Security officials believe the road is paved to an American-mediated agreement between Israel and Lebanon ending the conflict over the marine boundary between the two countries. This would settle the division of profits from the gas reserves in the disputed patch of sea.
The security establishment believes the breakthrough was a message passed on by Special U.S. Envoy on Energy Amos Hochstein, according to which Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah gave his approval to the Lebanese government to proceed with negotiations, which are in advanced stages, while stipulating a few conditions acceptable to both parties.
Upon Hochstein’s entry into the position and the renewal of talks last May, Haaretz was told by a security source that the subject is a high priority for the U.S. due to its determination to reach a deal to help alleviate the energy crisis in Lebanon, which the U.S. sees as a possible stabilizing element in the region.
The main obstacle to an agreement was Hezbollah’s refusal to countenance the Lebanese government’s reaching any deal that may be presented as an attempt at normalization with Israel or recognition of its ownership of the area. In addition, Hezbollah refused to accept an agreement precluding them from acting against Israel in the future, even in the naval arena where the organization has been building offensive capabilities in recent years.
In the recent weeks international representatives met with Lebanese counterparts close to Hezbollah and sought to reach agreements the organization could “live with,” without the step being seen as a softening in its position toward Israel. Following an exchange of messages between the parties and an understanding that the U.S. and Israel are willing to move forward to a deal, Nasrallah gave his answer. In an interview with Iranian television a few days ago, he said that drawing Lebanon’s maritime boundary with Israel is the responsibility of the Lebanese government, to which Hezbollah is not a party, and that this is an economic arrangement which has nothing to do with Hezbollah.
Nasrallah’s remarks were understood by Hochstein, Lebanon and Israel as Nasrallah’s backing of the Lebanese government in the drawing up of an agreement to settle the dispute over a 530 square meter area of sea to which both countries claim sovereignty. In the agreement taking shape, energy companies holding rights to search and extract natural gas in that area start work, after years of delays due to the dispute. The agreement is expected to appoint an international mediating actor acceptable to all sides, who will determine the royalties due to each side, and will be in charge of overseeing the transfer of funds and gas due to each country from the extracting companies.
Last week Haaretzquoted Hochstein as saying thatIsrael and Lebanon are “narrowing gaps” toward solving the maritime border dispute. Hochstein said this to Lebanese TV channel LBCI, following a series of meetings with senior Lebanese and Israeli figures, including Energy Minister Karine Elharrar. In the same interview, Hochstein argued that “this is the last minute,” and added that he advises the citizens of Lebanon to “focus on what – not what you’re missing, not what you may lose if you compromise. Think about what you gain.”
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Despite Hezbollah’s attempt to avoid publicly endorsing the deal and to commit itself not to attack Israel’s marine energy sites, Israeli security sources say Hezbollah is interested in concluding the talks with an agreement. The security sources’ estimate rests on Lebanon’s unprecedented economic crisis, which Lebanon blames on Hezbollah, so Nasrallah views the influx of cheap gas and cash profits as a calming step that will lower the heat on him. Israel also believes that even without a commitment by Hezbollah to the agreement, the advantages to Lebanon from the immense profits will deter Nasrallah and force him to think hard before seeking to harm Israel’s energy reserves.