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Amid decades of hostility, Lebanon and Israel on Tuesday reached a historic maritime border deal, finally demarcating a disputed area in the Mediterranean Sea that is believed to be rich in oil and gas. The deal opens doors to exploration and drilling when gas prices are skyrocketing amid a global supply crunch stemming from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Still technically at war, Lebanon and Israel both have much to gain from the deal. From income relief peering over the horizon for an economically shattered Lebanon, to a vital win for Israel’s Yair Lapid government ahead of next month’s elections, the agreement should bear fruit for both parties.
It is also a regional victory for the Biden administration, which lately has seen diplomatic tensions rise with some of its Middle East allies, especially those in the Gulf. With the possibility of much needed gas from the Mediterranean and averting a potential security crisis between historic enemies, the United States notched an important win in a region where its influence has seemingly diminished.
While there are limitations to the deal, it is perceived as a step forward on more than one front. Here are five ways the landmark maritime border deal between Israel and Lebanon matters:
1) A security crisis averted, for now
Under dispute for years, the 860-square-kilometer area of the Mediterranean potentially harbors billions of dollars’ worth of oil and gas. Tensions worsened earlier this year when, in June, a London-based vessel arrived to develop a gas field for Israel.
Although the rig itself is positioned south of the disputed area, the field it is exploring stretches across what was one of Lebanon’s southernmost claimed lines, prompting Lebanon to warn Israel against “aggressive action” in the disputed waters.
Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese militant group, later vowed an “escalation” if its rights were not met in the deal, and in July even sent drones toward the gas rig as a “message” to Israel.
Rhetoric from some Lebanese parliamentarians had even used the word “war” to describe a no-deal situation, and just days before the agreement, Israel’s defense minister instructed his troops to “prepare for any scenario in which tensions increase in the northern arena – including defense and offense readiness.”
While both parties beat the battle drums, analysts are skeptical that the dispute would have erupted into full-blown war.
“I’m not sure Hezbollah wanted to go to war,” said Lebanese energy expert Laury Haytayan. “It was just trying to get a better deal.”
Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said that the agreement strengthens Israel’s security, will boost its economy and “ensure the stability of our northern border.”
While the deal is a win for both sides, future security threats are not likely to be eliminated by the maritime agreement, said Elai Rettig, assistant professor in the Department of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv.
2) Lebanon sees potential economic relief
Beyond the security hurdles that exploration and drilling companies faced in the area, the deal could mark the beginning of a key source of income for Lebanon’s crippled economy.
With little to no government cohesion, Lebanon is now in its fourth year of financial meltdown.
The maritime border agreement reached Tuesday will be a “gamechanger” for crisis-hit Lebanon, top negotiator and Lebanese Deputy Speaker Elias Bou Saab told CNN’s Becky Anderson on Tuesday.
“People will start talking to Lebanon again,” Bou Saab said, adding that said the deal will give Lebanon’s youth “hope” and create more trust in the international community.
Under the US-brokered deal, Lebanon would be able to begin gas exploration in the Qanaa prospect – which lays within Lebanon’s exploration block but crosses over into Israeli waters. The Qanaa gas field is yet to be explored, but Lebanon believes it is rich with resources.
Under a consortium led by Total, the French energy company, Lebanon would be able to explore and drill in Qanaa while paying royalties to Israel should gas be found.
While the agreement is a positive step for Lebanon’s economy, substantial economic relief is not expected to emerge overnight, said Rettig. “Right now, it is all a potential,” he told CNN.
“The more positive sense is that if Lebanon can close this deal and show that it is open for business, and Total comes in and starts looking, it can invigorate the market,” said Rettig, noting that it could bring in more investments amid promises of better stability and security.
If Total does indeed begin exploration for the Lebanese, it could also offer incentives for other companies to apply to do the same, said Haytayan, adding that with these prospects in mind, it is yet to be seen what the direct economic impacts will be.
3) Israel can help ease Europe’s gas shortage
Europe’s gas crisis is only deepening. Governments are doing all they can to shield consumers from price shocks, but the crisis took a further dip after explosions damaged Nord Stream 1 and 2 last month. The Nord Stream 1 pipeline was Europe’s main source of Russian gas.
Israel has said that, once a maritime deal is signed with Lebanon, it can begin extracting oil and gas from its Karish field and export it to Europe within weeks.
Lapid has repeatedly spoken about the role Israel can play to help Europe as Western countries try to wean themselves off Russian energy.
While Israel’s gas field is ready, Lebanon’s is lagging far behind. Bou Saab said that Lebanon might see gas in three or four years once Total begins its work in Qana.
“For now, Lebanon is not the market that Europeans are looking for,” said Haytayan, noting that the Levantine country needs years of infrastructure building to be able to find and exploit any gas.
4) A win for the Biden administration
US President Joe Biden and his administration have had a heated year with their Middle East allies, particularly Saudi Arabia.
Relations hit a new low last week when the oil cartel OPEC+, led by Saudi Arabia and Russia, defied the US with the largest output cut since the pandemic. The oil production slash only brought added pressure for Biden.
US mediation efforts were key to achieving the Israel-Lebanon maritime deal after previous administrations’ failed attempts, and analysts say this bolsters the Biden administration ahead of US midterm elections.
5) An eleventh-hour agreement with Lebanon ahead of Israeli elections
Israel is just three weeks away from elections, its fifth in less than four years.
The November 1 vote may pave the way for the re-emergence of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to take back power, unseating the current centrist caretaker Prime Minister Lapid.
Lapid has hailed the agreement as “historic” and a win for Israel on security and economic grounds.
“It is a deal with an enemy state,” Rettig told CNN, adding that it compels Lebanon, which does not recognize the state of Israel, to de facto recognize Israel’s existence on an official level and its maritime border.
But Netanyau and his allies are framing the deal as a “surrender” driven by Hezbollah’s threats, noted Rettig, the Tel Aviv political scientist.
So while Lapid may hope the deal will be a political win for him, it could yet backfire if the opposition’s view catches on with Israeli voters.
“Hezbollah will use billions from the gas to arm itself with missiles and rockets against Israeli citizens, and Iran will position itself in front of Rosh HaNikra (a kibbutz in northern Israel) and in front of Israel’s gas reserves,” Netanyahu tweeted.
Multiple strikes by oil contract workers have been taking place across Iran in different petrochemical complexes in support of the ongoing protests, according to a statement from the Organizing Council of Oil Contractor Workers.
On Tuesday, workers protested at the Abadan Oil Refining Company in the southwestern city of Abadan, according to a statement from the council. Abadan Oil Refinery is one of the largest refineries in Iran, according to the semiofficial news outlet IRNA.
Strikes also occurred on Monday in Hengam, Damavand, and Kangan petrochemical complexes, in the Busher province, as well as the Kavian petrochemical complex in Tehran, the Organizing Council reported. Eleven workers have been arrested so far, the Council said in a separate statement.
Workers’ strikes in Iran, and specifically oil and gas workers’ strikes, have historically led to collective labor action, a crucial factor in the removal of the Shah of Iran in the leadup to the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Here is the latest on this developing story:
- Former US President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama on Tuesday said they stood in solidarity with Iranian women amid the nationwide protests, according to a statement posted on the couple’s Twitter accounts.
- Iranian Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi on Tuesday said the uprising in Iran was being orchestrated by foreign-supported “terrorist organizations” hiding in northern Iraq, reported IRNA.
- Iran’s Foreign Ministry on Monday summoned the UK Ambassador to Iran Simon Shercliff for the third time in a month after the United Kingdom announced sanctions against its morality police and top officials on Monday, according to the Iranian state-owned network Press TV.
- The mother of Nika Shahkarami, a 16-year-old-protester who was found dead in Tehran, denied that her daughter fell from a roof, according to interviews with Iranian newspaper Etemad, BBC Persian and a video message published by US-funded Radio Farda.
UAE President MBZ visits Putin in Russia
United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg on Tuesday.
- Background: “This was a prescheduled official trip which was supposed to focus mostly on bilateral issues but the recent escalation in the war in Ukraine has given this trip added impetus,” the UAE’s presidential adviser Anwar Gargash told CNN on Tuesday.
- Why it matters: This visit comes less than a week after OPEC+, the international cartel of oil producers, announced a significant cut to output in an effort to raise oil prices. The UAE is a member of the organization led by Saudi Arabia and Russia. An intense pressure campaign by the US to dissuade its Arab allies from the cut ahead of the decision failed.
Biden says it is time to “rethink” Saudi-US relations
US President Joe Biden told CNN’s Jake Tapper during an exclusive interview that he believed it was time to “rethink” the US relationship with Saudi Arabia after the kingdom partnered with Russia to cut oil production, a rebuke after intensive White House efforts to prevent such a decision.
- Background: “There’s going to be some consequences for what they’ve [Saudi Arabia] done with Russia,” said Biden. The decision by the Saudi-led OPEC+ oil cartel to cut production last week prompted anger at the White House, where officials said Biden was personally disappointed by what they called a “shortsighted” decision.
- Why it matters: The move, which came three months after Biden visited Saudi Arabia and met its de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has the potential to raise gas prices in the weeks ahead of November’s midterm elections.
Israeli soldier killed in West Bank shooting, new Lion’s Den militant group claims responsibility
An Israeli soldier was killed on Tuesday in a drive-by shooting attack, the Israel Defense Forces said, naming him as 21-year-old Staff Sgt. Ido Baruch. A new militant group calling itself Lion’s Den claimed responsibility.
- Background: The soldier was killed near the settlement of Shavei Shomron in the occupied West Bank. The incident marks the second time in less than a week that an Israeli soldier has been killed in a drive-by shooting. Noa Lazar, 18, was shot at a military checkpoint in East Jerusalem on Saturday and later died of her injuries. The attackers in both incidents escaped.
- Why it matters: The soldier killed Tuesday is at least the 22nd person killed in Palestinian militant violence in Israel or the West Bank this year, making it the deadliest year on the Israeli side since 2015. This has also been the deadliest year for Palestinians killed by Israeli forces since that year, with at least 115 Palestinians killed, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health.
What to watch
NBA legend and Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal speaks to CNN’s Becky Anderson about the first NBA games held in the Middle East as well as his future endeavors in the world of business.
Watch the interview here:
Around the region
The world’s first swim across the Red Sea kicked off on Monday as UN “Patron of the Oceans” and endurance swimmer Lewis Pugh tries to draw attention to the world’s coral reefs.
Pugh will swim from Saudi Arabia to Egypt, covering a total distance of 160 kilometers over the span of more than two weeks. The journey will be divided into 10-kilometer swims per day.
“My message is clear: all nations must urgently and drastically reduce their emissions to limit ocean warming,” Pugh told CNN.
He will be swimming past the venue of the upcoming climate change summit Conference of Parties, commonly known as COP, in Egypt.
Pugh hopes his swim will stir more talk around the topic of protecting the world’s coral reefs. “The more we talk about the climate crisis, the harder it is for world leaders to ignore,” he said.
A 2021 study believes that 50% of the world’s coral reefs have already died since the 1950s due to climate change.
“I’ve seen it first-hand. In the areas suffering mass coral bleaching, it’s like swimming over a graveyard,” said Pugh.
The endurance swimmer is due to complete his swim on October 15. Coupled with the risks of high temperatures, physical injury and hazardous marine life, he will also be swimming in one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.
“All of us that use the ocean – swimmers, divers, kayakers, surfers, sailors – have a duty to protect it,” he said.
World leaders are due to meet in Egypt’s resort town of Sharm El Sheikh for COP27 on November 6, where they will discuss the world’s most pressing climate issues amid today’s hydrocarbon energy crunch.
By Mohammed Abdelbary