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A landmark maritime agreement was recently reached between Israel and Lebanon, yet the recent parliamentary election in Israel could spell an early end to the deal that would potentially see exponential economic benefits for Israel and Lebanon. Netanyahu’s return to power could mean a significant shift in Israeli politics and a swift end for the recent maritime agreement with Lebanon.

Gustav Fauskanger Pedersen, 15 December 2022

Maritime borders in the Mediterranean Sea are a main area of contention between many countries in the region. These disputes are long-lasting – especially the one between Greece and Turkey. Another long-running maritime dispute between Lebanon and Israel has only recently been resolved. The two countries have technically been at war with each other since 1948. Despite these tensions the two neighboring countries reached an historic agreement on 27 October 2022 regarding their maritime borders in the Mediterranean Sea.

Hezbollah, the Shia Islamist political party and militant group in Lebanon, has previously threatened to attack Israel if any attempts were to be made to extract gas from the Karish or Qana gas fields before a deal was reached.

These gas fields, the former of which is a confirmed field and the latter a prospective one, are at the heart of this historic agreement on maritime borders between the two states. The US-brokered deal stands to immensely benefit both countries economically, especially at a time when gas is more in demand than ever and there are gas shortages related to sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

This new deal gives Israel full rights to the Karish gas field, while Lebanon gains the vast majority of the potential revenue from the Qana gas field, while some of the revenue goes to Israel, as parts of the field lie in Israeli waters. Previously, disagreements regarding the maritime borders in the region have prevented both countries from taking advantage of the area’s natural resources.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid called the agreement a diplomatic achievement, stating that this involved an ‘enemy state’ recognizing the state of Israel. Former Lebanese President Michel Aoun, however, stated that the agreement was merely technical, not political. Nevertheless, the agreement was undoubtedly historic, albeit potentially brief.

Strangely, although the agreement on the surface seems beneficial for both Israel and Israel, advocates of both parties have criticized the agreement as well. Imad K. Harb, Director of Research and Analysis at the Arab Center in Washington DC, for instance, states that Lebanon will not benefit from the agreement. It has also been heavily criticized by some Israelis.

On 1 November 2022, Israel held elections for its legislature, with Prime Minister Lapid losing the parliamentary majority in the Knesset. Netanyahu has now reached a coalition deal with the far-right Religious Zionism party.

Netanyahu’s return to power could mean a significant shift in Israeli politics and a swift end for the recent maritime agreement with Lebanon. Netanyahu has previously called the agreement “illegal” and stated that he would not be bound by the terms of the agreement. Netanyahu even went so far as to calling the agreement a “historic capitulation to an enemy”.

Although many wrote off Netanyahu’s statements as hyperbole ahead of the election, the agreement faces an uncertain future. Despite the deal being unanimously accepted in Israel’s cabinet, many have criticized the fact that the deal would not be voted on in the 120-member Knesset, as well as the fact that it was pushed through right before an election.

At a time when especially Europe is desperate for stable gas supplies, the pressure on Netanyahu from Israel’s European allies not to destroy the recent maritime deal is likely to be strong. Furthermore, the Biden administration, which has been struggling in polls, sees this as a diplomatic achievement. The US will likely put additional pressure on Netanyahu. President Biden congratulated both sides to “formally end[ing] their maritime boundary dispute and establish[ing] a permanent maritime boundary between them.”

Whether the pressure from Israel’s allies will prove decisive or not remains to be seen. Many political analysts believe that it is unlikely he will not honor the agreement. Netanyahu has in the past been known to be unpredictable and unreasonable. Yet terminating the agreement would harm Israel’s national security, economy, the geopolitical stability in the Middle East and the future of its Mediterranean gas exploration. It would also hurt Israel’s reputation and credibility.

There is no doubt that the Israeli-Lebanese agreement was diplomatically and historically significant, and that it has the potential to be hugely profitable. Now, Netanyahu will in effect get a chance to choose between honoring or destroying the agreement and its benefits for both sides.  What follows not honoring this agreement will surely be worse, so even enemies must realize the price of not keeping their word: Pacta Sunt Servanda.

Picture: 27 October 2022, Tel Aviv, Israel: Prime Minister YAIR LAPID (L) meets with US mediator AMOS HOCHSTEIN (R) following the approval of the maritime border agreement between Israel and Lebanon at this morning Cabinet meeting and Prime Minister Lapid’s signing of the agreement alongside the Israeli negotiating team. © IMAGO / ZUMA Wire
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