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Lebanon-Israel sea border deal ushers in a new era

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President Joe Biden (R) meets with Israeli President Isaac Herzog in the Oval Office of the White House on Wednesday. They announced the U.S. mediated agreement on the maritime border between Israel and Lebanon. Pool Photo by Doug Mills/UPI
President Joe Biden (R) meets with Israeli President Isaac Herzog in the Oval Office of the White House on Wednesday. They announced the U.S. mediated agreement on the maritime border between Israel and Lebanon. Pool Photo by Doug Mills/UPI | License Photo

BEIRUT, Lebanon, Oct. 28 (UPI) -- A U.S.-mediated maritime border deal this week ending a years-long dispute between Lebanon and Israel over the ownership of natural gas fields was seen as a paradigm shift that would pave the way for a truce in the region, analysts and diplomatic sources told UPI.

Lebanon and Israel, in a state of war since the creation of Israel in 1948, signed on Thursday a "historic" agreement, which will allow them to explore and exploit natural resources in a 330-square-mile disputed offshore area involving major oil and gas fields in the Mediterranean Sea.

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Under the deal, Israel gets full rights to the Karish field, which contains 1.4 trillion cubic feet of proved and probable gas reserves. Qana, a prospective gas field, goes to Lebanon, which agreed to some potential revenue for Israel from the field paid from the operating company's profits.

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A day before the agreement was signed, Israel announced it has started extracting gas from the Karish field. Lebanon still needs to start exploration.

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'Everybody needs it'

The agreement, sealed after months of indirect negotiations led by U.S. envoy for energy affairs Amos Hochstein, was made possible due to several factors: a growing global demand for natural gas caused by Russia's invasion of Ukraine and related international pressures; economic benefits for both sides; internal political interests; the prospect of achieving lasting calm along the Lebanese-Israeli border; and an Iranian green light.

"Everybody needs it: It is about a pressing global need for natural gas and a suitable time with looming understandings in the region," a Lebanese diplomatic source, who asked not to be identified, told UPI of the agreement. "The two parties need it for the same reasons. It is the right time to make money and send positive messages."

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Debt-stricken Lebanon hopes to enter the club of oil producers to get out of the financial crisis that has plunged the country into disarray since October 2019. Poverty and unemployment are soaring; the Lebanese pound has lost 90% of its value; and the country's economic sectors have collapsed, one after the other.

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"What happened was a paradigm shift; a kind of agreement within international law but not a peace treaty or normalization of ties," the source said. "It could be called a gas, oil or economic peace."

Such a "peace" would require cessation of hostilities and lasting calm on the Lebanese-Israeli border.

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Brig. Gen. Hisham Jaber, head of Middle East Center for Studies and Public Relations, who was once close to Hezbollah and a staunch defender of its anti-Israel resistance, said the gas agreement "prevents war" between the two countries "for a period of time that might extend to two, three or four years or even more."

"This is probably the only one good thing about this deal, which is unfair to Lebanon," Jaber told UPI, criticizing Lebanon's failure to protect its rights that could have extended to the Karish field instead of granting Israel a share in the Qana field.

Last year, the Lebanese delegation to the talks, made up of Army generals and experts, presented a new map that would add 550 square miles to the disputed 330-square-mile area of the Mediterranean that each side claims is within their exclusive economic zone.

Jaber said the ultimate agreement "deprived Lebanon of 75% of its rights, while the remaining 25% and potential revenues will go to the corrupt political class."

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Lebanon's top negotiator, Deputy Speaker of Parliament Elias Bou Saab, said Lebanon's rights were preserved, as it will obtain its complete share of gas, 58% to 62%, and will not be the one compensating Israel for its Qana share.

As Iran-backed Shiite Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah hailed the agreement as "a very big victory," Jaber said, "This is a scandal."

Such an agreement, however, could not have seen the light without a go-ahead from Iran.

"It was a goodwill gesture by Iran, which gave the green light and instructed Hezbollah to agree on the deal, so that the Americans facilitate the nuclear accord," he said, adding that a high-ranking Hezbollah official he met told him, "'We agreed on the deal for regional and internal reasons. We were forced to, although I agree it is not a fair deal.'"

'A new environment'

With the deal, the need for resources and economic benefits is taking over ideological and military aspirations in the region.

Riad Kahwaji, who heads the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai, said border disputes that involve vital energy resources, like oil and gas, rarely end up in an actual military conflict.

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Wars, Kahwaji said, lead to losing lots of money and discourage companies from investing in the excavation and building the infrastructure and so "both sides" will lose.

He said Israel's war options will be reduced, as there will be "a new environment, a new culture in this world that is very much oriented around the economy and business."

"If there is a military conflict, then you will be subjecting all this infrastructure to destruction; companies will just move away and will be discouraged from coming back to reinvest...Israel will be more open to resolve conflicts in a peaceful way," he told UPI.

The same applies to Lebanon.

Hezbollah has come out to demonstrate to the Americans and the West that "it is pragmatic enough to facilitate a deal, which it will benefit from." More exploration and discoveries of oil and gas will also create a different mentality and a different culture in the country, even within the Shiite sect.

"There will be more interest in Lebanon from the superpowers and regional powers and we will have a new whole dynamic," Khawaji said. "We will definitely see a start of a new era for Lebanon."

The sea border deal may open the door for some assistance to Lebanon to help alleviate its electricity crisis, but the road to economic recovery is still long in the absence of real reforms as requested by foreign donors and the international community.

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