On Tuesday, the Israeli and Lebanese governments announced an agreement on a maritime border that will settle a dispute between the two sides over the rights to the Qana natural gas field, while also ending any Lebanese claims over the Karish natural gas field claimed by Israel. Prime Minister Yair Lapid and other members of his coalition, including Defense Minister Benny Gantz, have depicted the agreement as a significant step forward for Israel’s security, as it achieves formal recognition of the buoy line unilaterally established by Israel in 2000 as the status quo, removes Hizballah’s threats to attack drilling rigs in the Karish field, and secures a percentage of the profits from the Qana field for Israel. Opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu has charged that the deal is actually a capitulation to Hizballah’s threats that will only invite further blackmail, and that Israel is ceding sovereign territory to Lebanon without getting anything in return.
Whether the deal will be implemented is yet to be determined, as it faces a number of Israeli hurdles beyond the politics between the government and the opposition. Lapid wants the deal approved solely by the cabinet for the purposes of easy passage and speed and submitted to the Knesset for a 14-day review but not a vote, while the opposition says that Lapid heads a caretaker government in the period before an election that has no authority to strike such a deal and that even if it did, it would be subject to Knesset passage and a public referendum because it is ceding Israeli territory. But whether or not the deal is implemented, it should not be assessed in a vacuum. In a couple of ways, the maritime border deal is reminiscent of recent Israeli diplomatic and security moves on other fronts, and fits into an emerging Israeli strategy of dealing with the wider region that has been constant across the Netanyahu, Bennett, and Lapid governments.
Israel’s most celebrated diplomatic achievement, if not the most celebrated diplomatic achievement in the Middle East, in recent decades was the Abraham Accords. Yet normalization between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain along with the resumption of normalized ties between Israel and Morocco did not emerge overnight out of thin air. It was the culmination of years of growing and increasingly overt overtures between Israel and Arab states that started with informal contacts and quiet cooperation, and eventually grew into formal recognition. That same process has continued between Israel and states with which it still has no diplomatic ties, whether it be Netanyahu’s visit to Oman four years ago or the recent permission granted to Israeli carriers to fly through Saudi airspace on the way to points farther east. Each normalized relationship began with smaller but significant steps and engagement, and the continued progress of regional normalization will unfold in a similar manner.
The Israel-Lebanon agreement also did not emerge overnight. Some of the heated opposition coming from Netanyahu and from former Trump administration officials is due to the fact that negotiations over a maritime boundary were conducted in earnest during the previous administrations in both the U.S. and Israel and were never successfully concluded. Rather than viewing the most recent agreement in isolation, it should be viewed in the wider normalization context. The particular merits of this deal are up for debate, but it is significant on its own that Israel and Lebanon negotiated with each other indirectly through the U.S. and have resolved a border dispute despite having no diplomatic relations. Given the history of fighting between Israel and Lebanon, the ongoing tensions and exchanges of fire between the IDF and Hizballah, and the fact that Israel and Lebanon have almost no informal contacts and their relationship does not remotely resemble what existed between Israel and the UAE before the Abraham Accords, this is an important step forward. No peace agreement is imminent, but in a way this is a more surprising deal than normalized relations between Israel and the UAE or Bahrain in light of the history—both farther back and recent—between the two sides. Formal diplomatic ties between Israel and Lebanon are hard to imagine and would indeed be a peace accord akin to the one between Israel and Egypt, and if such a thing is ever to transpire, simply being able to agree on a maritime boundary demarcating an exclusive economic zone is an important first step. While this is not the Abraham Accords, it should be viewed in the larger regional normalization context kicked off by Netanyahu.
The agreement whereby Lebanon recognizes the buoy line and Israel waives its claims on the Qana field is also an extension to Lebanon and Hizballah of Israel’s approach toward Gaza and Hamas. Netanyahu’s tactic for dealing with Hamas was a policy of quiet for quiet secured by an infusion of Qatari direct cash payments to Hamas enabled by Israel. Under first Naftali Bennett and now Lapid, Israel ended the suitcases of Qatari cash and replaced them with a policy of easing economic conditions in Gaza—from issuing worker entry permits to allowing the import of more basic goods and construction materials—in an effort to make Hamas’ decision calculus harder. The theory has been that if not only Hamas but Gaza residents as well have something tangible to lose if Hamas launches attacks on Israel from its territory, there will be more public pressure on Hamas to keep things quiet. While this strategy has its risks and downsides, most saliently in that it rewards past Hamas behavior and creates incentives for other actors to follow suit in the hopes of extracting Israeli concessions, it has also worked reasonably well over the past year and a half, most notably in August when Hamas conspicuously did not join in Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s three days of rocket fire.
Ceding the Qana field to Lebanon in return for a share of the royalties from any gas that is extracted and a recognition of Israel’s unimpeded right to Karish follows similar logic. Hizballah has been threatening Karish since Netanyahu was prime minister, but until this week, Lebanon’s rights to Qana were disputed. Now that Lebanon can develop Qana, it has something very tangible to lose if Hizballah launches any attacks on Karish and Israel responds with force, which will be devastating not only because it will mean the destruction of Lebanese infrastructure but because the Lebanese economy is in dire straits. Lebanon needs the potential influx of money from developing Qana to avert a complete economic collapse, and tying its economic prospects to respecting the maritime boundary with Israel has the potential to secure a measure of quiet on Israel’s northern front. There is no guarantee that this quiet will be permanent or that this strategy will work forever, but it is the same approach that Israel has deployed against another terrorist group that has been a persistent thorn in its side in the hopes that the current success with Gaza will translate in a similar way to Lebanon.
With the Israel-Lebanon deal, we see the continuation of patterns that have emerged across a number of years. The deal has its own pros and cons divorced from everything else, but no assessment of it is complete without seeing the way in which it fits into the larger normalization picture and without considering it as an extension of lessons learned in grappling with Hamas and keeping Gaza quiet.