Lebanese President Michel Aoun poses with U.S. Senior Advisor for Energy Security Amos Hochstein as he signed an agreement establishing borders with Israel in the Mediterranean Sea. Photo by Dalati Nohra/EPA-EFE
Oct. 27 (UPI) -- Israel and Lebanon signed a U.S.-brokered deal on Thursday that established their borders in the Mediterranean Sea, opening them up to explore possibly lucrative gas fields eyed by both countries.
The agreement was signed at the United Nations Interim Forces headquarters in Naquora, Lebanon with Israeli and Lebanese delegations sitting in separate rooms to avoid the image being a sign of normalization between the two countries.
"I am pleased to open this special cabinet meeting in order to approve this historic agreement on a maritime boundary with Lebanon," Prime Minister Yair Lapid said in a statement.
"This agreement strengthens Israel's security and our freedom of action against Hezbollah and the threats to our north. There is rare consensus in the security establishment regarding the necessity of this agreement.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun signed on the agreement with chief his chief negotiator Elias Bou Saab calling it a "new era." The president's office however described it as a "technical work that does not have any political dimensions or effects that contradict Lebanon's foreign policy."
The pact covers 330 square miles of the sea off their coasts, which neither country has been able to take advantage of because of the long-running dispute. The countries have been technically at war since Israel was founded in 1948.
In the agreement, Israel will get full rights to the Karish, a confirmed gas field, and part of Qana, a prospective gas field. Lebanon agreed to some potential revenue from the Qana gas field, part of which is in Israeli waters.
Hezbollah, a military group and political faction in Lebanon, had threatened to attack Israel if it began gas exploration before the deal was completed.
"We in Hezbollah consider what happened from the beginning to the end to the results as a great and very big victory for the Lebanese for the state, the people and the resistance, and what happened has very important results and implications," Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah said.
U.S. President Joe Biden, who announced the deal as he hosted Israeli President Isaac Herzog at the White House on Wednesday, congratulated Israel and Lebanon for negotiating the agreement.
"It sets the stage for a more stable and prosperous region," Biden said in a White House statement. "The United States will continue to serve as a facilitator as the parties work to uphold their commitments and implement this agreement. Energy -- particularly in the Eastern Mediterranean -- should not be a cause for conflict, but a tool for cooperation, stability, security, and prosperity.
"This agreement takes us one step closer to realizing a vision for a Middle East that is more secure, integrated, and prosperous, delivering benefits for all the people of the region."
Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who could return to power in national elections this year, called the agreement illegal and pledged he would not be bound by it.