah appears to make sense, particularly when Lebanon’s dire economic and political crises are taken into account, for which Hezbollah has been blamed as a major contributor to by members of the anti-Hezbollah Lebanese political bloc.
Now that a deal has been reached, the immediate threat of escalation in the eastern Mediterranean Sea has been lifted, meaning that the deal has contributed to regional stability. However, other triggers remain in place, which could trigger a new Israel–Hezbollah armed conflict at any time. These triggers include unplanned localized flare-ups on the Lebanese–Israeli border, a decision by Hezbollah to make new demands over other unresolved issues such as land border disputes, the grey zone shadow war being fought between the Iranian–Hezbollah axis and Israel in Syria, and a potential future Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear program.
On the economic front, Israel will rapidly reap benefits from the deal as the British–Greek Energean energy company, which operates the Karish platform, can immediately begin to extract gas from the field and send it to the Israeli coastline for both domestic Israeli consumption and export to Europe. In June, the European Union and Israel signed a deal to boost Israeli gas exports to Europe, via Egypt, where the Israeli gas will be liquified prior to its export by ship.
For Lebanon, the economic benefits are not as immediate, as the French Total energy company can only begin to explore Lebanon’s economic waters in the areas where experts believe an undersea gas field is located, dubbed Qana by Lebanon. It will take several years, possibly up to five, before the exploratory phase is complete and gas begins flowing to Lebanon, but once this does happen, the gas can contribute to Lebanon’s severe energy woes, and enable Lebanon to become an energy exporter for the first time in its history.
In Lebanon, a narrow opportunity emerged for approving the deal since approval requires presidential confirmation and the Lebanese President, Hezbollah ally Michelle Aoun, is set to step down from office on October 31 ahead of presidential elections. The country’s rival parties have so far failed to reach a consensus over who would replace the Hezbollah-affiliated Christian President, Michel Aoun, though Aoun’s son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, the influential leader of the Aoun-founded Free Patriotic Movement, is seeking to fill the position. He would require two thirds of the vote of the Lebanese parliament to do so.
Bassil’s messaging campaign has stated that if he is not next-in-line for president, then nobody is – suggesting that Aoun would get to stay in his job for an indefinite period, according to a recent report by Abu Dhabi-based The National.  As the report stated, “electing a president in Lebanon is often a drawn-out affair. In 2016, it took 46 sessions and 29 months to elect Mr. Aoun, whose ascendancy came after a series of backdoor deals between key players. In the country's confessional system, the presidency is always held by a Maronite Christian, the speaker a Shiite Muslim and the prime minister a Sunni Muslim.”
The election process is expected to be lengthy, meaning that Lebanon would not have been able to approve the deal for a substantial period of time if it had missed the window of opportunity. With Israel unlikely to wait for Lebanon’s troubled political system to present a new president, the specter of an escalation between Hezbollah and Israel loomed on the horizon, due to Hezbollah’s clear commitment to activate military force to attack Israel if it began extracting gas from Karish before signing a deal with Beirut. Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun signed the deal on October 27.
From a defense perspective, the fact that Hezbollah is able to claim that the threat of its arms accelerate an agreement will likely contribute to its local and regional status. Nasrallah’s gamble appears to have paid off. An example of Nasrallah’s new ability to posture and market Hezbollah as a ‘defender’ of Lebanon’s interests can be found in the comments he made in October celebrating the deal, in which he said: “Tonight we will not issue threats. Tonight there will only be joy and clapping…We don’t need to send out drones or carry out maneuvers because the goal was for the enemy to understand that the resistance is serious.” Nasrallah also boasted that “Israel is more afraid of war than the Lebanese.”
The deal was mediated by US Special Energy Envoy, Amos Hochstein. Although he has an Israeli background and served in the IDF, Hochstein was able to establish his credentials as a US mediator on the Lebanese side, apparently due to his ability to both sell the deal’s benefit to Beirut and to adopt a significant portion of Lebanon’s requests regarding the size of Lebanon’s EEZ. In Israel, too, Hochstein’s intensive efforts were welcomed, in no small part due to the recognition by the Israeli cabinet of the need to conclude a deal before Lebanese President Aoun stepped down.
In looking at the details of the agreement itself, it is important to distinguish between two types of sea categories. The first is the sovereign territorial sea space, which is treated by international law as being identical to a country’s sovereign land territory, and which extends 12 miles from a state’s coastline. The second category represents economic waters, also known as exclusive economic zones (EEZs), which begin at the 12-mile mark off a country’s coast and extend up to 200 miles out, unless they run into the EEZ of another state (as Israel’s own EEZ does vis-a-vis Cyprus’s EEZ, located 150 miles off the Israeli coastline).
EEZs give states exclusive rights over natural resources in those zones, such as fishing and natural gas, but they do not allow a state to restrict maritime traffic within them, giving vessels the freedom to transverse a country’s EEZ without needing a given state’s approval.
According to the agreement, the status quo boundary in the first 5 kilometers of the coastline, which was unilaterally marked out by Israel during its 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon in line with its security considerations, will be preserved. The parties state in the agreement that the first 5 kilometers is not recognized as an international borderline marking, but that they recognize the line as a permanent solution, until the land boundary is also resolved in future negotiations.
From the 12-nautical-mile mark and onwards, Israel accepted Lebanon’s position and agreed to limit its exclusive economic zone to a line known as Line 23. This means that Israel gave up approximately 800 square kilometers – most of the disputed sea space. The area contains an undersea gas field, most of which is now in Lebanese economic waters, and 17% of which is estimated to be south of Line 23, in Israel’s economic waters.
Israel agreed to this compromise because the waters in question have no impact on its ability to fully utilize its Karish gas reserve, as it does not spill over into the territory that Israel forfeited. As such, the compromise was seen by the Israeli government as having more symbolic value and no economic or strategic effect on national interests or assets. According to the agreement, however, Israel will receive compensation in the form of royalties – likely from the Total energy company – for any gas extracted from its side of the maritime boundary.
As a result, the agreement represents both a de-escalation of tensions and significant economic opportunities for both Israel and Lebanon, while also strengthening Hezbollah’s deterrent posture and domestic messaging prowess within the troubled Lebanese political system.
It is important to note that Israel is not counting on the agreement alone to shield its offshore gas rigs, which stretch from north to south across its Mediterranean EEZ, but has also invested substantial sums to acquire new types of missile ships and defensive operational systems that are designed to protect the rigs against missile, rocket, UAV, and underwater attacks.
With Israel relying on natural gas for some 70% of its electrical consumption, as well as growing levels of export, the rigs have become a critical national asset, and the Israeli Navy’s role has significantly expanded in recent years in reflection of that fact.
 Jonathan Lis and Chen Maanit, “Israeli Government Approves 'Historic' Lebanon Maritime Deal, Knesset to Review Agreement,” Haaretz, October 12, 2022, http://bitly.ws/vVeN.
 Yossi Verter, “Netanyahu Says He'll Quash the Gas Deal – and the Country and World Can Burn,” Haaretz, October 7, 2022, http://bitly.ws/vVeS.
 “Israeli Defense Establishment Divided on Lebanon Maritime Border Deal,” JNS, October 16, 2022, http://bitly.ws/vWe6.
 Yaakov Lappin, “Who Benefits from the Emerging Israeli-Lebanese Maritime Deal?” JNS, October 3, 2022, http://bitly.ws/vWec.
 Seth J. Frantzman and Tal Spungin, “Hezbollah’s Nasrallah Threatens Karish Gas Field amid Israel-Lebanon Talks,” The Jerusalem Post, September 17, 2022, http://bitly.ws/vWeq.
 Emanuel Fabian, “IDF Shoots Down 3 Hezbollah Drones Heading for Karish Gas Field,” Times of Israel, July 2, 2022, http://bitly.ws/vWeF.
 Oren Dori, “Energean Receives Permit to Produce Gas from Karish,” Globes, October 25, 2022, http://bitly.ws/vWeM.
 “EU Signs Gas Agreement with Egypt and Israel to Reduce ‘Dependency’ on Russian Fuel,” France 24, June 16, 2022, http://bitly.ws/vWeX.
 Jamie Prentis, “Lebanon's Gebran Bassil Calls for Consensus President as Government Vacuum Looms,” The National, October 27, 2022, http://bitly.ws/vWf7.
 “Lebanon Approves Sea Border Deal with Israel: President Aoun,” Alarabiya News, October 13, 2022, http://bitly.ws/vWfe.
 “Hezbollah Terror Chief Welcomes Border Deal, Claims ‘Resistance’ Prodded Israel,” Times of Israel, October 12, 2022, http://bitly.ws/vWfm.
 Jacob Magid, “Lebanon Receives ‘Satisfying’ Updated US Proposal for Maritime Deal with Israel,” Times of Israel, October 11, 2022, http://bitly.ws/vWfv.
 “The Profit and Price of the Agreement on the Maritime Border Between Israel and Lebanon,” Alma Research and Education Center, October 12, 2022, http://bitly.ws/vWfJ.