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Israel, Lebanon inch closer to resolve maritime dispute as terror group threatens over drilling

The Biden administration has ramped up pressure on Israel and Lebanon in recent weeks to reach a resolution to a decades-old dispute over maritime borders, including a tiny swath of the Mediterranean Sea that is rich in oil and gas.

For decades, Israel and Lebanon have been locked in non-direct negotiations, mostly with the help of U.S. mediators, over an 860-square-kilometer area of the sea that both countries hope to explore for oil and gas resources. 

Negotiations between the two countries, which have no diplomatic ties and have fought multiple wars, were renewed two years ago and appeared to be making progress this week.

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While comments by both Israel’s caretaker Prime Minister, Yair Lapid, and Lebanese President Michel Aoun indicate a deal could be forthcoming, ongoing tensions between the neighbors still risk being undermined by the Iranian-backed Lebanese terror organization Hezbollah, particularly as Israel appears determined to push ahead with production at Karish, a new offshore gas rig not far from the disputed waters.

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Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), told Fox News Digital this week that for the deal to collapse at this point it would take something dramatic, especially because the U.S. seems intent on pushing Israel to give into Hezbollah’s demands for Lebanese sovereignty over the entire area under dispute.

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The U.S. — first under Obama, then Trump and now with Biden — has been pushing for a solution as a way to create new revenue sources for Lebanon, a country on the brink of economic collapse, said Badran.

“Israel had already begun drilling in fields that are all outside the disputed area, and the Obama administration, per the U.S. mediator at the time, wanted to encourage international companies, which are reluctant to work in areas of dispute or conflict, to come and operate in Lebanon.

“The dispute has not affected Israel’s ability to develop and export its gas — even the smaller Karish field is not in the disputed area. The dispute only affected Lebanon’s ability to drill.”

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Eager to pump money into Lebanon, the Biden administration has made concluding this deal a key priority, sending the U.S. State Department’s senior adviser for global energy security, Amos Hochstein, to the region. It is especially eager to wrap up negotiations before Israelis head to the polls Nov. 1 and before production begins at Karish.

Badran said the U.S. is hoping Israel will give up claims on the entire disputed area as a way to placate Hezbollah, which has threatened to torpedo the talks and attack Israeli interests in and around Karish.

“From the chatter coming out of Lebanon, however, it appears that, so far at least, Hezbollah is pleased with what the Biden administration is offering,” he said.

Lebanese protesters sail in boats with slogans affirming Lebanon's right to its offshore gas wealth near a border-marking buoy between Israel and Lebanon in the Mediterranean waters off the southern town of Naqoura Sept. 4, 2022.

On Monday, a spokesperson for the Israeli prime minister said production at Karish would “commence without delay, as soon as possible” despite the threats from Hezbollah or U.S. pressure.

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Lapid, who was in New York this week for the United Nations General Assembly, said he had given his negotiating team “very clear parameters” to reach an agreement with Lebanon. His National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata met with White House Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk on the sidelines of UNGA to discuss the matter. The meeting was characterized as “good and productive” by Israeli officials.  

A spokesperson for the Israeli prime minister, who spoke anonymously to address the issue, said, “Israel believes that it is both possible and necessary to reach an agreement on a maritime border between Lebanon and Israel in a manner that will serve the interests of the citizens of both countries. Such an agreement will be greatly beneficial and strengthen regional stability.”

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In Lebanon, President Aoun also indicated this week that there was progress. 

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“The negotiations to demarcate the southern maritime border have become in their final stages, in a manner that guarantees Lebanon’s rights to gas and oil exploration in the specified fields in its Exclusive Economic Zone,” Aoun said Monday, according to local media reports.

Speaking at a meeting with the U.N. Special Coordinator for Lebanon Joanna Wronecka, Aoun added that “communication with U.S. mediator Amos Hochstein is ongoing over some technical details related to the demarcation process,” and he expressed hope that “exploration in Lebanese waters will contribute to reviving the Lebanese economy, which witnessed a major decline over the past years, in addition to strengthening security and stability in the south.”

A military vessel of the United Nations peacekeeping force in Lebanon is pictured off the coast of the southern Lebanese town of Naqura on the border with Israel Nov. 11, 2020.

“We heard the Lebanese President Michel Aoun saying this week that he is pretty much ready to arrive at an agreement, so it would be very surprising if Hezbollah undermines that,” said Amir Avivi, CEO of the Israel Defense and Security Forum (IDSF). 

The IDSF is an NGO with 4,000 members who were former officers in various Israeli defense organizations that has been monitoring developments closely. 

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“I think they will actually try to take credit for this deal and say that they’re actually the ones who managed to make Israel make more concessions,” Avivi said. 

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Avivi said Israel was interested in reaching a deal with Lebanon in hopes it will bring stability to its northern neighbor and benefit the region overall. He also said it was important to view the dispute beyond just Israel and Lebanon but within the broader context of other regional players, namely Russia, France and Iran.

“Russia has a strong presence in the area of Lebanon and Syria, and I can say that it is definitely not interested in seeing a deterioration of the situation or even a large operation of a war between Israel and Lebanon,” said Avivi, adding that Russia was also in the process of pulling back from the area as it fights the ongoing war in Ukraine.

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President Biden  

France is also a very dominant force when it comes to Lebanon, a former colony, he said. With a growing economic and energy crisis in Europe, Mediterranean gas sources are becoming increasingly precious.

“There is the understanding that Israel actually might be a solution, to a certain extent, for getting gas to Europe, and this is very much dependent on Karish being operational,” he said. 

As for Iran, Avivi said that the hardline Islamic regime was facing a dilemma over whether to bolster Hezbollah as a threatening deterrence along Israel’s northern border, which could draw Israel into another conflict with Lebanon, or pull back out for fear Israel could destroy the group completely.

“If we find ourselves in a situation where Israel engages in a large operation that destroys Hezbollah capabilities – and this is exactly what will happen – Iran will lose probably its strongest force in deterring any attack from Israel on itself,” Avivi said, adding that Israel has the intelligence and capabilities to do so.

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Addressing the United Nations General Assembly Thursday, Lebanese Prime Minister Mohammad Najib Azmi Mikati referred to the dispute over its maritime borders, saying that he “reaffirmed Lebanon’s absolute commitment to its sovereignty wealth and rights in its territorial water and exclusive economic zone.” 

However, he added that Lebanon has a “sincere desire to reach a negotiated solution that is long overdue.”

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