Israel Trades Future Gas for Drilling and Possible Security Today

Israel and Lebanon have agreed to a U.S.-mediated deal that demarcates the majority of their maritime border, granting Lebanon almost all of the territory it had originally laid claim to except for a critical, 5-kilometer-long security area near the coast. Lebanese President Michel Aoun, who leaves office on October 31, has approved the agreement. The Israeli government gave its initial approval and is set to have a final approval vote in the coming day, without submitting the deal to the Knesset for a vote. Israel’s security establishment has expressed unanimous support for the deal.

The most important benefit of the deal for Israel is the ability to begin pumping natural gas as quickly as possible from the offshore Karish natural gas field free (at least in the immediate future) from the shadow of Hezbollah’s repeated threats to attack its offshore rigs. Other benefits include: an agreement with a country that does not have diplomatic relations with Israel that establishes limited recognition for Israel’s border and security buffer; potentially contributing to solving Lebanon’s economic woes and rebuilding its political stability; alleviating U.S. pressure for a breakthrough; and claiming a diplomatic victory ahead of the November 1 elections.

The biggest risk for Israel is that, since it granted almost all of Lebanon’s demands, Hezbollah could view Israel as capitulating under pressure due to undue aversion to conflict. This would weaken Israeli deterrence and could even lead Hezbollah to miscalculate by escalating along the land border. Time will tell. Further, without settling the status of the entire maritime boundary, let alone the land border, and establishing a clear mechanism for ensuring any proceeds from Lebanese gas extraction go to the people, not Hezbollah, the long-term implications of this deal remain uncertain.

Given this uncertainty and Hezbollah’s previous threats to attack Israel, the Biden administration should ensure, both through its statements and its actions, that Israel has the full backing of the United States as well as the necessary military capabilities to quickly prevail in the event Hezbollah provokes conflict along its northern border.

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Ari Cicurel – Senior Policy Analyst